Remembering Dina Koston

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Dina Koston (1940-2009)

Dina Koston was an extraordinary pianist as well as a composer and the creator of the Theater Chamber Players, a Washington, D.C.-based ensemble specializing in chamber music concerts that combined established repertoire with contemporary works and performed regularly at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She died in April after a long illness. On Saturday, August 29, her friends and colleagues gathered at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, for a memorial concert of both her music and music she loved.

The great pianist and co-director of the Theater Chamber Players, Leon Fleisher, played her elegant piano work Messages and the members of the Cygnus Ensemble joined with Theater Chamber Players to premiere her last finished work, Distant Intervals, an inventive and powerful piece filled with her distinctive sense of color, harmony, and an obsessive use of instruments within given registrations. She was a passionate person and voiced her opinions freely, which for some made her a difficult and complicated person to interact with. She certainly was that, but her passion for music was also infectious, her heart a big one when she cared about you, and her ear was, without a doubt, one of the greatest the American music scene has known. Her friend Wayne Shirley, a senior music specialist (emeritus) at the Library of Congress, told a story at the memorial about Koston coming into the Library to look at the original score of Pierrot Lunaire because she suspected some wrong notes in the edition. Shirley was not surprised that most of the nine suspect notes were in fact wrong, nor that she had surmised already what the right notes were.

I remember long discussions about why some composer’s music sounded “right” to her and others sounded “off”. When she was especially enthusiastic about something she would say “Far freakin’ out” with a big smile on her face.

Her enthusiasm for music stretched to finding and supporting the music of her peers, as well as younger composers, and that’s how I entered Dina’s life. A fellow composer sent Dina some of my music, and within weeks I received a call from her. She wanted to program my work Fable with TCP (although she insisted on calling that work Fables throughout the fifteen years I knew her), but it needed a conductor and that wasn’t going to work for this particular concert. Instead she programmed a string trio, and there I was months later, a young composer having my first work performed by her amazing colleagues at the Kennedy Center. In the decade to come they commissioned and premiered two more of my works and for a time I became a small adjunct part of this phenomenal musical family.

My friendship with Dina grew. We talked by phone every month, discussing everything from her love of Chopin and Webern to whatever work she was currently working on. In the last several years, Dina suffered many setbacks. The first was the death of her beloved husband Roger, a wonderful fellow and well-known psychoanalyst in D.C., and then her own health started to fail.

I saw Dina a couple of months before she died. She looked weak and I suspected that she might not have long to live, but when she talked about her new work Distant Intervals, the passion welled up. For those of us who were lucky enough to know her and learn from her, she will be greatly missed. She truly was “far freakin’ out,” in the best possible sense.

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Laura Elise Schwendinger

Laura Elise Schwendinger is an Associate Professor of Composition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also the Artistic Director of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. Her compositions include Chiaroscuro Azzurro, a concerto for violinist Jennifer Koh and the International Contemporary Ensemble, which was commissioned by Miller Theater of Columbia University, and a setting of in Just- spring which has been performed on tour by Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish at venues including Carnegie Hall, Wigmore Hall, the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, the National Arts Center in Canada and at the Tanglewood and Ojai Music Festivals. The first composer to win the American Academy in Berlin Prize fellowship, Ms. Schwendinger was recently honored with a Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.