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New programs at MU are music to young composers' ears

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 23, 2009 - Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield have been well known in financial and political circles for years, but increasingly – and influentially – their presence has become visible on the quirky and unpredictable cultural radar in the St. Louis region, and around the state as well. They have an eclectic list of interests, and are not the least bit reticent about putting their philanthropic dollars where those interests are.

For example: An abiding passion of his is chess. Last year, he choreographed the organization of the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center in St. Louis’ Central West End and bankrolled it. The club has had great success, not only in attracting local chess players but in playing host to the U.S. Chess Championship in May, from which it achieved rare status in the world of chess and attained international attention.

Recently, the St. Louis University Art Museum mounted an exhibition about the artist Marcel Duchamp, who in 1923 dropped art for a career that focused on chess. The exhibition, entirely devoted to the Duchampian chess fixation, was sponsored by the Sinquefield family’s foundation.

If you put Sinquefield philanthropies under a philosophical microscope, what you see in rather clear relief is education in the pursuit of knowledge and skills and individual initiative.

Their pockets are quite deep, and the focus seems to be on social improvement through strengthening and improving educational opportunities.

Jeanne Sinquefield’s approach has been through music. She is a musician herself, a dedicated orchestral double bass player and a serious music lover. Her interest in music and her largesse have been the forces behind a quite visionary and sprawling Missouri-based program devoted to the creation and performance of serious contemporary music.

Sinquefield brushes off any suggestions that she is an accomplished string player. However, she has embraced music enthusiastically, and music has become somewhat of a vocation. She is a regular player in three mid-Missouri orchestras, for example, but a more compelling interest has become the experience of hearing original music produced by boys and girls and young men and women. The word “produced” is used on purpose. The music she is hearing is actually composed by children and young adults, from kindergarten through university graduate school, who’ve found instruction as well as inspiration through programs created with Sinquefield donations.

Recently, the Sinquefields threw a big party at their modernist Xanadu on the Osage River, the Sinquefield Reserve, at Westphalia, Mo., south of Jefferson City. The day was perfect: cool, breezy and washed with serene, late afternoon sunlight. There were all sorts of people from various departments of Sinquefield life, and the curious among us wandered around the audacious house, which is sited in such a way it seems about to propel itself forth from the prominence on which it is built, and into the midsummer gloaming. Many of the guests were musicians, some fellow players in the orchestras in which Jeanne Sinquefield plays.

Although the wine flowed freely and there was an abundant buffet table, the focus of the party was on music composed by participants in a program established about five years ago by the Sinquefields.  They gave money to establish the Creating Original Music Project -- C.O.M.P. -- at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Officially, says an Missouri University press release, C.O.M.P. “is an incubator for new music and composers and consists of three programs: an annual competition for MU student composers, an annual competition for young composers in kindergarten through 12th grade throughout the state, and a summer camp for high school composers.”

These programs are part of what is now an even grander scheme at Columbia -- the Mizzou New Music Initiative. This enterprise consists of six parts: Undergraduate Composition Scholarships; New Music Ensemble Graduate Assistantships; the Sinquefield Composition Prize; the Mizzou New Music Festival; the C.O.M.P.  program; and Composer Connection, which is aimed at giving young musicians a shot at meeting and learning from successful composers.

One such composer is a member of the faculty of the music school at Mizzou, Stefan Freund. Freund’s enthusiasm for music and the various Sinquefield-sponsored programs is infectious. In tandem with his young family, music is his life. Besides teaching and composing, he is conductor of the Columbia Civic Orchestra. He was all over the place at the party at the Sinquefields’ house, and after supper played the cello in an energetic and sparkling new-music ensemble called Alarm Will Sound, a group that has also captured the attention of the philanthropists.

We contacted Freund when he was on vacation at the seashore with his family, so an interview with him was conducted by e-mail. Although the dedication to new music at Mizzou ranges all over the place, our discussion focused on C.O.M.P., and indeed C.O.M.P. participants were guests of honor at the party at Westphalia.

The program came to be because of Jeanne Sinquefield’s desire to make a donation to the University of Missouri, Freund said. Chancellor Brady Deaton suggested that she consider the School of Music.

“Jeanne told the chancellor a story about one of her cousins who came up with tunes but couldn't notate them. This began her interest in supporting young composers,” Freund wrote.

“A number of university and community members came together in 2004 to develop a program with Jeanne’s support,” he continued. “After much debate, we began the Creating Original Music Project. This established a kindergarten through grade 12 composition competition where winners receive performances of their music at MU as well as cash prizes for themselves and their school music department.

“In addition,” he said, “we began the Sinquefield Composition Prize for MU composition students (a commission to write a work for major ensemble for the chancellor's concert). Jeanne was pleased with the development of C.O.M.P. and established Summer C.O.M.P. a few years later. Now she has committed $1 million to fund MU’s New Music Initiative over the next four years.” The summer is a weeklong saturation in composition for gifted music students. At the end of the week, the students are to have completed a composition in time for musicians to rehearse and to perform it. The results are astonishing.

For her part, Sinquefield seems quite amazed by the success and the vitality of C.O.M.P. and the other Mizzou programs. In a phone interview recently, she spoke of her astonishment at hearing a young child playing a piece of music – “Then I remembered that he had written it!”

Another important aspect of the program is the fact that not only do the students have the opportunity to compose and notate their work, but they actually are able to hear it performed. Any composer of music that involves more than one instrument will tell you that the proof of a composition’s integrity and value is in the playing of it and the hearing of it. Such is the experience of the students in C.O.M.P. programs.

“The stumbling block is getting your music performed,” she said. After word got around about the high school programs, Sinquefield said a college kid asked her, “How about helping us?”

Eventually, that led to the serious ramping up of the program. She talked to members of the faculty at the school of music such as Freund and W. Thomas McKenney, another new music and composition professor, as well as graduate students and other composers. “The idea came to give eight (undergraduate) students a four-year ride, two a year, and the graduate students get a stipend.”

Pure genius

Jeanne Sinquefield has other ideas percolating. Her son, Randy, is a filmmaker, and during the writer’s strike a couple of years ago, she hired him and some of his pals, "at scale!” she exclaimed, to make a movie about the high-school summer program. The result is “Genius Among Us,” which was shown at the late July party. To see a young composer hearing his or her work performed for the first time is deeply affecting.

The next movement in Jeanne Sinquefield’s grand composition for the Music School at Mizzou is to get students writing musical accompaniment for videos.

“I’m trying to figure out a way to do a class about music for film,” she said. “What happens is, the university produces little videos – ‘Welcome to Mizzou,’ that sort of thing. And each department has something for donors. What I am trying to do is to get the students to write the music. It is different to write for a small film. It’s good experience.

“And that,” she said, “is where this is going.”