Real! Living! Composer sends music to China

by Jordan Green

Sitting at a small table at a Bosnian coffee shop on Merritt Drive composer Russell Peck guards the heat of his brew by cupping his hand over the rim of the vessel as he spins out anecdotes about world-beating adventures and mentions plans to appear with an orchestra in Indiana the following week ‘“to be a potted palm, to show them, ‘this is what a living composer looks like.””

From his seat at the wall the 61-year-old composer’s slender frame seems to dance with the sprightly intelligence of his mind on a recent Thursday afternoon as he discusses his music and describes encounters with musicians and audiences around the world. In the late 1990s he worked with the London Symphony Orchestra, in both live performances and recording sessions at the famed Abbey Road Studios.

‘“The timpanist for the London Symphony, he wore these super tight red pants, and he was holding this glass of wine while we were recording,’” the Greensboro composer says. ‘“He was this German guy. I was thinking, ‘This is not like America.’ In America you would never see musicians going to the bar at intermission and getting looped. It’s all union contract. They’re very professional, dedicated and they enjoy doing it.’”

Peck is a classical composer whose music is rooted in the European masters Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Countering the discordant trends of 20th century modernism, Peck’s compositions float with a kind of effervescence and clear, bright tonality. Growing up in Detroit, Peck was raised in a musical family with a dad who sang on the radio with the city’s symphony. Motown Records’ ‘“sound of young America’” was also in the air, of course.

‘“I am coming right out of a classical music tradition,’” Peck says. ‘“I went to see the Motown Revue. It made a big impression on me. I was always just dancing to that stuff. It took root. Nobody else really has what I have. It makes it kind of a provocative mix of popular soul music and dead white European music.’”

Peck’s music has received only grudging acceptance from classical music critics, who initially took the attitude that, as he puts it, ‘“if too many people liked it, it must not be any good.’”

To the contrary, he says, the great classical composers aimed to attract the largest audience possible.

‘“Beethoven and Mozart were writing for their day,’” he said. ‘“If they were here today they would be like the equivalent of Steven Spielberg. They were dealing with a medium that was the lead medium of their day.’”

The prospect of presenting one’s compositional work for consideration alongside the likes of Beethoven and Bach ‘—’ as opposed to, say, Diddy or Britney Spears ‘—’ can be daunting.

‘“You’re fighting for a very few slots,’” Peck says. ‘“Some orchestras only play Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, only dead white men, no live white men, no black men.’”

He’s not bitter though; he recognizes the bar is set pretty high.

‘“That music’s so killer,’” he says. ‘“It’s hard to come up with anything better. At the same time, if one of your pieces is played in a concert with some Tchaikovsky you get to hear your music framed by a great master.’”

Regional US orchestras were the first to perform Peck’s work. His hometown orchestra, the Greensboro Symphony, commissioned a piece called ‘“The Glory and the Grandeur’” in 1988. And a friend, conductor Paul Polivnick, has brought Peck’s music to life for audiences in Milwaukee, Wis.; Birmingham, Ala., as well as New Hampshire and later Europe.

Peck has also developed a following in China and other parts of the Far East, with orchestras performing his work in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. Orchestras in the classical heartland of Europe ‘— countries like Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany ‘—’ have paid the composer handsomely for the privilege of performing his music, so he doesn’t seem inclined to sweat the fact that Chinese orchestras don’t pay much heed to copyright.

‘“People over there earn in a year what I make in one performance,’” he says. ‘“The money is just not there. [To answer] the question of if you’re going to get paid, you’re not.’”

Peck is not surprised that his music appeals to Chinese sensibilities.

‘“One of the reasons is the class of music I’ve been involved in tends to be very socially and critically constructed,’” he says. ‘“It involves a lot of people working together. You’ve got to be able to take orders. It’s not like ‘our team beat your team, so let’s go turn over some cars.””

He adds: ‘“This music provides an emotionally inspiring and uplifting effect that is just not available in popular music.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at