Second career as composer brings acclaim, satisfaction
Composer Peter Michalove listens to a recording of a string quartet he has written, playing quietly through his laptop's speakers.
He also composed the music on the laptop. In a corner of his study is a piano, in case he wishes to play a few measures. In another corner is his oxygen tank, unconnected. Just outside is one of his cats, Sybil.
The composer and his interviewer sit mostly in silence as the quartet plays out. Between movements, a clock ticks almost as loudly as the quartet. The cat interrupts with an occasional "rowr."
Time is precious for Michalove. It's precious for all of us, but the composer is in hospice care at his Champaign home.
Nurses, a counselor and a social worker will make house calls to help him and wife Sharon.
He has taken his last treatments for prostate cancer and has recently lost the stamina to concentrate on composing.
Decades ago, his lifelong ambition for music was stymied when, armed with a doctorate, he was unable to find steady musical work performing on the flute or composing, which is his real love.
For decades, Michalove worked long hours as a University of Illinois administrator and paid scant attention to his music.
He retired from the UI in 2006 and wrote a flurry of compositions for large ensembles, string groups and for voice. His first major new work was in 2007, a string quartet, "Variations Roger Hannay in Memoriam," honoring his college mentor.
"Roger was my undergraduate composition teacher at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1969-72, and easily the greatest influence on my musical thinking," Michalove says. "He introduced me to a whole new world of 20th century music, but as a teacher, he never pushed me to do anything I didn't want to do.
"My study with him was the beginning of my maturity as a composer."
Michalove learned after his mentor's death that he had written several string quartets, so the form seemed right.
A latter-day Renaissance man himself, Michalove also has mastered several languages, including classical Mongolian, teaching it in the UI's East Asian Languages and Cultures program.
Sharon Michalove, a medieval history expert, laughs when she remembers how she met the composer, as he was literally composing while he walked down the hall of a graduate dorm.
"He asked if I wanted to hear a piece of music, which doesn't sound like a good pick-up line, but obviously, it worked," she recalls.
She affectionately describes her spouse as "very intelligent, academic, esoteric, pedantic and a lover of language. He is quite well-known in linguistics circles."
He has also taught classes on the great composers from Ludwig van Beethoven to Bela Bartok at the UI's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
"The incredible thing about Peter is that you don't easily discover these things about him," says Claudia Reich, a friend who has taken his OLLI classes. "He's not one to promote himself or his music; he's very retiring."
In these few years as a full-time composer, Michalove has created a body of work that has excited audiences and performers.
Thomas Jostlein, the St. Louis Symphony's associate principal horn player, has performed two of Michalove's works.
"Peter's works reflect much of his personality," he said. "Namely, they are full of gentleness, sophistication and possess a lyrical nature mixed with angular rhythms. I value these works as important contributions to the repertoire."
Michalove wrote a viola sonata for Lydia Tang of Urbana, the principal violist of the Danville Symphony, the Eastern Illinois Symphony and the Urbana Pops Orchestra. She also performs with Sinfonia da Camera, the Illinois Symphony, the Decatur Symphony and the Peoria Symphony.
Tang says Michalove's music is unique.
"Peter's music can be really challenging to play because it is extremely chromatic, and (he) isn't shy about using the higher ranges of the instrument," she says.
"After having the opportunity to perform a few of his pieces, I can recognize a definite signature to his musical vocabulary: trailing chromatic lines contrasting with almost monolithic dissonances. There's a deep pathos and directness in his music, which I really identify with."
Michalove assessed his own work in an email he sent to friends:
"I specifically see myself as a 'real' composer, as opposed to a dilettante. And for me, part of what makes you a 'real' composer is that you work at it every day, just as a performer practices every day. Giving up that would be difficult for me psychologically."
His music continues to be performed. The Tuesday Morning Musical Club recently premiered a string quartet of him. And on Feb. 3, musicians will perform a half-dozen of his compositions at Indi Go Artist Coop, 9 E. University Ave., C.
"He has made a lot of friendships in the music community," says veteran string player Barbara Hedlund of Urbana.
The composer still listens to music with full attention. That includes his own works, on the laptop speakers.
Is Peter Michalove a fan of Peter Michalove?
"Sometimes I like it; sometimes I don't care for it," he says.
The composer is taking his health situation with less emotion than several of his friends.
"When this happens to someone just coming into his own passion, what he really wants to do — it just breaks your heart. The fact he continued composing is a testament to how much it means to him," UI science researcher Claudia Reich says.
He continues to face challenges. Even after his diagnosis, his wife says, Michalove wouldn't cancel a five-week trip to Venice.
"What has happened to him (in the last few years) is a wonderful thing," Sharon Michalove says. "It's wonderful that he has made a lot of friends and, as prolific a composer as he is, reached a lot of audiences."
If you go
What: A concert of Peter Michalove's works, including music for brass, woodwinds, strings, voice and piano.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3.
Where: Indi Go Artist Coop, 9 E. University Ave., C.