A uniquely gifted American composer, David Del Tredici left us some remarkably rich music. “An experimentalist who leaned into New Romanticism,” an NY Times sidebar reads, referring to the frank and unabashed tonal lyricism of several of his works inspired by Lewis Carroll. He was the first West Coast composer I ever knew in person, a California native who had started out as a concert pianist. I first saw Del Tredici at Princeton, where he was a year ahead of me in graduate school. Already he was writing impressive music: I Hear an Army for soprano and string quartet used a text from James Joyce’s “Chamber Music,” and the armies of chromatic scales in swirling strings were impressively regimented. One could tell his ideas were large scaled. (For his opera requirement, studying for that year’s M.F.A. oral exams, he chose a big item, Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.) I heard two later works, equally massive and expressive: Night Conjure-Verse and Syzygy, both with Joyce texts and written for Phyllis Bryn-Julson, and both demonstrating lush paratonality that developed convincingly and with assured drama. And I played some of his Fantasy Pieces which broke out of occasional atonality to sound like ruminating Liszt — once more foretelling a Romantic if not yet Neo streak.
When Del Tredici started writing his different Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland he developed a style, and an audience to receive it, that went far wider than the merely esoteric atonality of the 1960s. I especially remember his Vintage Alice, a commission from a California winery, which I heard brilliantly performed in Chicago in 1973 by Ralph Shapey’s chamber group (Sessions’s Concertino was on the same program), and I loved its brash, witty approach, with accordion and mandolins. Final Alice, conducted by Solti, was a television spectacular. I don’t know any of his later music, which built on gay activism following the Stonewall riots of 1969