Next month Steven M. Burke will take leave from his post as music faculty member in composition at Sarah Lawrence College to accept a one-year residency at the American Academy in Rome. Winner of The 2004 Rome Prize for Musical Composition, one of the most prestigious prizes in the field, Burke is following in the footsteps of his teacher, mentor, friend and colleague, Chester Biscardi, composer and director of Sarah Lawrence’s music program who himself won The Rome Prize in 1976. Burke received the Frederic A. Juilliard/Walter Damrosch Rome Prize at an awards ceremony at the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan on April 29.
Holding a DMA from Cornell University, Masters of Music from Yale University and the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Burke is a 1990 graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. There he studied science, excelling in his pre-med course (as a sophomore he was asked to take over teaching a chemistry course when the professor left suddenly) – until he studied composition with Chet Biscardi. So inspired by his music studies, Burke made a complete break with his plans to become a doctor and threw himself passionately into composing. “Chet is an incredible teacher and source of strength for me,” says Burke who chose to further his studies after Sarah Lawrence at two of the institutions where Biscardi had studied – University of Wisconsin and Yale.
For Biscardi, Burke represents “a great Sarah Lawrence story” where a student comes to the College intent on doing one thing and ends up doing something entirely different. “As a scientist Steve already possessed a wild, witty and brilliant imagination,” commented Biscardi on his student’s transition. “One day I suggested that he bring his ‘interesting,’ scientific, and spiritual views of the world to his compositions. All of a sudden he was writing a very different, inspired and passionate music that came from a very personal, profound and unique voice.”
In 1998, while still a student at Cornell, Burke was awarded his first major commission from the Seattle Symphony and the ASCAP Foundation. Since then he has been awarded numerous prizes and commissions including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Charles Ives Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a commission from the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard, the Jerome Foundation, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonisches Orchester Kiel in Germany where his Echo of Halos was premiered last November to critical and public acclaim. Burke’s music has recently been performed by such distinguished ensembles as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the National Symphony Orchestra.
While at The American Academy in Rome, one of the leading centers for independent study and advanced research in the fine arts and the humanities, Burke will work on commissions he holds including a concerto for bass clarinet and chamber ensemble and a dramatic work about witchcraft.
Biscardi thinks of Burke much as a father would a son. “I am proud of Steve whether or not he wins major compositional prizes, but I must admit that the Rome Prize is a wonderful new feather in his cap.”