By Anita Neal Harrison
At the age when most children are struggling to sound out words in The Cat in the Hat, little Stefan Freund was composing music. At 5, he wrote a piece for saxophone and piano entitled ”Staccato Man.“ His composer and pianist dad, Don Freund, was so impressed that he asked a colleague to perform the piece with him.
“It was pretty cool,” says Stefan Freund.
From this auspicious beginning Freund, 36, now an associate professor of composition and music theory at MU, has gone on to even cooler achievements. These include hearing his own music performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center, as well as the International Performing Arts Center in Moscow, Glinka Hall in St. Petersburg and Queen’s Hall in Denmark.
Yet Freund says his greatest satisfaction comes from triumphs closer to home: namely, helping student composers get the music in their heads onto paper and performed.
“Today, we had three student readings in my composition class; we’ll have four in my band arranging class,” Freund says. “So today, I’m going to see seven new pieces come to life. It’s really exciting.”
And indeed, excitement for new music has never been higher at MU. In 2009, Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield donated $1 million to the School of Music to create the Mizzou New Music Initiative. The initiative’s goals are to establish MU as a premier destination for composition students and to support young composers of new music statewide.
As one of just two School of Music composition faculty members, Freund leads several of the initiative’s projects.
One of these involves directing the Creating Original Music Project, or COMP, a program that gives Missouri school kids in grades K-12 the chance to enter original compositions in a juried competition. “We’ve found that if you just start nurturing this talent at an early age that students feel very comfortable continuing in it,” Freund says. “Their parents get interested in it, and their teachers.”
Freund also directs the New Music Ensemble, a six-member ensemble that performs new music composed by MU faculty and students. The ensemble also introduces audiences to works from some of the world’s best contemporary composers, performing often-challenging works at college concert halls and other venues throughout the state.
Before the New Music Initiative, opportunities for students to hear their compositions performed were rare. Most students, in fact, had to resort to computer programs to “play” their work. Not so good, Freund says.
“In the real world, you can’t throw a computer up on the stage. Real people are going to have to realize the work, are going to have to perform the piece, and there’s a process that goes into that. You have to write these notes down, communicate these musical ideas to the performer. The performer has to read that, interpret it and then pass it on to the audience.”
This last point is particularly important to Freund, who insists that all his students be prepared to perform, even if their ambitions tend toward teaching, composing, or conducting.
“It doesn’t matter what you end up doing out of here,” he tells them. “You’re going to be up in front of people performing, so you better get used to it, you better have confidence in your skills to the point that you feel comfortable doing that.”
Certainly Freund’s students are learning about performance from someone worth emulating. In addition to teaching and composing, Freund regularly performs as a cellist in the internationally acclaimed ensemble Alarm Will Sound, a group lauded for its “kick-ass” performances of orchestral music (Alex Ross, The New Yorker music critic). The New York Times called Alarm Will Sound “the very model of a modern music chamber band” and “as close to being a rock band as a chamber orchestra can be.”
As if this weren’t enough, Freund also directs and conducts the Columbia Civic Orchestra, a volunteer group that performs music for nothing more than the love of it.
Juggling all these creative tasks, along with his life at home as a husband and a father, makes for some hectic days. But Freund is not complaining.
“I am unbelievably fortunate to be sitting at a place that’s had a million dollars dropped on its composition department,” he says, “but what I want the readers to be excited about is the opportunity for our students. These students really have an amazing opportunity to write music that will be performed. I hope that people will come and listen. Come to a New Music Ensemble concert; come to a composition recital. See what these people are doing.”