Adam and Thyra moved to Minnesota from Philadelphia with their girls Talia and Maren in 2005, and have been members of Mount Zion ever since. He works as a professional, free-lance composer, and she works as a health psychologist at the University of Minnesota. Talia has begun her first year studying theater at Syracuse and Maren, who includes gymnastics among her interests, is about to become a Bat Mitzvah.
Theirs is a musical family to say the least, Adam’s mother having been a professional bassoonist, and his father an accomplished composer, musician, and teacher, having studied with the likes of Irving Fine, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein over the years.
In talking with Adam, one gets the sense that the life of a composer is not always a lucrative one. Growing up as a young child in New York City, his family struggled to get by on the income from musical careers. Up to and including today, when getting back into our cars on a night with temperatures well below zero, Adam was heard to call out “You can tell this car belongs to a composer. The driver’s door only unlocks from the inside!”
I first met Adam at one of our annual Brotherhood retreats in southern Minnesota. We met recently to talk, and though I would have preferred a photo at one of the many concert halls around town (gentle nudge to Penn), we opted for a location that touches on both his skills as a composer and sound engineer – an uncommon combination, as it turns out.
My mom is a native New Yorker, and my dad’s family is originally from Boston. They lived in New York for the first eight years of their marriage, then Buffalo, and Chicago for a while but when I was five we moved to a small town outside of Philadelphia called Media.
Media, wow, that seems appropriate.
I basically grew up there, all my schooling was there. My mom’s family was actually very small, so I know almost no one from that side of the family. Her family became splintered very early on. Her maiden name was Messina. Like the city in Sicily.
Messina? As in Loggins and … ?
Yes! Though I don’t think there is a connection. Her father was Sicilian and her mother was Russian Jewish. I never knew either of my grandfathers, unfortunately, my dad’s father died just before I was born. And my mom was estranged from her father, who as it turned out lived to be 102, but we didn’t find that out until after he died.
By comparison, my kids still have all four grandparents. I think they are very lucky.
Did you know your grandmothers?
I knew both of them. My mom’s mother was at one point a successful astrologer in New York City. She was the Jewish side of the family, so my mom’s father was the Sicilian side. To hear the Jewish story that my mom tells, it was a huge problem when her parents got married. And he actually turned out to be a bit of a ne’er do well. But you’d think she should have seen that coming, right? She was an astrologer, after all. Maybe she didn’t have her chops at the time.
How about your immediate family?
My dad is also a composer, he taught for about 30 years at the University of Pennsylvania. And my older brother is 3 years older, has been a musician as well, and lives in London with his family. My younger brother unfortunately died about 30 years ago, of cancer, when I was 22.
My father taught composition, theory and other things, but he mainly taught graduate composition students. He’s been retired since the late 90s. He left early. The University of Pennsylvania is an odd place, I have to tell you. It’s one of the few large institutions that has a nearly invisible music department. And there is no concert facility, on the entire campus!
That is odd. Even little, local Hamline has a beautiful concert hall, don’t they?
I know! I took my dad there for a concert, and he loved it! I wonder how these small schools make it happen, while he had to fight tooth and nail the entire time he was there. My mother is also a professional musician, she went to Oberlin conservatory and was a professional bassoonist until she started having kids. They had met at Tanglewood, where they both studied for three years, and were married shortly thereafter.
What were your earliest indications that you might also have a career in music?
I had a friend and we were sort of co-song writers, of pop songs.
So you were kind of Beatles wannabes?
Yeah, though actually he was a Styx wannabe, and I was the Beatles wannabe. So we wrote a lot of songs together. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but for some reason, we had a great collaboration.
Did you hang onto any of those songs?
That’s interesting! Just recently I was staying in DC, and I asked to borrow a guitar to have in the apartment where I was staying. I like to play the guitar sometimes at night to relax. And one night I picked it up and just started playing the very first song I ever wrote. It all came back to me.
