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Michael Gandolfi '76: Point of Departure

  Michael Gandolfi '76

As a child growing up in the northern suburbs of Boston, Michael Gandolfi was exposed to the music of Mozart and Beethoven through the classical piano playing of his two older sisters, but he also took in the sounds of the Beatles, blues, and jazz. The mix has served him well as a composer of concert music who has distilled his impressions of rock and jazz and blended them with formal compositional techniques to develop a distinctive contemporary voice. Gandolfi, who has his own entry in the The New Grove Dictionary of Music, has had his music performed and recorded by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam, and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, to name a few. (Visit for a more complete listing.)

The transformation from rock guitarist to serious composer was natural for Gandolfi who started playing at age six. "I was hearing the standard piano repertoire around the house and was learning songs off records by the time I was eight," Gandolfi recalls. Guitar, improvisation, and music theory studies as a teen with a Berklee grad who also introduced Gandolfi to the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and the twentieth century modernists, set the course for a life in music. "I became totally hooked on classical and jazz music because I felt there was a connection in their extended harmonic languages."

Gandolfi came to Berklee in 1974 and studied guitar and composition, noting as highlights a guitar ensemble directed by then-faculty member Pat Metheny and classes with John LaPorta. After meeting classical composer/jazz pianist William Thomas McKinley, Gandolfi opted to transfer to New England Conservatory (NEC) to pursue his bachelor's and master's degrees in composition.

"The late 1970s was a very exciting time at NEC," Gandolfi said. "I heard lots of new music and played an orchestral work that Gunther Schuller conducted. In the composition department, there were two camps—you were either a neoclassical type like Stravinsky or into Schoenberg and 12-tone music. Most of my teachers were the latter."

Immersing himself in serious music composition, Gandolfi distanced himself from his rock and jazz roots for a time. "Eclecticism was not as welcome in classical circles then as it is now. After receiving my master's degree in 1981, I figured it was silly to disown the styles that brought me to music in the first place. Now I allow all of my influences to come out."

Winning prizes, grants, and fellowships from the American Society of University Composers, Yale's Summer School of Music, the ASCAP Grant to Young Composers, and the Composers Conference resulted in performances of Gandolfi's music, boosting his profile. A performance of his 1986 composition Personae by Speculum Musicae fueled the fire. "Their performance of Personae at Lincoln Center and its review in the New York Times launched my career. After that, I received commissions from various groups and a fellowship to the Tanglewood Music Center where I worked with [British conductor/composer] Oliver Knussen, who championed my music for years."

The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra commissioned Gandolfi's Points of Departure in 1988 and recorded it for Deutsche Gramophone."That has been my big 'hit,'" he joked. "Orpheus kept it in their repertoire for four or five years and performed it all over Europe." The Boston Symphony Orchestra also performed it and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project recently recorded it.

Gandolfi's recent successes include two works for young audiences: Pinocchio's Adventures in Funland, and Gwendolyn Gets Her Wish. The former has been performed more than 30 times, the latter will be performed for the next five years in the Los Angeles public schools. Gandolfi's re-embrace of earlier musical influences and a less chromatic style have expanded his audience. "I'm more likely to write a blues in a chamber music setting now than I was 12 years ago, but I'm still a purist in a way. I'll never be able to give up some things that I learned from my teachers, and there are certain standards that I've set for myself that I'll always adhere to."

Presently, Gandolfi teaches composition at NEC and at the Tanglewood Music Festival and is working to complete commissions for a piano concerto and an orchestral work. Robert Spano will conduct the premiere of the latter at Tanglewood next summer.

"A big part of composing is exploring what you have found that is uniquely yours," Gandolfi says. "Finding and developing your voice is the most important thing. The great composers of any age and music style all found their own angle. When I teach composition and see a student get that and start developing his or her voice, it is a real thrill."