20 sept arts governors awards mark neikrug

Marc Neikrug

Composer, pianist, artistic director; Santa Fe

Choose your parents wisely, they say. Marc Neikrug certainly did, at least if he wanted to have a career in music. “When I was born my mother and father shared a townhouse with Leonard Bernstein. My babysitter was the mother of Isaac Stern, the famous violinist,” he says.

“I was about four years old, just tall enough to look out the window onto the street below, and I was puzzled by what I saw, so I asked my mother, ‘Where are their cellos?’ Both my parents were professional cellists as well as teachers of the instrument, so I thought everyone had one.”

He has been the artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, one of the music world’s preeminent events of its type, since 1998. The festival didn’t bring him to New Mexico, however. “I’m a composer first, foremost, and last. I came to Santa Fe in the mid-1980s, when I was writing an opera commissioned by the Deutsche Oper in Berlin.

“It was a piece about nuclear physics and the atom bomb and Pueblo Indians. I came to do research and fell in love with the place, with this particular Santa Clara Pueblo family, and with my wife, who was part of the family. So I moved to the Pueblo, which is where we still live, and now I’m part of this gigantic extended family there.”

Neikrug will be awarded the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for his work as a composer, pianist, and artistic director of the chamber music festival.

In addition to the Deutsche Oper, Neikrug has received commissions from London’s South Bank festival, the Frankfurt festival, the Library of Congress, Lincoln Center, the New York Philharmonic, and the orchestras of Atlanta, Houston, Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, and Jerusalem.

His relationship with the chamber music festival began in 1996, when then-artistic director Heiichiro Ohyama asked him to be the festival’s composer in residence that summer. “I’d never played with the festival before, had never been to one of their concerts. I hadn’t even been to a Santa Fe Opera performance during the decade since I moved here.

“Two years later, when Ohyama was leaving the festival, I was offered this job, which was a huge surprise. I didn’t look for it, didn’t expect it, didn’t necessarily want it. I said yes to prove one thing to myself, which I always believed but had no evidence of: If you treat an audience with respect and challenge them while also giving them the best possible performances, they will grow along with you and broaden their horizons. And lo and behold, I was right.”

For 35 years, Neikrug was violinist Pinchas Zukerman’s recital partner, playing the piano in a globe-trotting partnership that resulted in more than 20 commercial recordings and several television broadcasts. Their collaboration was artistically satisfying, Neikrug says: “Pinchas is the most amazingly intuitive, impeccable musician I have ever known.” But it was also a means to an end. “It’s just about impossible to make a living solely at composition. Almost everyone has to have an additional source of income. For lots of composers it’s teaching, but I wasn’t much interested in academia. Mine became chamber music performance.”

Why did he stop concertizing? “I felt like I had three full-time jobs — as a composer, working with Pinky, and at the festival. In 2010, it became clear to me that I wanted more time to compose, so I stopped playing, period. It just took too much time — especially all the travel and all the practicing. Your goals become clearer to you as you get older, and I realized I had some very specific things I wanted to write — another big piano concerto, one or two more symphonies.”

Paradoxically, the premiere of his music-theater piece Through Roses in London in 1980 was one of his biggest flops, and that provided an enduring message for him. “There were 11 dailies there at the time, and I got 11 of the most vitriolic, scathing, and destructive reviews you could ever imagine. And I fully believed I had done something terrible, and that this piece was a giant failure.

“It’s turned out otherwise. It’s my best-known piece, has had more than 500 performances in 11 languages, has been recorded three times, and there are two films based on it: one a documentary and one a feature with Maximilian Schell. I learned to not doubt my own artistic intuition. And never do anything seeking public approval. It will come by itself if it’s deserved.” 

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