But I played the cello as a kid. And where I grew up, being Jewish and playing cello were major strikes against you from a social point of view. So the only thing that saved me from being a social pariah was that I was also good at sports, so I was on the soccer team and on the baseball team.
I played soccer throughout high school, but I left baseball in my sophomore year when I became interested in theater. I saw our school production of the musical Anything Goes! and that was it! My parents had taken me to the theater all the time when I was a kid, but for some reason seeing my peers do that and knowing there was a drama club that I could be part of, that made all the difference.
Did that thought of a career continue into college?
I went to college at Penn and majored in music – I was a faculty brat, since we would get free tuition. I thought I was going to be an actor, but they didn’t have a theater major, so I chose to be a music major. And then my freshman year I saw a poster for the Penn Players and it said they needed a composer, and I don’t know why I thought I could do that, but I went and spoke to the director, and I think on the strength of my dad’s reputation, they gave me the assignment. And it was great. I had a wonderful time.
Did your folks encourage your career in music?
They were totally supportive, in fact my dad did the same thing for the first eight years of his professional life. He lived in New York and wrote for theater, but for several of those years they lived in some pretty serious poverty. You tend to earn peanuts as a theater composer, and eventually he became more interested in writing concert music. He was not well suited to the compromises you need to make in theater, where the music is always in the service of something else. He had had tremendous training with great people, and he was a serious musician.
What kind of Jewish upbringing did you have?
My father was born and raised Jewish. For my mother it was mixed, since her parents divorced. She grew up in New York City, and she remembers going to New Jersey on Sundays and having Italian dinners with her Sicilian relatives, then at other times staying in New York for meals with the Jewish side of the family, though they were culturally Jewish and not particularly religious. But she’s always considered herself Jewish. That may be because her dad had left the family. I never asked her about it.
And my dad rebelled against his Judaism at one point actually, at the age of sixteen he refused to participate in any Jewish family holidays or rituals. He thought they tended to be very large and sort of dour affairs. Without a lot of joy.
But as so often happens, things shifted a bit when they had kids, though I can still recall having a Christmas tree when I was a very small child. But at the same time we had also attended Seders for as long as I can remember.
And I wonder, how do we want our kids to identify, and to grow spiritually? I think about our history and the line of tradition, and you’re thinking I don’t want to be the one to break that. So I grew up going to synagogue on and off, for a while, but I did not become a bar mitzvah. The synagogue that we went to in Media began as Reform, but when it became Reconstructionist my parents would have none of that.
Did you grow up surrounded by Jewish kids?
No, it was very strange. I was one of the few Jews in my class, or school for that matter. But that all changed my Junior year of college, when I spent the year in Israel on the One Year Program. We studied a liberal arts curriculum at a school on the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus (the Rothberg School for Overseas Students). But as a music major, I needed to take courses at the actual Hebrew University. And I think I had one of the best experiences, because I had Israeli classmates and made all these Israeli friends. And several of my American roommates from that year will be coming here soon for Maren’s Bat Mitzvah.
Were your classes in Hebrew?
And you were OK with that?
Though I could try to keep up with the music, for about the first six weeks I would just write down every word that I didn’t understand, and would try to find someone to translate it for me. But they let me write my papers in English, so I was able to get by.
What did you do after college?
I got my first job right out of Penn as an intern at a local theater, as a sound engineer and quasi-composer. I found I could often turn to my skills as a sound engineer during my slow times as a composer. And as a composer, it helps to have both. Then after one season, the theater’s production manager did me one of the biggest favors anyone has ever done, and said “Get out. You need to be doing this on your own.” That was in 1986 and with a few brief exceptions, I’ve been doing that ever since.
Let’s dive into your musical career, is there a Jewish component to your work?
Not necessarily, though some people have told me that they can detect a Jewish influence in my work. But my primary job is working for theater, so my inspiration is always the play that I happen to be working on. The composer is the last in the line of creators – the visual elements of a production come first, so the music is always a reaction to the world created by the director and the designers. So I don’t tend to have a lot of personal choice over the style of the music for each production.
