San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
S.F. composer won controversial Pulitzer
For more than 30 years, composer and pianist Wayne Peterson taught music students at San Francisco State University. He was a fixture on the local newmusic scene, reliably present at any concert where contemporary works were being performed. He composed prolifically, in an eclectic, often accessible style.
Then he got an awkward call from the Pulitzer Prize committee, and things were never the same again.
Peterson, who died on April 7 at his San Francisco home, won the Pulitzer for music amid a controversy over the rules and procedures of the prize — an honor that often threatened to overshadow the rest of his creative achievement.
His death, at 93, was confirmed by his son, Grant Peterson, who said the cause had not been determined.
Peterson’s compositions showed a range of musical influences, including the MidCentury Modernism of Stravinsky and Copland, the sensuous appeal of the French Impressionists, and the jazz that he’d grown up with. His orchestral, chamber and vocal works, which totaled more than 80, were often among the most inventive on any given program of new music.
But one piece in particular — “The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark,” which was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and premiered at Davies Symphony Hall on Oct. 17, 1991, under guest conductor David Zinman
— brought Peterson an uneasy measure of fame.
The next April, the Pulitzer board awarded Peterson the prize, overruling the unanimous recommendation of the music jury that the honor should go to composer Ralph Shapey for his “Concerto Fantastique.”
The ensuing uproar revealed flaws in the prize’s selection process, which was ultimately revamped. The three members of the jury — the eminent composers and musicians George Perle, Roger Reynolds and Harvey Sollberger — were outraged at seeing their decision overturned by the lay listeners of the board and issued a public statement condemning the decision.
Calling Peterson’s piece a “masterful orchestral essay,” the jury members insisted that it had nonetheless been their second choice. “Our selection of Mr. Shapey’s work was decisive, and the Pulitzer Prize board was not professionally qualified to reverse it.”
All of this left Peterson in an untenable position.
“I’m terribly upset about being involved in something like this, especially since it was not of my making,” he told The Chronicle in 1992. “I’m honored to be a runnerup, for God’s sake!
“I’m happy and sad — the whole thing is sort of bittersweet. At least two of the judges I know very well; I respect their integrity and know how they must feel.”
“The Face of the Night, the Heart of the Dark,” which consists of two sharply contrasting movements, deserved better. In his review of the premiere, The Chronicle’s Robert Commanday called it “a stunning work” with “two personalities”: one beautiful and sensuous, the other rhythmically hypercharged. A 2017 recording by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose reveals a work of rich imagination and instrumental color.
Other pieces, especially for chamber ensemble, showed a combination of inventiveness, lyricism and wit.
Peterson enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with the contemporarymusic ensemble Earplay and with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. In 1997, the Players celebrated his 70th birthday with a performance of his graceful “Vicissitudes.” Peterson’s amusingly titled sextet “A Three Piece Suite,” a throwback to his jazz roots, had its
premiere at an Earplay concert in 2004.
“Wayne was a superb craftsman with his own distinctive voice,” said San Francisco composer Richard Festinger, who taught alongside him at S.F. State and is the chair of Earplay’s board. “He was prolific, and the music is powerful and original.” Conductor Mary Chun, who led the premieres of two of Peterson’s pieces for Earplay, called him one of the most distinguished composers of our time.
“He was always working on a new piece,” she told The Chronicle in an email. “A couple of years ago, I called to invite him to a concert and he wanted to show me a new orchestra piece he was writing. It was mighty inspiring to learn that he was still composing at 90.”
Peterson was born Sept. 3, 1927, in Albert Lea, Minn. His father was a businessman, and his mother died at a young age, Grant Peterson said.
As a teenager, Peterson played piano in touring jazz bands. He studied music at the University of Minnesota, earning an undergraduate degree and then a doctorate in 1960.
That year, he moved to San Francisco to join the faculty at S.F. State, where he remained until his retirement in 1996 aside from a stint at Stanford in 199294.
In 1998, S.F. State established the Wayne Peterson Prize, given annually for an outstanding musical composition.
In addition to his musical interests, Grant Peterson said his father was an enthusiastic reader, tennis player, hiker and fly fisherman who often spent summers backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
In addition to his son Grant, of Chico, Peterson is survived by his sons Craig of San Rafael, and Alan and Drew, both of Greenbrae in Marin County; and two grandchildren.
His partner, Ruth Knier, predeceased him by seven weeks.
Plans for services will be announced at a later date.
Donations in his memory may be made to the San Francisco State University Music Department.