Mayor’s Arts Award: Stephen Stubbs

Stephen Stubbs

Stephen Stubbs

When he was coming of age in his native Seattle in the 1960s, Stephen Stubbs experienced a sea change in popular music that glorified the image of the troubadour. Countless musicians picked up a guitar, accompanying themselves to songs intended to be authentic, from the heart.

Stubbs was among them—only the instrument he was plucking was a lute. At Nathan Hale High School, Stubbs had belonged to a madrigal choir, which stoked his curiosity about Renaissance music.

“Lutenist songwriters like [Shakespeare contemporary] John Dowland gave me a sense of connection to what was going on in the music scene around me,” he recalls. Stubbs became a composition student at the University of Washington, where he simultaneously pursued contemporary avant-garde music and discovered the splendid intricacy of Baroque performance styles. Along with the harpsichord, Stubbs felt real affinity for the lute.

At the time, the work done by champions of “early music”— basically Western musical developments leading up to and including Bach—was reaching critical mass. What had been a niche pursuit in the music business started to gain mainstream attention—as evidenced by a sudden flourishing of “period-instrument” ensembles, label promotion and increasing acknowledgment from big-name conductors. All this fueled a new movement that radically reevaluated assumptions about proper performance style and the pursuit of authentic sound—the sound of a piece of music as originally performed, as far as that could be deduced from an intriguing array of evidence. It also opened up a fresh vista of long-forgotten works.

For Stubbs—who’d formed a band with friends called “Dancing Bare”—the early-music revolution reinforced the sensibility he also found in popular music. “Whether we were trying to follow in the footsteps of Jimi Hendrix or [the avant-garde composer] Luciano Berio—whoever our cultural hero was—we didn’t want to have a musical career doing business as usual.”

After graduating in 1968, Stubbs headed to London and was immediately taken under the wing of movers and shakers in the early-music movement, including the harpsichordist George Malcolm. “There I was, a young American fresh off the plane, and he was entertaining me to my first espresso and my first Gitane and telling me about [legendary guitarist/lutenist] Julian Bream,” Stubbs says.

He then spent some years wandering from mentor to mentor at the epicenters of the thriving early-music scene on the Continent. Back in Seattle later in the 1970s, he was among the cofounders of the Early Music Guild, which played a fundamental role in putting Seattle on the early-music map.

“There was a sphere of early-music artists who were well established in Europe, and then there were people like me who were trying to do it ourselves,” Stubbs says. “So we set up a series of visiting international artists as well as a focus on local musicians.”

Stubbs conducted pioneering research about the ways plucked instruments, like the lute, were used to accompany Baroque and other early music—and that work won him a professorship at the University of Bremen in 1980. For the next quarter-century Europe served as his base, and Stubbs became internationally acclaimed—not only as a lute virtuoso but also as a conductor of rediscovered operas.

In 2006 Stubbs resettled in his native city. “I always had a real desire to come back to Seattle, because I love the city and the feeling of being here,” he says. “I found it fascinating how the city had grown up in many ways in my absence. Just as I had progressed personally, so had Seattle.”

Soon after his return, he established Pacific MusicWorks, a presenting organization that draws together many of Stubbs’ disparate passions; PMW allows him to collaborate with an array of theatre artists. Its inaugural production, for example, was a haunting, imaginative interpretation of Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses, directed by the South African artist William Kentridge and featuring the work of the Handspring Puppet Company.

A marriage of early music and cutting-edge contemporary artists typifies Stubbs’s innovative attitude. In Boston, where he has long served as artistic co-director of the Early Music Festival, Stubbs says he likes to focus on period authenticity in his opera productions, whereas in Seattle his approach combines authenticity with avant-garde staging and contemporary works. “Neither one is superior to the other, in my view,” he says. “They’re just different approaches.”

PMW also enables Stubbs to continue his work as a teacher, passing on his insights to a new generation of performers. Last year he became Senior Artist in Residence at the UW’s School of Music, where PMW is now create professional opera productions within a university setting. This model launched last May with a version of Handel’s Semele.

Stubbs considers this latest venture a crucial part of his Seattle legacy. “I can cast operas with leading professionals and integrate the students into the production as understudies, onstage choir and orchestra members,” he says. “This is a way of recreating the original apprenticeship atmosphere that was always the case for music before the modern era of professional conservatories and institutions for music students. It provides a mentoring situation where students can mix in a constructive way to see what a professional does up close.”

Photo: Miranda Loud for Orpheus Photography