For example, I just finished working on a score for a production that will be playing at the Guthrie next month. It is a double bill of two one-act plays. One is an adaptation of The Critic (by Richard Brinsley Sheridan) and the other is The Real Inspector Hound, by Tom Stoppard. Most of the music I wrote is for The Critic, which takes place in England in 1780, so I couldn’t just make that a Jewish score. That would get me fired.
If these plays have been presented before, why would they need new music written?
I get asked that a lot. Even by my parents. Almost every production requires a new score because directors and the designers always have very specific ideas about how to do the play. The new adaptation of The Critic is by Jeffrey Hatcher who is a local playwright, and he adapted the original script to shorten it to an hour, and to accommodate a company of eight actors. He had to do quite a lot of work, so the current version is quite different than the original.
How would you describe your style? Why would a theater choose one composer over another?
Do you mean as a theater composer, why should they hire me? I would tell them that I can write anything you ask me to write. I can learn a style very quickly, and understand what makes something sound like that style, and then apply those techniques to the music that’s needed for that production.
Like for The Critic, it is set in 1780, which of course is sort of mid-classical, late Mozart but not quite early Beethoven.
So how do you get new jobs – do you audition, or write short pieces, or have a portfolio?
Mostly I get hired by reputation now, and if people want, I will send them something or I will point them to my website
As I often like to ask – what’s your exit strategy? When and how does a composer end a career. Or do they?
Exit strategy? That’s a really good question.
For some reason, it often seems to be. So when and how do you stop?
I don’t know how I stop. At one point I told myself I don’t want to be doing this past the age of 50, but then I ended up with this fun run of shows, including a bunch at the Guthrie, and I felt rejuvenated, and recommitted to the idea that this is what I do, and this is who I am. I shouldn’t want to be something else.
And then almost immediately the work dried up.
But things are going well again now.
When and how did you meet Thyra?
She grew up here, and lived nearby on Fairmount Avenue initially, then the family moved to Burnsville. So she had gone to Gustavus, and then we met when she was a graduate student at Penn State. Her PhD advisor married a college roommate of mine, and we met at their wedding.
That answers my next question of how you ended up here.
Yep, she is one of those Minnesotans who brings their spouse home. Which I have discovered is a common thing around here. It seems that Minnesotans always want to come back to Minnesota. She works at the University of Minnesota as a health psychologist. She is actually working with Bill Robiner – he hired her into that group. They work with patients of all types, but one of her specialties is working with transplant patients.
What was your wedding like?
As so often happens, we agreed that we would be a Jewish family, and we had a Jewish wedding. Our friend who is a cantor married us. And we had a chuppah and a ketubah. And Thyra has been absolutely amazing about embracing a tradition that wasn’t initially her own – to me that’s an incredible act of generosity. And she loves the idea of belonging to this community, as I do.
How did you come to join Mount Zion?
Thyra went online to find out about synagogues in St. Paul, actually, and ended up talking with Rachel one day. They realized that Rachel’s dad and my dad were both composers, and actually knew each other. Her father David ran a new music group in Pittsburgh and my dad ran a new music group in Philadelphia, and there were musicians that went back and forth between the two groups. So they had met many times over their careers.
So we joined right away and have loved it here ever since.
On that note, we close with the First Movement of “Ode to Adam”
Theme – Judaica influence with contrasting Sicilian solo, enter bassoon, leading to agitated rhythm, cello solo in G minor,
Transition – Israeli interlude, faster tempo, strings and lute motif
Closing group – Penn Players intermezzo
Fragmented, free lance sonata
Re-transition – blends smoothly into recapitulation
Serenade to Thyra – a boisterous scherzo leading to genteel dance
High school guitar licks in rollicking fugue
Finale – not yet.
This doesn’t seem so hard.