Two Pulitzer Prizes in the Right Key : Composer: Mel Powell wins for a piano concerto he didn't know had been nominated.

"I'm looking at my hand right now to see if it's still trembling," said composer Mel Powell, laughing into the phone at his CalArts office a half hour after learning that he had won the Pulitzer prize for music.

"And I am positively ecstatic, especially since it comes as a total surprise."

The 67-year-old academic, who moved to California two decades ago as founding dean of the Disney-endowed school's music department, said that his winning piece, "Duplicates: a Concerto for Two Pianos," was submitted to the Pulitzer board without his knowledge.

The telegram stating the happy news arrived Thursday at Powell's Van Nuys home after his departure for the Valencia campus and was received by his wife, actress Martha Scott.

"But she had not yet been able to get through to me," he explained.

"And when I showed up for a graduate student's lesson--in orchestral writing--he was just getting off the phone at my desk. 'Someone from back East,' Arturo (Marquez, the student) said, unimportantly. 'They'll call again.'

"We started having our lesson when another call came. This time it was Susan Feder, the veep of G. Schirmer (Powell's music publisher).

" 'Congratulations,' she said. And I thought uh, huh, this would be one of those typical financial dealings that go on between composers and publishers, that she'd probably found a hundred bucks belonging to me.

" 'OK, what is it?' I said. It turns out she had heard the Pulitzer announcement on the radio in New York and never suspected that the news hadn't yet reached me. Meanwhile, Arturo knew about it from the previous call and refused to say a word.

"But after the big bang, there were other surprising elements to consider. Like being out here on the coast, far away from the whole Eastern Establishment to which the Pulitzer is connected. That made me a remote prospect. I just didn't expect it."

In fact, the three judges in Powell's category--composers Roger Reynolds (the 1989 Pulitzer-winner who teaches at UC San Diego) and Donald Martino (who teaches at Harvard) and New York-based critic David Hamilton of the Nation--cover a wide geographic range. And the single runner-up for the 1990 prize is Chicago-based composer Ralph Shapey.

So who did Powell suppose submitted the piece?

"I'm trying to sort it out," he said.

"But my guess is Andre Previn," who, as then-music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, together with managing director Ernest Fleischmann and patron Betty Freeman, commissioned the double concerto last year.

"I know that fellow," Powell said with an affectionate chuckle. "It's the kind of thing he would do."

Sure enough, Previn--an admirer of Powell's from the '40s when the two tooled around Hollywood as music men with jazz-pop-film careers--owned up to the deed.

"But I can't take full credit," he said, "because if Hank O'Neal, a friend of Mel's in the record business, had not called me with the vital information about the Pulitzer deadline, March 1, this would not be happening. I had thought we had another 10 months to put things together.

"Within 48 hours I got the forms, sent them off with the fee and express-mailed the tape. But I must say I'm surprised it went our way, given the many mysterious choices usually made by the Pulitzer music committee."

In an ironic laugh that harked back to his resignation last season as Philharmonic director, Previn went on to say: "I've not been as happy about any recent happening in this city as I am about Mel's great win. He certainly deserves it."

Fleischmann added his kudos.

"It couldn't have happened to a nicer piece," he said, then added that a Philharmonic commission has never before won a Pulitzer.

"I think this award to Mel Powell is wonderful for every possible reason and I'm proud to be the midwife or, shall we say, midhusband. It should get a wide currency."

Indeed, Fleischmann said he has sent tapes to European orchestras, and Previn has scheduled the work next year on one of his programs with the Royal Philharmonic in London.

The other benefactor, Betty Freeman, said, "the pleasure (of helping make it possible) was all mine. I knew at rehearsal that it was a masterpiece, as well as the first universal work of music--a passionate and profound one--to come out of Los Angeles."

Steven Lavine, president of CalArts, lauded Powell for "a daring and vision that has been present all along not only in his music but in his ideas, that are the very foundation of our institute in Valencia."

Conductor David Allan Miller led "Duplicates" at its January premiere. Originally, Previn and Powell were supposed to play the exceedingly difficult piano parts, but the prize-winner's physical disability and Previn's hectic schedule made that plan inoperable, Powell said.

As a post-Schoenbergian serialist, Powell has been associated with other American composers such as Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter--dubbed "the difficult trio." But before establishing this identity, Powell had, beginning as a teen-ager, a celebrated career as a jazz pianist, joining the Benny Goodman band where he wrote his first string trios and brass quintets.

Powell has admitted that the music he and Babbitt and Carter write is problematic.

"'But the bottom truth for a composer resides in technical matters. We live in theory, which explains the very skeleton of music, of a fugue, for instance. I can't believe Goethe, who thought that all theory was gray. Rather I trust Einstein, who says that theory is laden with mystery.

"I subscribe to atonality because it's egalitarian. It cancels hierarchy and creates anarchy, the ideal musical state."

Last year, Powell spoke to The Times about this "private art" he practices, writing austere music for minuscule audiences and happily giving up "the bitch goddess" of his youth: jazz.

"I joined a guild peopled by Bach and Mozart," he said of his composer ancestors.

"How dare I sit and whine while belonging to that domain? You do the noblest you can and then hope to be embraced for it."

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