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Cheryl North Interviews Nat Stookey

ANG Newspaper Column, November 19, 2004.

If only Nathaniel (Nat) Stookey's great grandfather could have known, that the faithful old violin he used to play for barn dances, would one day play the great classics in the hands of his musically gifted great grandson.

"I still use his violin once in a while," said the soft-spoken 33-year-old Stookey during a phone conversation earlier this week. "But now, I'm really more interested in composing."

Indeed, much of the classical music world has become interested in what Nat composes. The Oakland East Bay Symphony will open its 2004-2005 season with Nat's "Big Bang" tonight at 8 p.m. at the Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, in Oakland. Michael Morgan will conduct.

While the OEBS performance will represent Big Bang's West Coast premiere, Stookey originally wrote it to serve three purposes: it was one of many requirements for his Duke University PhD degree; it was to be the piece opening the North Carolina Symphony's 2001 season; and it was intended to celebrate the gala opening of the area's important Maymandi Hall. He geared its style and format to show off the acoustics of the new hall, which he explained was designed by the same architects who did the recent retrofit of San Francisco's Davies Hall and of the Tanglewood concert hall outside of Boston.

"As a result," Stookey said, "the piece has some novel sound effects. Since it was for a gala event, I thought of the fanfares once played by the valveless trumpets. And since that instrument can only play three pitches, the piece is features a lot of major triads (which translates to non-musicians as being quite easy on the ears). I wanted it to be fun."

Another of Stookey's pieces, Out of the Everywhere, will be performed next May by the San Francisco Youth Orchestra in the final concert of its season, and yet another piece will be played by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble in March.

Stookey was actually born and raised in San Francisco. He attended the San Francisco's French-American International School and one year at Lowell High School. His maternal grandmother and his mother were both raised in Oakland, where his maternal grandfather had a barber shop for many years. Besides his violin-playing great grandfather, his only other musical relative is Paul Stookey of "Peter, Paul, and Mary" fame, his father's first cousin.

As a four-year-old, Nat fell in love with the sound of the violin when he heard one being played on the radio. He begged his mother to buy him one and to allow him to have lessons. Wisely, she consented to let him play the violin, but only if he had some piano lessons FIRST (a good idea, because then a child easily learns to read both treble and bass clefs). So, little Nat began piano at four and then at five, the violin. He became good enough to play with the San Francisco Youth Orchestra from 1986 to 1988.

While he certainly loved the violin, he did not enjoy solo performances. As a result, he started dabbling in composition and found that he liked that far more than the idea of pursuing a career as an instrumental soloist. His first compositional success, The Head of the Creek, was performed at the Hidden Valley Institute of the Arts. A few months later, when he was only 17, he became the youngest composer ever commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony's "New and Unusual Music Series."

He then attended UC Berkeley from which he earned a Bachelor's Degree in Music, and later, went to Duke University, where he eventually earned a PhD Degree in Music. By the age of 23, he was awarded a residency with England's distinguished Halle Orchestra. While with Halle, he produced four compositions over three seasons. His pieces premiered at the BBC North, the Harrogate International Festival of Music, and at Manchester's Free Hall.

Good luck visited him once again when his piece for orchestra and narrator, entitled Colliding with Chris: The Rhythmical Tale of a Runaway Bike, was selected as a London Times Critics' Choice. It was subsequently performed in North America.

While he was in North Carolina he met and married his wife. During these years he worked as a house painter, supervised children in an after-school program, and waited tables at restaurants to make ends meet. Things changed, however, when he was awarded a three-year Composer-in-Residence grant with the North Carolina Symphony. The grant was funded by Meet the Composer, a New York City foundation that places composers in residencies with symphony orchestras throughout the United States.

Big Bang, his first production during his NCO residency, was followed by additional compositions for the Mallarme Chanber Players, the Ciompi Quartet, and for the NC Symphony.

"Other than the fact that you draw a salary," he said, "the best thing about a residency with an orchestra is that you develop a relationship with the orchestra and the conductor, who in the case of the NCO, was Gerhardt Zimmermann."

Another thing that grew out of his North Carolina years was a CD, Music for Strings, 1992-2002, produced by Albany Records.

In 2003, following the completion of his PhD and his NCO residency, the family, which now included two children -- son Milton and daughter Gertrude -- moved back to the Bay Area. His wife is a doctor and works as an epidemiologist at Stanford University.

"We wanted to raise our children out here and to be nearer to our parents. My parents and my wife's parents both live in the same San Francisco zip code," he said.

When asked about future projects, Stookey spoke enthusiastically about a new collaboration to work with Lemony Snicket to write an orchestral piece for children. (See June 2006 interview with Lemony Snicket.)

"The first classical piece remembered by most children is either Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf or Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra, Stookey said. We want to create something that will also bring children to classical music and have a positive impact on them."

He also said that he had a Chamber Opera on his mind for the future as well as some songs. "My faraway goal is that I hope people will still be listening to my music many years from now. But my bottom line is that I LIKE writing music. I really get a charge out it!"

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