Patron of the arts promotes composition in MU music community

Wednesday, December 10, 2008 | 6:49 p.m. CST; updated 9:49 a.m. CST, Thursday, December 11, 2008
Breaking during rehearsal on Tuesday, Jeanne Sinquefield converses with fellow double bass musicians in the Columbia Civic Orchestra. Sinquefield rehearses with the orchestra every Tuesday evening.

COLUMBIA — On a cool Thursday evening on the patio of Shakespeare’s Pizza, David Ackerman sipped a Bud Light, and Jeanne Sinquefield, mindful of the hourlong drive back to her home in Westphalia, nursed a root beer.

While conversations at the tables around them centered on social plans for the upcoming weekend, the two traded ideas on a subject important to them both: how to make Columbia a hub for classical music composition.


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Since Jeanne and her husband, Rex, retired from Dimensional Fund Advisors, an investment firm, in 2005, the pair have set up the Sinquefield Family Foundation to support a variety of charitable interests and causes.

Music, however, holds a special significance for Jeanne, who first picked up the accordion at age 9 and plays the double bass in the Columbia Civic Orchestra, Jefferson City Symphony Orchestra and 9th Street Philharmonic Orchestra. She serves on the "For All We Call Mizzou" Steering Committee and originated a statewide student competition with the MU School of Music called the "Creating Original Music Program," or COMP, for young composers. The COMP also includes an opportunity for MU students to submit an original composition for judging by the composition faculty of the School of Music. The winner receives an MU scholarship, a cash prize and the chance to see the composition performed at the Chancellor’s Concert.

Sinquefield would be the first to acknowledge that Columbia joining the ranks of other composition capitals such as Vienna, Paris or New York City isn’t going to happen overnight.

“People think I’m crazy,” she said. “You work with goals, then you figure out how to get there.” Sinquefield is not, however, short on will or ideas for how to "get there." She typed up an extensive list of projects for a recent meeting with Robert Shay, new director of the MU School of Music.

The ideas include distance learning classes taught by MU graduate students across the state, dress rehearsal concerts held in the dorms by traveling groups and even a new ensemble devoted entirely to new music. The details of a donation by the Sinquefield family and any new programs are likely to be released this January.

Across the table at Shakespeare’s, Ackerman, a composer who has taught at Missouri Valley College, explained why he was drawn to writing music and wants to see others do the same.

“I love these (orchestral) instruments,” he said. “There is such range of emotion, timbre, sounds and colors. I want to write for these things.”

Ackerman, who composed his first piece at age 8, said he was shocked when he realized that at that time famous composers such as Aaron Copland were still alive.

“I desperately want to disabuse people of the notion that all the people who write the stuff we call classical music are dead,” Ackerman said.

“Fine art music cannot survive with just the work of Mozart and Beethoven. They wrote for their time. People change. Experiences change,” he said. “The only way to ensure that this doesn’t become an artifact of some ancient civilization is if living people continue to write new music.”

The joy of music

When 19th-century composer Peter Tchaikovsky completed his fourth symphony, a piece many consider to be the crown jewel of an accomplishment-laden career, he chose to dedicate the work to his patron, Nadezhda von Meck. The dedication was not simply a gesture of gratitude for her financial support, but under the Russian system of patronage it was a symbolic expression of the two as creative and intellectual partners.

Patrons play an essential but often overlooked role in the history of fine art music.

Like von Meck, it is a passion for music – not fame – that has led Sinquefield to devote so much of her time, money and energy to fostering the composition of new music in mid-Missouri.

“The joy of life is listening to music,” she explained. “Why wouldn’t you want to encourage that?”

“It had a quirky impact,” Sinquefield said of the COMP competition. “We had a lot of students decide to write pieces who had never written one before.”

Katie Andres, now an MU graduate, won the composition prize and commission last year as a senior despite being a performance and not composition major. Andres was encouraged to write a piece to enter in the Music Teachers National Association and COMP contests by her French horn teacher at MU, Marcia Spence. To Andres’ surprise, she won the prize and the commission and later admitted that as a fledgling composer her initial reaction was ambivalent.

“My first thought when I found out was probably, ‘Oh crap, I have to write a piece for orchestra now,’” she said. Andres added, however, that despite the extra workload her victory brought, the broadened musical perspective she gained from the experience was well worth it.

Andres wrote a concerto for her own instrument that was performed by Spence at the Chancellor’s Concert.

“It was really moving to see (the piece performed),” Andres said. “She was my mentor, and it was a chance to give back to her and give her a chance to show what the horn can do.”

From composition to performance

The COMP also features a summer camp for high school composers. The weeklong camp invites student composers from around the state to work with MU composing faculty to write a piece to be performed by MU students and faculty.

“As far as we can tell it’s the only high school camp in the U.S. devoted solely to composition,” Sinquefield said. “It’s kind of cool.”

This past summer, Sinquefield encouraged her son Randy, an MU grad and film producer based in Los Angeles, to come film the closing concert at the camp for students’ parents.

“She called me and played a piece that one student had written and then told me he was only 15,” Randy Sinquefield said. “I thought, ‘You got to be kidding me.’”

Although he and the rest of his crew usually work on feature films and commercials, they came to Columbia and filmed the entire camp for a documentary appropriately called “The Genius Among Us.”  The documentary has been submitted for consideration to four film festivals, including the Columbia-based True/False Film Festival, and so far has been accepted at one: The Accolade Film Awards in La Jolla, Calif.

Getting new music performed is just as important to Jeanne Sinquefield as getting the music written.

“Kids are writing, but they have no way of getting their pieces played,” Sinquefield said. “I want to see community orchestras play community-written music.”

She spoke excitedly of a new piece from MU's Stefan Freund titled “Ragfare” that was premiered in November by the Columbia Civic Orchestra, which Freund, an assistant professor for composition and music theory, conducts, as a tribute to one-time Missourian and “king of ragtime” Scott Joplin.

Sinquefield’s Westphalia home overlooking the Osage River reflects her support of the arts and all things local. The wine cellar features Missouri wine, and the walls are adorned with paintings by Missouri artists  — and a Van Gogh sketch. Sinquefield loves talking about music in her home, because as soon as she begins talking about a certain piece she wants to be able to play it — even if it means moving from room to room turning on new songs. In one room Beethoven’s seventh symphony resonates, in another Andres’ COMP-commissioned horn concerto plays; in still another room Sinquefield plays Joplin’s "Maple Leaf Rag" for a house guest who, she incredulously learned, hadn’t had the pleasure of listening to ragtime.

Sinquefield wants to see MU give out scholarships for a new ensemble that is devoted entirely to performing music composed by MU students.

“It’s not good enough for music just to be written," she said. "It must be performed.”

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elaine trani December 10, 2008 | 7:34 p.m.

What an awesome benefactress to have in this community! The problem of getting your composition performed had not even occurred to me. I have several friends who are composition majors or are deeply interested in composing, and I know that there is nothing that can compare to a symphony performing a piece of music you love. But how often can a young composer get access to a full orchestra?

I hope Jeanne Sinquefield and others continue to see the hidden needs of young musicians and music lovers, and with the support of the community provide new creative outlets in the field of classical music that is very, very much alive!

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