Acclaimed worldwide as a conductor, Steven Mercurio is also a distinguished composer of orchestral and vocal music. Educated at Juilliard and Boston University, he exemplifies the "can-do" spirit. A maverick in the age of specialization, he believes and he has proven through his works that with talent and determination, you can accomplish your goals in any discipline you choose, even if you choose more than one.
His story begins in Bardonia, a suburb of New York City. His father was a CPA, his mother owned a delicatessen, and Steven's early years were shaped by their respect for hard work and family loyalty. Like most of his peers, he loved Rock & Roll and Jazz; to this day he retains an appreciation for its virtues that's unusual among his peers."A lot of rock musicians in the late Sixties and early Seventies were incredibly creative," he says. "Everybody was going for an original sound. There were virtuosos all over the place, and they were writing their own material. Rock and Jazz are original art forms, and they taught me that there was nothing contradictory about using my mind to compose even as I was using my guitar to play at dances
and club dates."
Inspired by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin, young Steven was informed as well by Broadway musicals their memorable tunes and instrumental arrangements. "I thought of it as American opera," he explains. "That way of communicating, by writing music that would move people through rhythm and through heartfelt emotions, really hit me. To this day, I don't want to write music that doesn't
have those elements."
A tradition began as Steven reached the age of ten: From that point his parents would celebrate his birthday by taking him into Manhattan to a Broadway show. After a few years, as his musical curiosity grew, they switched to the Metropolitan Opera, where early memories of his father's recordings of Franco Corelli singing Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana blossomed into an appreciation for more adventurous vocal composition.
Soon after that, Mercurio began to write. He learned by listening to orchestral works on LP until he could identify each instrument and understand how it was used. "I became interested in how a composer manipulates harmony, as opposed to just playing pop songs," he explains. "Nobody taught me how to do that; I just figured it out on my own, like doing a crossword puzzle. So when I applied to Boston University and they asked me who had taught me how to orchestrate, I said, 'Stravinsky, from The Rite of Spring.'
After three years at Boston, where he studied with Pulitzer Prize winner David Del Tredici and won the Composition Award in his junior year, Mercurio entered the Juilliard School of Music. While pursuing his M.A. in composition, he combined a day job at Barnes & Noble with nights spent writing large-form works and, when time allowed, watching Leonard Bernstein lead the New York Philharmonic. He spent many an evening at the Metropolitan Opera as well. "I had an insatiable desire to hear the symphonic and operatic repertory." Those concerts strengthened the young student's determination to pursue conducting as an avenue of expression parallel
to his composition.
"Bernstein was so connected," Mercurio remembers. "Every elbow, knee, hip, glance every movement was connected to the music from the inside out, rhythmically and lyrically and spiritually. He always found a way to convey the music to the orchestra, but he didn't leave out the audience. It was never scholastic. It was showmanship that he could tie to a high degree of musical understanding because he was also a composer."
Mercurio drew closer to the fire of Bernstein by volunteering as an assistant at rehearsals. ("I don't claim to be one of his special aides, because everybody was a part of the 'Lenny entourage,'" he says, with a laugh. "But I will say that I probably learned more from these experiences than many of the others.") By the time he had earned his masters and spent a brief time studying Italian in Perugia, he had absorbed multiple influences as a writer and conductor and won the attention of Lukas Foss, who appointed him to serve as his assistant conductor and then associate conductor at the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Three years later Mercurio accepted an offer to become an assistant conductor on the staff of James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera.
Through these associations, and in subsequent posts as principal conductor of the Opera Company of Philadelphia and music director of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and Charleston, South Carolina, Mercurio became a conductor of unusual musical range and exceptional insight. His programs stretched from Puccini to Berg, Rossini to Shostakovich, Kurt Weill to Mark O'Connor, and points before, after, and between. He would appear with Pavarotti, the Three Tenors and with jazz artists Edgar Meyer and Chick Corea. His settings would include the world's most venerated concert halls as well as at the Statue of Liberty while on tour with tenor Andrea Bocelli, for whom he composed a program overture and created numerous arrangements of other works.
In every performance he based his interpretation not on an acceptance of barriers between different schools of composition but rather on a search for more universal language. "Conducting is a study of possibilities," he explains. "Just because somebody writes a 12-tone piece, that doesn't mean that they're operating on a higher plane. As Schoenberg said, there's plenty of good music still yet to be written in C Major. Either the music derives honestly and moves people and therefore has a high degree of validity or it becomes theoretical only and isn't really based on human desire, regardless of the composer's technique."
Like his mentor Bernstein, Mercurio drew from the experience of conducting as one source for the emotion he invested into his own music. He was already creating long-form pieces at Juilliard, most notably the 40-minute For Lost Loved Ones, which Zubin Mehta premiered with the New York Philharmonic in 1991, and his masters' thesis, Serenade for Tenor and Orchestra, whose premiere by the Chicago Civic Orchestra, also in '91, prompted Sun Times critic Robert C. Marsh to extol its "ravishing sounds" and demand, "Let us
hear this again."
No setting reflects this process more than Mercurio's works for voice and orchestra, in which the singer's capability for conveying emotion blooms in the context of vivid arrangement. "Conducting brings reality to composition," he insists. "You know more clearly what you're going to write if you've gone through Turandot and you know how 'Signore Ascolta' or the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde sounds and feels when you're right on top of it, rather than listening to it on a record. When it comes time to write, I can transfer the sound from my imagination more successfully because I've had physical contact with
the real thing."
These lessons applied as Mercurio prepared to record Many Voices, a collection of original songs along with the Serenade. Although each came to life in its own way, these seven works all reflect Mercurio's commitment to writing at the highest levels of artistry as well as accessibility. "Maybe twenty years ago it was like, 'If we want romantic music, we'll listen to the old stuff,'" he says. "Of course, I didn't care; I was going to write what moved me in any event. But now that the public has come around to wanting contemporary music that's listenable, moving, and understandable, that's given me courage."
Not surprisingly, Mercurio's plans are many and varied, with possibilities that range from performances of Many Voices to composing an opera or even a quality Broadway production. "I hope that circumstances will allow me to write and perform much more," he says, smiling. "Being around the creative side of music-making gives me the deepest sense of musical well-being."
Andrea Bocelli, Rolando Villazon, Marcello Giordani, Ana Maria Martinez Sumi Jo & Gino Quilico, lend their dazzling voices to the songs of their friend and colleague, Steven Mercurio on Many Voices/Sony Classical. These 7 passionate, melodic Mercurio songs and first rate orchestral settings positively blur the lines between classical and popular music
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