A new CD arrived unexpectedly in the mail last summer at the Paulus home. Patty Paulus was eager to play it for her husband, noted St. Paul composer Stephen Paulus, because it featured his Concerto for Two Trumpets and Band.
She didn’t know how — or if — he’d react. He’d suffered a debilitating stroke 14 months earlier.
“His eyes were wide open. He was listening,” she recalled. “I felt like he heard it. You could see his eyes opening up a little more.”
He died just a few weeks later. But Paulus hopes to hear her husband’s name called at Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where that piece is vying for best contemporary classical composition.
“In the midst of these past sad months, this is so wonderful,” said Paulus, who will attend the ceremony in Los Angeles with their two sons. “For the family, it’s a real positive thing.”
She has her dress picked out. “Black, of course,” she said. She has a hair appointment for Sunday morning near her downtown L.A. hotel, where she will meet up with her sons, who both live in New York City.
The nomination was a surprise, she said. Just as surprising is that the album featuring the Paulus concerto was recorded by the all-student UMass Wind Ensemble with two trumpet-playing college instructors.
Stephen Paulus, 65, was Minnesota’s most prolific classical composer, writing opera, oratorio, symphonic pieces and choral selections. He created nearly 60 works for symphony or opera and close to 200 choral pieces. “Pilgrim’s Hymn,” his best-known choral work, was sung at the funerals of former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.
“Stephen always had about 25 different projects going — some about to be finished, some starting,” his wife said. So she couldn’t keep track. Plus, she had her hands full teaching grade-school art classes and keeping tabs on their two sons.
Now, the younger son, Andrew, 25, is managing Stephen Paulus’ music business from New York. Demand for his works doubled after the composer’s death and got another bump when the Grammy nomination was announced in early December, said Andrew, who has a business degree from Georgetown University.
“Since the nomination, business has been up maybe 10 percent,” he said last weekend.
He was headed out to get a haircut. “I’ve got a tuxedo. I need to find a shirt.”
He said he figures that his brother Greg, 30, a jazz trumpeter, will wear “this cool-looking old vintage smoking jacket.”
Concerto was rearranged
The Grammy-nominated composition has an involved backstory. It is actually a rearrangement of Concerto for Two Trumpets and Orchestra, which the Minnesota Orchestra commissioned for Doc Severinsen and Manny Laureano. It premiered at Orchestra Hall in 2003, with Osmo Vänskä conducting.
For an added touch, Greg Paulus, then 19 and a student at the Manhattan Conservatory of Music, and orchestra trumpeter Charles Lazarus also performed in the concerto while standing on opposite sides of the balcony.
Trumpeter Eric Berlin, who teaches at University of Massachusetts Amherst and plays in the Albany (N.Y.) Symphony Orchestra, heard about the concerto. When he was programming the International Trumpet Guild conference in 2007, he wanted to bring in Severinsen to play the Paulus piece. The financing didn’t come through, so Berlin turned to the U.S. Coast Guard Band stationed nearby in Connecticut. He then asked Paulus to arrange his work for a wind ensemble.
“He did it for a paltry amount of money as a commission,” Berlin said this week from Amherst.
The arrangement was used at the conference, and then recorded with the UMass Wind Ensemble in late 2010 in the campus concert hall, featuring Berlin and Richard Kelley, a Boston trumpeter who teaches at the New England Conservatory.
“We had about 60 student musicians — two-thirds were undergraduates and one-third graduate students,” said conductor James Patrick Miller, a Minnesota native who is now a professor at Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter, Minn. “One of the students wasn’t even a music major; she was in veterinary medicine. And there’s a handful that were 18 years old.”
Miller credits Berlin as the principal advocate for Paulus’ concerto. It was released Sept. 1 on the album “Fantastique: Premieres for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble” by the Connecticut label MSR Classics, which submitted it for a Grammy.
“What I find so compelling about this piece,” said Berlin, “is that in many ways it is the antithesis of what one would imagine a concerto for two trumpeters would be. Instead of a flash of acrobatics and competing egos, Stephen begins with a single pitch passed between the two soloists, making the audience wonder where it is coming from. Aside from obvious virtuosity, much of the challenge is that of subtlety, collaboration and teamwork to match and remain indistinguishable from each other.
“It’s a remarkable piece. And the second movement is an elegy for his brother who died.”
Her speech is written
The Paulus home on Summit Avenue is decorated with Patty’s artwork, mostly acrylic paintings and mixed media. In the music room sits Stephen’s baby grand piano. The framed score of his 1982 opera “The Postman Always Rings Twice” dominates one wall. Near it is a framed set of three black-and-white photos of Stephen by famous photographer Arnold Newman, known for his portraits of Marlene Dietrich, Pablo Picasso and Marilyn Monroe.
Patty Paulus talks about the little joys in her life — she’d found out earlier that day that one of her kindergarten art students is related to her. She has been open with her students about her husband’s situation. She shared the news of his Grammy nomination with them.
“They all cheered,” she said with a proud smile.
She will prepare a speech for Sunday, and plans for her sons to join her on the podium. “The nomination is such an honor,” she said, sounding like a typical nominee. “Whether he wins or not is not that important to me.”
Producers requested a photo of Stephen Paulus for possible use during the broadcast’s “in memoriam” segment. So his name may be mentioned along with such recently departed music giants as Pete Seeger, Horace Silver, Christopher Hogwood, Lorin Maazel, Joe Cocker and Johnny Winter.
That’s pretty special recognition.