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Tony Schemmer, the Toney Composer


A certain gentleman composer of long standing in Boston is inviting the public to the third of his annual chamber concerts, Salon d’un Refusé, dedicated exclusively to his own very accessible œuvre. Tony Schemmer, whose life in the arts is unusual, though not without precedent, would like to be your host at the Oval Room of the Copley Plaza Hotel on Friday, November 4, at 8:30 in the evening. The event is free and there’s room for hundreds of his friends, relations, admirers, and co-conspirators. The doors will not be locked upon entry, so the public may take evasive action later.

Unlike most composers who depend on the Byzantine web of foundation support or academic sponsorship, Tony Schemmer is that rara avis who self-produces performances of his own works in formal settings with top musicians. He studied piano and has composed since grammar school, continuing at Yale College where he majored in composition. Upon the insistence of wise parents he followed college with studies at Harvard Medical School and served as a physician until the 1990s. Perhaps, like Gibbon, he had “sighed like a lover but obeyed as a son.”

Now having shed those professional obligations and their concomitant respectability, he has boldly engaged a cadre of young talent of the so-called “emerging” variety whom he has supported and promoted in concerts often — not always — featuring works by someone named Schemmer. Those young musicians have responded with enthusiasm to his compositional “voice,” [or they won’t be invited back!] by incorporating Schemmeriana into their own studio classes and programs. According to Schemmer, his efforts along with this cohort, have emboldened a fifth column of tonality which is tweaking the academic musical establishment to the extent that they notice.

Discounting clothesline-and-sheet productions in his cousins’ basement à la “Our Gang,” Schemmer might be said to have sprung fully armed into the ranks of impresario-composer with a semi-staged production under the baton of Philip Morehead (Chicago Lyric Opera) at Sanders Theatre in April of 1980 of his opera, Phaust. In a Boston Globe review replete with reservations, a dubious Richard Dyer conceded that, “Schemmer has a lot of talent — there is more invention and skill in any 30-minute section of Phaust than in the whole score of …[a] musical like Annie.” Since then, Schemmer has not permitted himself to become discouraged. His self-presented concert at Longy last year was reviewed in these pages here. His works have also been heard in New York, Italy, Austria (Salzburg), Ukraine (Odessa), Russia (St. Petersburg), Ireland and the lower 48.

Schemmer as Faustus (Lee Eiseman photo)

BMInt asked the composer some questions:

BMInt: Don’t tell me you’re going to present another one of your Schemmeriades.

Schemmer: Thou sayest it.

Why dub it “Salon d’un refusé?”

The reference of course is to the Impressionists, who set up their own shop when juried out of the Académie’s official exhibition. Of course there is some further irony here in that the Impressionists were the avant garde and the official Salon was very conservative. My stuff is pretty damned conservative, but some people now think the return to tonality — or is it the revenge of tonality — is the new avant garde.

So your music is not the sort one would hear from academic composers? Are you less melo-phobic than they?

I write for haters of dodecaphony and minimalism. Actually, as I follow the performances of composition students at the New England Conservatory [where he serves as an overseer] and at competitions like the Underwood Commission of the American Composers Orchestra, I am struck by the flight to tonality. I mean, the kids still delight in snarled complexity, but their music now more often has a tonal centrality of some sort. My good friend the conductor Isaiah Jackson remarked to me that my things are more in fashion now than when they were written.

So what does your music sound like?

Think of my music as a digestible cocktail: Three parts Richard Strauss; two parts Prokofiev (if running low on the Prokofiev, substitute Bartok); one part Oscar Peterson; add a dash of Victor Borge. Shake until frothy.

Tell us about the musicians and the pieces which they will be playing.

Foremost is the belated premier of an extensive work for violin and piano, dating from about 1981, a work originally conceived for oboe and piano that was never performed. It languished until pianist Artem Belogurov and I were rummaging and it jumped off the shelf. He started reading through it and I thought: “Hey, not half bad.” More surprising was that Artem agreed.

Belogurov is an extremely refined pianist who has keyed into my musical style with uncanny intuition. He and a terrific violinist, Emil Altschuler, have been patiently working the violin adaptation up. The work was largely inspired by the fabulous “through-composed” jazz of Claude Bolling. It has been fun seeing how Emil, as a strict classical violinist — he went to Juilliard and Yale — has taken to the freer style of this music, doing things that would perhaps induce a cringe response from his teacher Erik Friedman.

So, while I have worked with Emil and Artem for some years, there is an even older guard. That includes pianist Constantine Finehouse and ‘cellist Sebastian Bäverstam. The superlatives grow tiresome, so just check out their sites on the web. Those two will bring back another substantial work, Romanza, which has been unheard for many years and they will also essay some trifles that continue to please crowds, Toney Tango and Divertimento. Yes, the “Toney” is a triple pun. Olga Caceànova, our exotic violinist from St. Petersburg (and a current student of Donald Weilerstein at NEC) will also premier a solo work, Etude en Rose, and we plan a diptych of Puccini arrangements called Bonbons Bohème. Then the misguided full forces conducted by Andres Lopera will conspire to play an octet extracted and arranged from a musical I wrote about Columbus.

Do you have any CDs or videos?

Funny you should ask. We just received the shipment of CDs which Bäverstam and Finehouse recorded in July of 2010 in New York. It features the Brahms e minor and some other things I don’t remember at the moment. I suppose they will be hawking them post concert. Sigh.

What do your wife and children think of your vocation?

They warn everyone: Do not attempt this at home.

Is there any good reason to stay away?

Well, I would hope not. But you know what Sol Hurok said: “If people don’t want to come, nobody can stop them.”

Note: A related review is here.

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It has been said that Schemmer takes up were Beethoven left off, and vice versa.

    Comment by gerry yukevich — November 1, 2011 at 10:02 pm

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