Never compromise

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Richard Wernick, here for 'Project Week,' insists that everyone should follow his own musical vision.

Richard Wernick 88 248 (photo credit: Tori Cheifetz)
Richard Wernick 88 248
(photo credit: Tori Cheifetz)
"My family and I flew from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv in December of 1972. We came down the stairs off the plane and the first thing we saw was a gigantic Santa Claus. I looked at this and thought, what did we get ourselves into?" This was Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Richard Wernick's first impression of Israel, from a visit on his way home from a sabbatical in Tanzania almost 40 years ago. Since then, Wernick's opinion of Israel has changed. "There's a quality about this place that is just magical," he muses. During his first visit to Israel in 10 years, Wernick sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss his life, musical career and relationship with Israel. Wernick, 75, has come to take part in "Project Week," a week of musical learning and appreciation put on by The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. The week, which began January 25th and runs to the 29th, focuses on different musical elements each day, including text, timbre (the quality of a musical note) and time. All events are taking place at The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (located at the Hebrew University Givat Ram campus). Highlights of Project Week include a concert dedicated to the music of Beethoven on Wednesday night at 8 p.m. in the Wise Auditorium (cost NIS 70) and a concert Thursday night, at the same time, with the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Orchestra. In 1977, Richard Wernick received the Pulitzer Prize for music based on his composition piece, Visions of Terror and Wonder, which premiered in July of 1976 at the Aspen Festival. "I'm not very good with dates," jokes Wernick, "but I know the date of the festival because it was the American bicentennial." The inspiration for the piece "came from three different sets of scripture - the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran. The idea was to write a piece that was ecumenical. You had essentially the same thing expressed in three different texts." The use of scripture has been a constant theme in Wernick's work. "There's a great richness in religious texts from which one can find musical ideas. The thing that's so good about them is that they allow themselves to be treated in any musical style," he says. And although he argues that his many visits to Israel have not had a direct effect on his music, it has affected the way he feels, and that, he admits, "is where music comes from." RICHARD WERNICK began his musical career late, by his own admission, at the age of 11 when he first started taking piano lessons. In his penultimate year of high school, a musical theory teacher took a special interest in Wernick and, as he puts it, "steered me into music professionally." The same teacher then introduced Wernick to composer Irving Fine, who was teaching at Brandeis, a relatively new institution at the time. "My parents didn't want me to go Brandeis. I did anyways. That is where it all began," he says. Half a century and countless awards later, Wernick has enjoyed a rich and diverse musical career that has touched the lives of many, including several Israeli students who now help make up the contemporary classical composers of Israel. One such student is Israeli composer Haim Permont, who in 1995 won the Prime Minister's Prize for Israeli Composers. In 1968, after a 12-year career in musical composition for the theater, Wernick began a teaching career which would last 28 years, until his retirement in 1996. In his capacity as a professor of musical composition, Wernick is firm in his belief that "the best a composition teacher can do is to teach a student how to teach himself to compose." For Wernick, who is known as an innovator in the field of musical composition, the most useful advice he can offer to students is, "Don't compromise. If you have a vision of what you want to do, go for it. Don't give into fashion or trends." This advice has earned Wernick somewhat of a daredevil reputation in the composition world. Singer Jan DeGaetani, who performed Wernick's Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, once remarked, "Dick has no nerves!" "I like to push the envelope," Wernick agrees. "There is the normal range of an instrument or a voice and you can always push it a bit further. The idea is not to be mean or to show off, but music has needs that can only be expressed in certain ways." The passion expressed in Wernick's music has translated into a passion for life, and as an extension, a passion for Israel. From 1979 to 1997, Wernick and his wife Bea visited Israel annually, spending most of their time in Jerusalem. "You can't possibly appreciate how beautiful the city is if you've always lived in it," he muses. "We fell in love with the place." The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance impressed him especially. "Of all the places in Israel that I have had contact with, Jerusalem has been the most important city, and the academy, the most important place in the city." Wernick, who was invited to the academy on the occasion of his 75th birthday, was flattered by the invitation. "I have always had a very strong professional and emotional connection with the academy," he says.