Obituary: Stephen “Lucky” Mosko

Stephen Lucky Mosko
Stephen “Lucky” Mosko

It is with great sadness I write that Stephen “Lucky” Mosko passed away on December 5, 2005, at the age of 58. Lucky was a unique and innovative composer, a brilliant teacher, and an inspiring conductor.

The performances he led at the remarkable CalArts festivals in the ’80s still echo in the minds of all of us who were fortunate enough to attend them. He also conducted important premieres at the Aspen, Holland, and Ojai Festivals, and with the L.A. Philharmonic, Minnesota Opera, San Francisco Symphony, Schoenberg Ensemble, and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. His work with the San Francisco Contemporary Chamber Players was particularly notable for the fascinating concerts he programmed, the recordings he made, and the commissions he brought about during the ten years he served as music director. He was highly regarded by many leading composers whose works he conducted and recorded, including Adams, Andriessen, Babbitt, Brown, Cage, and Feldman. Cage once wrote in a letter of recommendation “if you are searching for a conductor, he is the one you will find.”

Mosko’s compositions were delicate, intricate, and demonstrated a very personal and unique style. He drew on his many enthusiasms (from contemporary physics, to psychology, literature, even cuisine) as well as many different musical influences, from contemporary Western music and from unusual forms of indigenous music from around the world (he had a huge record collection) for inspiration. His works were performed infrequently, but by many leading ensembles including the Sacramento and San Francisco Symphonies, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and at the Aspen, Ojai, and Tanglewood Festivals. Arthur Jarvinen’s website exhibits his appreciation of Mosko’s music and gives more detail, quotes, and links to his discography, list of works, and audio excerpts. There are two excellent portrait CDs, by the EAR Unit on oodiscs and from the Southwest Chamber Music Society.

Lucky was an exceptional teacher, who could speak with enthusiasm and authority on a wide range of topics, from the details of combinatorial serialism laid out in Babbitt’s articles to the philosophy and chance procedures in Cage’s works (with a thorough knowledge from his life-long study of the I Ching). In those, and many other iconic examples he always demonstrated the same enthusiasm and encouraged us by his example to reject the polemical attitudes found in other places and to see the plethora of contemporary musical approaches as a garden of truth and beauty from which to learn and be inspired.

In addition to all of this, Mosko was also a leading expert on the folk music of Iceland, having received two Senior Fulbright-Hayes Fellowships to do research there. He documented this work on a thorough website with his analysis and recordings.

Stephen L. Mosko was born in Denver on December 7, 1947. As a youth he played percussion in a community orchestra conducted by the legendary Antonia Brico, who took him on as a student and gave him his first conducting opportunities. He then went to Yale, where he studied composition with Donald Martino and conducting with Gustav Meier, receiving his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, in 1969. He began his graduate studies at Yale, but when Mel Powell departed to become the founding dean of the California Institute of the Arts School of Music, he followed him there and studied with him, as well as with Morton Subotnick and Schoenberg protegy Leonard Stein. Mosko earned his MFA as a member of the inaugural class of CalArts in 1972, and then became a faculty member, teaching there for over 30 years, except for a two-year period in the late 1980s when he joined the faculty of Harvard.

It is very difficult to convey in words what a wonderful spirit Lucky had. He possessed a unique combination of genuine and infectious enthusiasm for a broad range of music, as well as a deep understanding of compositional procedures and extramusical influences. These qualities made it a joy to perform with him and to attend his lectures. He taught us by example to both love and rigorously understand the music we performed and studied. For generations of CalArts students, everything changed after you encountered him.

Many people who passed through CalArts over the years have made the unforgettable pilgrimage up to his rustic home in rural Green Valley, California, where great hospitality, humor, and conversation were nourished by the fruits and herbs of his gardens and his fantastic cooking. Above all, Lucky was a wonderful, generous, spirited friend, and his absence will be deeply felt by all of us who knew him.

Stephen “Lucky” Mosko is survived by his wife, flutist Dorothy Stone. A viewing will be held on Sunday, December 11, Malinow & Silverman Mortuary, 7366 S. Osage Avenue, Los Angeles, California; (1-800-710-7100).