On April 11, in Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall, pianist Murray McLachlan performs a program including the US premiere of Ronald Stevenson’s “Six Pensées sur des Préludes de Chopin.” Stevenson’s was a kind of Holy Grail of contemporary music: rigorous, ingenious process trysting with unabashed post-Romantic emotion. Such music requires, in many cases, obsessive commitment — especially Stevenson’s piano music, which courses with his own transcendent virtuosity on the instrument — but its rewards are uniquely valuable: honoring the musical past while, in its forward-looking zeal, evading historical weight and undertow.
Stevenson was born in England, in 1928, but identified with his father’s Scottish lineage. His musical models were the last generation of great Romantic pianist-composers: the Italian individualist Ferruccio Busoni, the technically formidable Polish-American Leopold Godowsky, the singular, idiosyncratic Australian maverick Percy Grainger. Stevenson’s music set off from all three: rich, dramatically unorthodox folk-song arrangements, like Grainger; transformative arrangements of older works, like Busoni; dazzling feats of contrapuntal derring-do, like Godowsky. Most famous is Stevenson’s monumental 1962 “Passacaglia on DSCH,” a tribute to Dmitri Shostakovich, which transforms that composer’s four-note musical signature into an unrelentingly repeating structure that somehow yields over an hour of volcanic creativity.
Stevenson embraced the individualist, heady, even mystical mythos of music’s most opulent past practice. At the same time, he was a pacifist and a Marxist. Other contemporary musicians heard musical Romanticism as complicit with the decadence that led to world war, and incompatible with progressive renewal; in Stevenson, though, the combination was rendered concordant by virtue of his living both ideals with such dedication.
Stevenson’s sense of stringent grandeur carried into his last major work before his death, in 2015: the decades-in-the-making “Praise of Ben Dorain,” for multiple choirs and orchestra, a freshet of Scottish ardor premiered in 2008. But perhaps more representative is a film of Stevenson, in 1985, performing a lecture-recital for a small group of developmentally disabled adults in Melbourne. Stevenson — his movie-star handsomeness having aged into casual distinction — engages his audience with charismatic aplomb, wringing from a battered piano marvelous music (from Grainger to Chopin to Eubie Blake to his own compositions), making freewheeling musicological speculations, but always advancing his vision of a broad and universal celebration of human experience.
Murray McLachlan performs music of Chopin, Stevenson, Finzi-McLachlan, and Myaskovsky, April 11 at 8 p.m. in Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall. Tickets $10-$15; 617-912-9222; bostonconservatory.berklee.edu