Musical Composer, Conductor, Professor: Robert Spittal
By Autumn Jones
Class of 2010
Photos by Jennifer Raudebaugh
As a musical composer, there are few greater thrills than hearing one’s music performed at the iconic Carnegie Hall. Few venues offer the same sense of profound achievement as this musical marvel in Manhattan renowned for its beauty, history, acoustics and grace. Among the most famous auditoriums in the United States for classical and popular music, Carnegie Hall has hosted most of the world’s greatest classical musicians since it was built in 1891 by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. The list of luminaries who have entertained there reads like a musical hall of fame. Gonzaga music Associate Professor Robert Spittal has joined the ranks of composers talented and fortunate enough to have their own compositions played there.
Earlier this year, Spittal witnessed his composition “Consort for Ten Winds” performed there by the Quintsylvania Winds, a professional ensemble-in-residence at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. The piece was published in 2005 by Boosey & Hawkes, one of the world’s leading musical publishing companies. Since then, Spittal's composition has rapidly gained popularity in the United States and abroad. Other ensembles that have played Spittal’s piece include the Philadelphia Chamber Winds, the Ormond Beach (Florida) Symphony, and The San Francisco Bay Brass. Even so, it’s Carnegie that Spittal speaks of most.
“Professionally it means a lot and it is possibly a ‘once-in-a-lifetime experience,’ ” says Spittal who worked with the musicians to help them interpret his piece prior to the concert.
Spittal’s piece was placed last in the repertoire, a measure of prestige for a composer, almost guaranteeing a standing ovation at conclusion. A reception followed in Steinway Hall, a world-renowned showcase room for pianos. With the distinction of composer, Spittal was able to move about the room and play some of the world’s finest pianos.
“In writing a piece of music the composer always strives to write something that good players will play, but this doesn’t always happen,” Spittal said. “Too many times, a composer writes a work, and will never hear a satisfying performance of it.”
Spittal’s interest in music has developed steadily since he was both a serious flute student in the Cleveland Institute of Music’s Prep program and a freelance saxophonist in horn sections of jazz, rhythm and blues and other dance bands on Cleveland’s West Side. Spittal pursued his passion at Ohio State University and Baylor University, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees, respectively. He earned a doctorate of musical arts in conducting while studying with Eugene Corporon at the Cincinnati College Conservatory. Spittal was among the founding conductors of the Cincinnati Youth Wind Festival during his time at the Conservatory.
Being part of a university enhances Spittal’s credibility as a composer. Earning a living as a composer is no easy task, so a job that combines composing and teaching serves a practical benefit.
“The only problem sometimes is scheduling,” he said, “when it comes time to attend a performance where your piece is being played.”
Spittal directs the Gonzaga University Wind Symphony and Chamber Winds, and teaches conducting. He also conducts the Clarion Brass Choir, one of the Northwest’s premier professional brass ensembles. His compositions have been praised by musicians and critics alike as chock-full of musicality and brilliantly colorful. His other musical passions include improvisational music – especially jazz, blues, and other traditional American styles.
Spittal said his explorations in musical improvisation have strongly influenced his development as a classical musician, conductor and composer.
The Carnegie Hall presentation not only helps Spittal as an artist but also bodes well for Gonzaga, which gained considerable positive publicity with the show. Spittal’s compositions are also performed at high schools and universities nationwide.
“This type of exposure – to prospective students, as well as future professionals in the field – is important to the University, too,” Spittal said. “Probably just as important as a Carnegie Hall performance, if not more.”
Gonzaga is the only Jesuit university in the West offering both a bachelor’s degree in music and in music education. Gonzaga students can major in one of four areas within music: performance, composition, general studies or education.
Many graduates continue from this point to earn master’s and doctorates at conservatories and universities nationwide. Gonzaga students pursuing the education track become certified to teach music in elementary and secondary schools upon graduation. Many other students enjoy pursuing a music minor in areas of general studies, jazz, or performance.
The music department serves more than 400 students per semester, allowing students at all levels of expertise and interest to pursue their passions. The combination of music courses with a liberal arts core curriculum provides a strong foundation for these students. Gonzaga's music program is not a conservatory, but is growing and is the largest among all other Jesuit colleges and universities west of the Mississippi River.
Among the nation's 28 Jesuit colleges and universities, only Loyola University of New Orleans offers a program bigger than Gonzaga's. Following Hurricane Katrina, several of the displaced students from Loyola New Orleans studied at Gonzaga for a semester, awaiting the reopening of their school.
Spittal continues to write music as time allows. He is working on an important piece to premiere at Gonzaga for both the choir and instrument ensembles. He has been at Gonzaga since 1992 and looks forward to continued growth of the music program.
Meantime, fans of Spittal's compositions look forward to more outstanding music from a musician and teacher par excellence.