The music of composer and conductor Steven Mercurio possesses an undeniable immediacy of emotion and visceral passion for beauty. Whether writing small chamber pieces or large symphonic scores, his music luxuriates in an unabashedly romantic style. He came to this compositional aesthetic while traveling on an organic, yet distinctly unconventional musical journey. En route, his approach to making music has continued to develop through two decades of living and breathing the masterworks of the operatic and symphonic repertoire, both on and off the podium.
Mercurio’s arrival to Classical music was certainly atypical relative to many of his colleagues. However, the path that led him to the concert hall is shared with many of his generation. As a young boy living in the suburbs of New York City , he was initially exposed to the world of music via Broadway. He and his family would take the train from Rockland County to catch the latest revival, such as Mary Poppins or South Pacific. A bit later on, he experienced the vast and beguiling realm of opera for the first time, specifically a Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. Of this performance, Mercurio remembers thinking, predictably, that “I liked the arias, but the recitatives went on way too long!”* Despite that reaction, the emotional directness of music theater and opera experienced as a boy had a lasting effect.
Initially, however, he did not participate in concert music. Instead, the sound that would be his entry into music making was rock n’ roll. At that time, and to this day, the music of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin held powerful sway over fledgling musicians, inciting untold hours of playing power chords and improvising blues riffs on the electric guitar. As is the norm in rock and pop players, he also learned to play bass and drums, using all these talents in several bands, playing school dances, parties, etc. According to Mercurio, the do-it-yourself nature of rock music forces people to “develop [their] ear, to be facile and musical, so you can sit in with anyone.”
After high school, he decided to pursue a pop music career, with an interest in production and studio technique. With that in mind, he chose to attend Graham Junior College in Boston . After two years at Graham, he eventually received an Associates Degree in Communications. But his tastes had now changed. He was listening to experimental Jazz music by Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane, Jazz-Rock of Chick Corea, Frank Zappa, amongst others. Also during this period, Boston was alive with contemporary concert music. He regularly attended performances organized by Gunther Schuller at New England Conservatory. These programs introduced the music of Stravinsky, Varese, and many others to Mercurio. He had already become dissatisfied with the structure of the pop music business, its adherence to “the flavor of the month”, and these NEC performances, as well as the Boston Symphony, inspired him to study art music, and in turn, to compose.
One of the composers Mercurio became interested in was David Del Tredici. Del Tredici had established himself as a writer of tonal music in an atmosphere of non-tonal dogma within the academic community. Steven was attracted to this, which led to an application to Boston University where Del Tredici was on faculty. The staff at BU was accepting of Mercurio’s autodidactic skill, yet they were dumbfounded by his compositional accomplishments. When asked how and where he had learned to compose, he replied “studying scores. Rite of Spring, etc.” This self-study, and his background in rock music, was sufficient for Mercurio to gain access to the arcane world of composition.
During his two and a half years at BU, Mercurio utterly immersed himself in standard repertoire. He had discovered art music via the 20th century masters, but he was now devouring the symphonic output of Beethoven, Mahler, and Brahms. His diligent study was rewarded with the BU Composition Prize in his first year, an award open to both undergrad and graduate students. The work, for percussion sextet, was an extreme, maximal “event”, in that each player required an unusually large battery of instruments. He also conducted the piece, as he did for fellow students, despite no formal training as such (a prescient fact relevant to Mercurio’s current conducting activities).
Upon graduation from BU, Mercurio applied for graduate studies at The Juilliard School. Understandably, the composition faculty raised many of the same questions about his minimal amount of traditional training . “I was a bit of a renegade, a wild card,” says Mercurio. He was eventually accepted and began private compositional studies with Vincent Persichetti.
Unlike his colleagues, Persichetti gave his students space to freely explore their own “voice”. Mercurio chose to utilize conventional tonality, which was in opposition to the serialist technique prevalent at the school. His work for violin and piano titled A Moon for the Misbegotten, written while at Juilliard, deals squarely with the harmonic language of the Romantic era. He was attending Met Opera performances 4 or 5 nights a week, and Strauss’ brand of tonality, especially Salome, was resonating within him.
Serenade for Tenor, his Master’s thesis work dedicated to the then recent Pulitzer Prize winner David Del Tredici, relishes in a lush, exuberant, and “tuneful” texture. Serenade caused quite a stir amongst composers at the school. In an hour-long session before the faculty panel, he again conducted the work himself, unheard of at the time. Response to the performance was vitriolic from some, while others were intrigued. In a performance of the work in 1990, the Chicago Sun Times described the piece as “beautifully written”, and “filled with ravishing sounds from the orchestra and the singer.”
Shortly after receiving his Masters Degree, Mercurio began work on his 40-minute, Straus-like tone poem, For Lost Loved Ones. Written to commemorate his brother who had inexplicably disappeared years before, the work was written and orchestrated over an 18-month period, part of which was spent in Italy . In 1991, For Lost Loved Ones received its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, again causing a stir in the community. This time it was a critical statement in the New York Times claiming that the “crowd pleasing” aspects of the piece were a deliberate attempt by the composer to gain fame and fortune. This inaccurate depiction of Mercurio has left him very cold towards the critical community in general. However, the audience was thrilled, and the New York Daily News, reviewing the same performance, said the piece “makes its own strong points through its absolute sincerity of expression, its elevation of purpose (despite the subject, this is definitely an upbeat piece), and its overriding eloquence.”
In addition to the composing successes he experienced after school, Mercurio’s natural proclivity towards conducting garnered prestigious assistantships from the Brooklyn Philharmonic, under Lukas Foss, and the Metropolitan Opera under James Levine. In the years since, he has directed many of the worlds finest orchestras and opera companies, including the Opera Spoleto in Italy, where he has overseen productions of works by composers such as Alban Berg, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Giacomo Puccini.
In recent years, Mercurio has participated in several high profile projects during which his varied skills as composer, arranger, and conductor have been introduced to thousands of people throughout the world. He has penned over 30 orchestrations and arrangements for many world renowned vocalists such as Placido Domingo, Ben Heppner, Marcello Giordani, and Andrea Bocelli, participating in performances and recordings with these artists as conductor. He recently completed 14 arrangements of Sicilian art songs for the tenor Giordani, 12 arrangements of works by Francesco Paolo Tosti for Heppner, in which a sort of parlor instrumentation is used made of 4 winds, harmonium, and several arrangements of sacred works for Domingo and opera world phenomenon Bocelli. “Arrangements have been good for me,” says Mercurio. “There is an immediate gratification. With the quick turn-over time, I finish them, and days later I’m recording them with the London Symphony. They are a lot of fun and take a lot of skill to do. They keep my hand, eye, and ear dealing with living music. So when I sit down to compose my own music [after lengthy conducting engagements], I don’t feel like I have to ‘kick start the engine’.”
Last June, while on a major US tour with Bocelli, his most recent composition, ironically titled Mercurial Overture, opened the second half of each performance. He also recently completed work on a full-length recording which is sort of a summation of his works for voice and orchestra. The album, Many Voices, is slated for a mid-2003 release.
*composer quotes taken from a an interview conducted by the editor on 2/4/03 in New York City .