Sunday, January 10, 1999

Former CCM dean Sapp remembered as visionary

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “Allen Sapp was a very important person in our musical culture with what he stood for and did, without becoming world-famous to the mass public,” said Gunther Schuller, Pulitzer-prize winning composer and longtime friend of Mr. Sapp.

        Mr. Sapp, who died Monday, was a composer and professor emeritus of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and dean 1978-80.

        Mr. Sapp's compositions have received note in the past decade, including several recordings. But he will be most remembered for his teaching, his far-sighted work as an administrator and his promotion of American music.

        As dean of CCM, he expanded the faculty, recruiting piano faculty members Eugene and Elizabeth Pridonoff, Frank Weinstock and Bela Siki and violist Donald McInnis. The latter two have since left the faculty.

        During his tenure, the activities of the Philharmonia Orchestra and Concert Orchestra expanded, and the Contemporary Music Ensemble was founded. “He was incredibly important in getting these activities going that we now take for granted at CCM,” says Gerhard Samuel, former director of orchestral studies.

        “He had the vision of what CCM could become,” Eugene Pridonoff says. “Allen was a dreamer. ... He probably cared more about the students than anyone I can think of. He was generous with his time, and he was interested in all aspects of the development of talent.”

Master teacher
        Mr. Sapp composed a piece for Elizabeth Pridonoff, Fantasy II: A Piece of the Rach, which she premiered in 1993 at CCM, in a concert honoring the composer upon his retirement.

        “I think of him first as a master teacher,” says Alan Green, his student in the 1980s, who has written Allen Sapp: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press; $69.50).

        “When I heard his music, I was equally struck. How could this composer in Cincinnati be writing such great music, and I'd never heard of him before? That came to mind when I was looking for book ideas.”

        Mr. Sapp was a humanist, says the composer Jonathan Kramer, who was on the CCM faculty and is now at Columbia University. “He tried to instill the appreciation for music as a humanity as well as a technique in all of his students.”

        Mr. Sapp's son, Christopher Dawson of Belmont, Calif., agrees.

        “He was a role model in education and the importance of ideas. He was a great lover of books, and the world of ideas. He instilled in both of us (sons) a love of books, ideas and the learning process.”

        Another dimension of his life was his 52-year marriage to pianist Norma Bertolami Sapp, with whom he had a lifelong musical collaboration.

        “He didn't go for the large orchestral mediums, although he wrote some. He loved Norma so much that he wrote most of his works for piano,” says composer Samuel Adler, a friend of 40 years. Mr. Adler co-chaired with Mr. Sapp the national artistic directorate of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in Cincinnati.

Visionary in Buffalo
        “Most people were not aware of the many things (Mr. Sapp) did in the field of music,” says Robert Werner, dean of CCM. “He was held in the highest respect among people in the profession because of his honesty and high standards.”

        In the 1960s, Mr. Sapp's work as chairman of the music department of the State University of New York in Buffalo was visionary. He recruited the Budapest Quartet onto the faculty, putting SUNY Buffalo into the national spotlight.

        He also brought composer Lukas Foss to the faculty and played a key role in having Mr. Foss named music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, thus cementing ties between the orchestra and the university.

        In 1964, he founded Buffalo's Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Dedicated to avant-garde music, it was the first center of its kind in the United States. He and Mr. Foss were co-chairs.

        “It was his idea. He ran it, he funded it and he invited composers who were major figures to come,” Mr. Kramer says. “It was a model for other programs that followed suit.”

Famous names
        During the Buffalo years in the '60s, son Anthony Sapp recalled a steady stream of European and American musicians through their home.

        “It was very exciting; he was at the center of reshaping the Buffalo arts and music scene,” Anthony Sapp says. “There was one experimental concert after another. I remember (composers Karlheinz) Stockhausen, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Sylvano Busotti, and Ali Akbar Khan (a disciple of Ravi Shankar). (Nuclear physicist) Edward Teller came over to play four-hand music with my mother.”

        In Cincinnati, Mr. Sapp's community efforts included the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra (CCO), the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, and the Emery Center Corp. aimed at renovating the crumbling but acoustically perfect Emery Theatre in Over-the-Rhine.

        “The credit for organizing the chamber orchestra should go to Allen and Paul Nadler (first music director of the CCO),” says Josef E. Fischer, CCO board member and chairman of the Department of Surgery at UC Medical Center.

        “Allen was very idealistic and a little impractical. He's always been an advocate for contemporary American music, to a maddening extent. Even if you disagreed with him, you had to respect him.”

Copland was teacher
        The years after he was dean at CCM, Mr. Sapp redirected his efforts to composition, resulting in some of his best works.

        As a Harvard student, Mr. Sapp studied composition with Walter Piston, Randall Thompson and Irving Fine. He studied privately with Aaron Copland and Nadia Boulanger as part of a John Knowles Paine Fellowship at Harvard. He may have been the only composer to receive private lessons from Mr. Copland, Mr. Green says.

        Much of his music reflects the French, neoclassical influence of Boulanger. But he was also one of the first Americans to use and teach 12-tone music.

        “It was his intention to bridge a gap between neoclassical (early 20th century) and 12-tone. He set out to do that in the '30s when it was a radical thing to do,” Mr. Kramer says. “Yet, the few pieces which did not do that were his most exciting pieces. He wrote a beautiful Nocturne for solo cello, and Taylor's Nine for the Percussion Group Cincinnati (commissioned by WGUC-FM) that was bold and intense.

        “He stood out as having something special and unique to say.”


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