Composing a life in serious music

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Malibu resident Maria Newman's music will be performed by the chamber group, Pacific Serenades.

Malibu resident and composer Maria Newman’s music will be performed by the award-winning chamber group Pacific Serenades Jan. 8, 9 and 11.

By Pam Linn/Special to The Malibu Times

To be the youngest member of a Hollywood music dynasty is surely a test of one’s mettle. Oh, sure, you inherit the genes, the talent, and are surrounded by good music and gifted musicians. But living up to the legacy must be daunting.

For Maria Newman, the decision was not whether to play, or what to play, but just how far she could push the limits of a world dominated by men. Her father, nine-time Oscar-winning composer Alfred Newman, supported her violin and piano lessons. He died when she was just eight, probably never considering she might someday want to write serious music. But after graduating from the Eastman School of Music and Yale University with honors and playing in chamber and studio orchestras, she knew she wanted to compose.

“I was so scared, not only of being compared to my dad but to my brothers, Tom and David. They were doing so beautifully. They had established themselves before I was out of high school,” Newman said in a recent telephone interview. “I was also worried that a woman would not be taken seriously as a composer.”

So she began by writing under a pseudonym, taking her grandmother’s name, M. Louis Parker, because it seemed gender neutral. “Back in the times when Brahms and Beethoven were writing, it was expected they would be players and composers. But in this country, it wasn’t hip to be both a classical player and a composer,” Newman said. “I was afraid I would be criticized for playing my own music.”

It wasn’t long before musicians who loved playing her music became curious about M. Louis Parker and were asking Newman to come up with the biographical information.

“So I finally came out of the composition closet and wrote as Maria Newman. A lot of people heard it and the music started getting around and musicians liked it,” she said.

Limiting her earliest compositions to chamber music, it was about three years before she attempted to write for full orchestra, eventually including choral, ballet and oratorio and writing for all the western classical instruments.

“I write a lot for strings; they’re the skeleton of the orchestra,” she said. “With chamber music, a violin part written for tuba doesn’t sound right. With commissions, you know the players for whom you’re writing, so if you have a tuba player who’s a virtuoso, you can write to his talent. Then you also take the chance that another player won’t make it sound as good.”

Though she’s now comfortable writing for large ensembles, playing and writing chamber music particularly suits her sensibilities. “I love being a part of things. When you play with a symphony, the conductor is in complete control and it doesn’t matter what kind of ideas you have,” Newman said. “Chamber is very democratic, egalitarian. You can go over everyone’s ideas and agree and then go forward from there. It’s the most satisfying way to convey emotions musically.”

The award-winning chamber group Pacific Serenades opens its 19th season this week with the world premiere of Newman’s “Pennipotenti” (Latin for birds) for flute, violin and viola, her second commission for them.

“I never did play with Pacific Serenades, but I know each player in that group and I’ve written for them before,” Newman said. “I think it’s something the players can sink their teeth into. They’re all studio musicians, they’re phenomenal.”

Because she wouldn’t be able to rehearse the new work, Mark Carlson, the group’s director and flutist, came to Newman’s Malibu home and played the parts with the composer and her husband, Scott Hosfeld, on violin and viola. “They could have put it together without my help,” she said. “It was just to get some of my suggestions.”

One of four concert programs for the 2005 season, the first also includes JS Bach, Suite in D minor; BWV 1008 for solo cello; Mozart, Quartet in C major; K 285b for flute and strings; Shostakovich, Quartet No. 10 in Ab, Op. 118.

The concert will be performed Jan. 8 at a private home in Pasadena, Jan. 9 at Pasadena Neighborhood Church and Jan. 11 at UCLA Faculty Center in Westwood.

The Thousand Oaks New West Symphony has commissioned Newman to write a piece for its 10th Anniversary Season Celebration. After 10 years as composer in residence at Icicle Creek Music Center in Washington, she was recently named to that post with Orchestra da Camera at the Colburn School.

Her three children, who attend Malibu schools, have apparently inherited the Newman music gene. Martha, 8, plays violin and Isabella, 6, plays cello. Sonny, 4, has yet to choose an instrument.

With three children, Newman had to cut back on studio playing but not on teaching and composing. The children went along last August to North Carolina where Newman was composer in residence at Brevard Music Center.

“I love managed chaos. I work well with deadlines,” she said. “I work well under pressure.”

The pressure she faces now is just the result of a schedule that goes with success. After nine consecutive ASCAP awards and numerous composing grants, there’s no longer the pressure of following in her father’s footsteps.

“I’m one of the luckiest people. I have wonderful friends who perform my pieces over and over again,” she said. “That’s been a real blessing.”

For Pacific Serenades tickets, call 213.534.3434.