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Alumni newsmaker:
> > Melinda Wagner, AM'82, wins 1999 Pulitzer Prize in music

image: Class Notes headlineMusic surrounded Melinda Wagner, AM'82, as she was growing up. The daughter of a music-teacher mother, she started composing on the piano herself when she was 5, though she didn't write anything down. That changed when she was 16 and the Pennsylvania Academy of Music chose her chamber piece for piano, flute, harp, and oboe as one in a series of young people's compositions to be performed by its conservatory students. "Then I had to get busy and write it down," she recalls. This past April, one of her written-down pieces led to a career high note, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in music for her Concerto for Flute, Strings, and Percussion.

image: Pulitzer winner Wagner
Pulitzer winner Wagner

"Having the vote of confidence from the judges and my colleagues makes me feel I should keep going," says Wagner, who studied music as an undergraduate at Hamilton College and then composition as a graduate student at the U of C, where her mentor was Shulamit Ran. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied under Richard Wernick.

Receiving the prize was also uplifting--at the awards luncheon in Columbia University's library, she shared a table with Duke Ellington's family, there to accept a special posthumous award marking the centennial of the quintessential American composer's birth.

"I think of my music as being very American," she says. "And as much as I still adore the music of late 19th-century Europe, my music has recently departed from that a bit." Moving to musical terms, Wagner describes her work as lyrical, rhythmic, and chromatic. She doesn't use key signatures, yet is conscious of establishing strong tonal centers. In some ways, she says, her Pulitzer-winning piece--commissioned by the Westchester Philharmonic, and first performed May 30, 1999--is atypical: "My other music is more difficult to listen to," she says. "Some people respond to it favorably, and then there are probably many others who don't like it."

Since her first piece for the Pennsylvania Academy of Music, she's composed some 60 works, including pieces for chamber groups, orchestras, and string quartets.

Working in an attic room at her Ridgewood, NJ, home, she begins each piece by making decisions about its basics--whether the piece will be fast or slow, soft or loud. Wagner then focuses on a melody, tunes she's thought of while going about her day. "I noodle around on the piano or I hum a tune as I'm walking to the store."

For example, she began composing the flute concerto with a fast lick on the flute: an obvious choice, she felt, because the flute sounds "wonderful" when going fast. Once the melody is in place, she works the piece through "pitch by pitch." "I try to allow the piece to reveal itself as I'm going along, although sometimes I compose the end first," she says.

The Pulitzer is only one of her honors. Wagner also has been awarded three ASCAP Young Composer Awards, a Guggenheim fellowship (1988), and a 1996 Howard Foundation fellowship, which allowed her to take a sabbatical from her teaching job at Hunter College.

Among her current projects are a piece for the American Brass Quintet and an overture for the New York Pops that will feature her husband, percussionist James Saporito. The couple has two children, Benjamin and Olivia.

She doesn't have a single favorite piece among her compositions, but says that she likes parts from them all--based on which parts she thinks work best. "I always feel that my next work is potentially the best one. I try to keep a carrot at the end of the stick." --Q.J.

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  APRIL 2000

  > > Volume 92, Number 4


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