Iconic composer and MSU alumnus David Maslanka dies at 73
College of Music plans special performances of his works for fall.
David Maslanka, a world-renowned composer and alum of the Michigan State University College of Music, died in early August in his home in Missoula, Mont. The composer of more than 150 musical works was penning his next symphony until his death from a severe type of colon cancer at 73.
Maslanka’s body of work includes 50 pieces for wind ensembles, eight symphonies, and 17 concertos. His work has been characterized as Americana influenced by Bach chorales and is included in more than 50 recordings and performed around the globe.
Born in New Bedford, Mass. in 1943, Maslanka came to MSU to study with H. Owen Reed, and graduated with his master’s degree in composition in 1968 and his Ph.D. in 1971. Before MSU, he attended the Oberlin Conservatory, and spent a year at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.
“We were extremely saddened to hear of David’s sudden passing,” says James Forger, dean of the MSU College of Music. “He was an inspiration to everyone and enriched the world through his art. His kind and gracious spirit will live on in the beauty and transformative power of his music.”
Maslanka moved to Montana in the 1990s to compose full-time after teaching for two decades at several universities and colleges in New York. He was a frequent visitor to his East Lansing alma mater, and his compositions have populated the repertoire of the MSU Wind Symphony and student ensembles over the years. Among works performed by MSU faculty and students are concertos for trombone, flute and saxophone, as well as “Symphony No. 4”—a one movement, 30-minute piece commissioned by MSU and a consortium of universities in 1994.
Director of MSU Bands Kevin Sedatole says that particular symphony propelled Maslanka into the forefront of wind band composition, and signified how his music could reach out and connect with audiences in an extremely personal way.
“He could paint a picture for you through music that was so real that it helped you interpret aspects of life,” says Sedatole. “His music just reaches out and grabs you.”
Symphony No. 4 by David Maslanka, performed by the MSU Wind Symphony October 2015.
Sedatole met Maslanka in the early 1990s—a time when Sedatole was launching his career as a university teacher and conductor before coming to MSU. Sedatole says his wind band was working on Maslanka’s “Symphony No. 2” when the composer came to campus.
“He made a big impression on me and my students,” says Sedatole. “He was the kind of person that once he met you, he stayed invested in you. He would drop you a note just to see what you were doing. He wasn’t pushing his music or trying to be anyone other than himself. David was just David.”
Joseph Lulloff, MSU professor of saxophone, also describes Maslanka as inspirational and a warm, generous friend.
“David was the type of person that when you met him, you felt like you had known him a very long time, like a member of your family,” says Lulloff. “He was extremely kind and gracious, and had a way of drawing music out of people.”
Lulloff met Maslanka in 1999 when he premiered the composer's saxophone concerto in Arizona. A few years later, he collaborated with Maslanka on a project that included recording the concerto and touring through Europe to perform the work. That experience, he says, resulted in a lifelong friendship that profoundly affected his artistry, his teaching and his family. Later, when Lulloff’s son, Jordan, aspired to study saxophone at MSU, Lulloff and his wife, Janet, commissioned the composer to write Jordan a piece. Maslanka later mentored Jordan as he prepared to perform “Tone Studies” for the 2012 World Saxophone Congress in Scotland.
Interlude: “Starry Night” by David Maslanka featuring Joe Lulloff, alto saxophone, October 2008.
Most recently, Lulloff and Maslanka were planning to collaborate on a new saxophone sonata. He adds that Maslanka was optimistic about defeating cancer and continuing to inspire others with his music.
“In all of his collaborations with his peers and students studying his music, David felt that music had an important place in people’s lives. His music inspired and pointed you in the direction of reaching new goals in your artistry and craft as a performer, and had the ability to bring out an inner voice of the human spirit that is often difficult to describe,” Lulloff says. “David’s music has a unique way of transcending you as a performer into another sphere or dimension of music making. It is extremely hard to describe the beauty of emotion of David’s compositional sound. He was truly an inspiration to all of us.”
Maslanka regularly visited MSU to work with students and faculty through informal sessions and workshops. Among his most recent visits was a weeklong residency focused on student ensembles in Fall 2015 during MSU’s Homecoming Week.
Sedatole says the MSU Wind Symphony will dedicate its September 28 performance to Maslanka with a performance of “In Memoriam”—a work that Maslanka composed for a good friend whose wife had died. The Wind Symphony will also perform Maslanka’s “Symphony No. 8” with guest conductor Gary Green on October 26.
“These works capture David’s spirit so well,” says Sedatole. “For me, David showed us how to be real about the way you feel about music, to be vulnerable and open, and to give every part of yourself to the music.”
David Maslanka died August 6, 2017 at his home, and had been diagnosed with colon cancer in June. His wife, Alison, died a month earlier on July 3. He is survived by his children, Stephen, Kathryn and Matthew, who earned his bachelor of music from MSU in 2003.