By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN
Some of the greatest composers throughout history wrote some of their greatest musical works while in their teens, 20s and 30s. Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn are the names that most readily come to mind.
Mary Bianco (neé Marx) is an example of what a composer can do later in life. Especially one who is proud of and influenced by her Jewish roots.
At 79 and eagerly looking forward to turning 80 in May 2019, Bianco is, by no means, slowed by age. Instead she is busily composing pieces both short and long and having them performed in public concerts.
One of her most recent compositions, a five-minute trio for violin, cello and piano titled “Goblins in N’Awlins,” will premiere this Sunday, October 28, on the final day of the Crescent City Chamber Music Festival for which it was commissioned.
The six-day festival, now in its third year, opened on Monday, October 22 and will be presenting two more public performances on the 26th and 28th. Founded by violist, Luke Fleming, a New Orleanian now living in New York City, the festival combines the talents of the Manhattan Chamber Players and the Dover Quartet on works by composers both past and present.
Arriving in New Orleans from her home in Paso Robles, California a week before the performance of her piece, Bianco cheerfully recounted details of an eventful and productive life over coffee in the lobby of the hotel where she was staying.
“Nearly every morning I sit down and write music,” she began. “If I don’t, I feel as though the day is not complete.”
Although Bianco’s passion for music has resulted in a prolific output in recent years, she is no “late bloomer.” Growing up in Westchester County, just a short distance north of New York City, she showed signs of being a child prodigy.
As she explained, “My music started when I was about 3. My older sister was taking piano lessons and, after the teacher would leave, I would go over to the piano and play exactly what the teacher was trying to get my sister to play. So, when I was about 4, I got to take lessons also.”
During childhood, Bianco attended Young People’s Concerts performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. “I would sit on a pile of coats so I could see the stage,” she laughingly recalled.
“I never became a really terrific pianist but I could play a Chopin waltz or a Mozart sonata,” Bianco continued. “As I grew into my teenage years, I was writing songs and I really liked to do it. At one time I thought I was going to write Broadway shows but I learned that it was very competitive.”
In high school Bianco played percussion – mostly timpani – in the school band, as well as jazz in a smaller combo. During that time she was in the New York State Orchestra and Band.
Going on to Sarah Lawrence College, Bianco majored in music; mostly music composition. “I had pretty much given up the piano at that point because I knew I wasn’t going to go to Juilliard. So I said I may as well try something else, and that was composing,” Bianco explained.
One summer, in the 1960s, she drove out to Aspen, Colorado to study with renowned Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. In the same small group with her were Peter Schickele, who later attained fame as “P.D.Q. Bach,” and Morton Subotnick, an avant-garde composer whose 1967 “Silver Apples of the Moon” album is considered a classic in the electronic music genre.
Recalling one of the discussions she had with Milhaud, Bianco said, “He listened to some music I wrote and told me, ‘I think you should listen to some recordings of Bach and Mozart and see how they might influence your music.’ I did not like that at all but I did what he said and he was right. I really needed to go back and understand where the music came from many years ago.”
In the years to come, however, Bianco pursued other professions, including a 30-year career as a stockbroker. She had also been an ambulance driver, a tennis teacher and the author of a 40-page illustrated children’s book, 100 Hamburgers, published in 1972 under the name Mary Lynn Solot. But all the while, she was still composing, albeit mostly for friends and special occasions.
Finally, following retirement from the conventional workforce, Bianco was able to pursue her love of composing full time. In 2011, while in her early 70s, she went back for her Masters in Music and received it from Mills College in Oakland, California, the same school where her former mentor, Milhaud, taught after fleeing Nazi-occupied France in the early 1940s.
“Now I write primarily chamber music, although I am working on a symphony to be played in 2020 in California,” Bianco said. “I tend to know the musicians I write for,” she added, pointing to a picture of the Manhattan Chamber Players and identifying most of them by name.
Describing her first meeting with the MCP “about six or seven years ago,” she said it was at a concert on a very cold December night in New York City and only about half a dozen people were in the audience. After the performance, she introduced herself to Luke Fleming, told him she was a composer and asked if she could write some pieces for them. Her offer was accepted and she has been writing for them and individual members of the 30-member ensemble ever since.
“I spend quite a bit of time with them in New York, especially when there’s a premiere of my music,” Bianco said, adding that she has also toured with them domestically and abroad, including a concert in Israel this past March. She is looking forward to traveling with them to France next year. “They want me to come because I speak French and they don’t,” she laughed.
Two of Bianco’s pieces were performed by the MCP at last year’s Crescent City Chamber Music Festival. Her composition for this year’s festival was described by Fleming as “timed to coincide with the festival’s Halloween theme. It’s meant to be very scary and spooky sounding.”
In recent years Bianco has been in the process of rediscovering and reading up on her Jewish heritage. Growing up during a time when anti-Semitism was prevalent, her family kept a low profile and observance of the faith was at a minimum in her household. Neither she nor her siblings had bar mitzvahs or bat mitzvahs.
Bianco finally celebrated her bat mitzvah two years ago when she and three other women went through the ceremony at a synagogue in her hometown. She wrote a special piece that was performed at the service.
“I certainly did not grow up strongly feeling Jewish, but now I do,” she said. Today her newly rediscovered Judaism is reflected in some of her musical compositions.
“A lot of my pieces have Jewish themes running through them, she said. “I’m working on one right now for clarinet, viola and cello that is going to be highly Jewish.” She is hopeful of having at least one of next year’s festival concerts performed in a New Orleans synagogue, promising to premiere a new piece there if the occasion comes to pass.
Summing up, Bianco said, “Music is my passion. I listen to it all the time. From the moment I wake up in the morning I turn it on. I’m thinking of what I’ll be doing over the next 30 years that I’ll be alive and I will continue to write chamber music for people who I hear perform. I have met some wonderful and talented people that way.
“Culture is what makes a city vibrant,” Bianco emphasized. “It’s a real gift to New Orleans that Luke is bringing here with these musicians. I encourage people to come to these concerts.
Mary Bianco’s composition, “Goblins in N’awlins” will be premiered on Sunday, October 28 at 3:00 p.m. in Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church, 3900 St. Charles Avenue. Members of the Manhattan Chamber Players and the Dover Quartet will perform.
Admission is free, but donations will be gratefully accepted. For more information about the Crescent City Chamber Music Festival, click here.