Variation in a family of note

Share via
Special to The Times

Maria Newman is the rebel of the Newman family: She writes chamber music instead of big-studio movie scores.

Seven-months pregnant with her fourth child, she is overseeing what she calls “managed chaos” at her Malibu home as she puts the finishing touches on a new piece for flute, violin and viola for this weekend’s series of Pacific Serenades concerts.

“Pennipotenti” is the latest commission for Newman, whose life has been wrapped up with music for as long as she can remember. Her father was Alfred Newman, a nine-time Oscar winner whose movie scores included such classics as “Wuthering Heights,” “The Song of Bernadette” and “How the West Was Won.”


Two of her older brothers, David and Thomas, are among Hollywood’s contemporary film-music elite, and cousin Randy Newman, also a movie composer, is widely regarded as one of the great pop songwriters of our time.

“I watched my father, I watched David and Tommy, and I didn’t want to go through what they were going through,” she says. “I didn’t want someone to call me while I was in the hospital, going through labor, and say, ‘We’re reediting the picture, and I need it to sound more magenta.’ I’m doing exactly what makes me happy.”

That’s also making other people happy. “Her music is very tuneful and also really energetic, like her personality,” says Mark Carlson, the founder of Pacific Serenades, which last year won a Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for adventurous programming.

The organization commissions four new works each season, usually from Southern California composers and sometimes from those better known for their film and television scores, such as Bruce Broughton, Shirley Walker and Bruce Babcock. Carlson’s record with women composers is especially strong, with California-based concert composers Alex Shapiro, Kathryn Mishell and Tania Gabrielle French among those who have received recent commissions.

For Newman, her commission is just one of several due in the coming months. She has two more scheduled for local performances in May: a work celebrating the 10th anniversary of the New West Symphony and a setting of the 23rd Psalm for baritone soloist and orchestra, the latter to be performed by the Orchestra da Camera of the Colburn School of Performing Arts, where she is currently composer in residence.

“She writes the kind of music that really has audience appeal,” says David Effron, artistic director of North Carolina’s Brevard Music Festival, where Newman served as composer in residence last summer. “Her music is very emotional, very heartfelt, very genuine. It’s like Maria.”


Effron thinks that Newman’s success as a composer has come about, in part, because she is also a seasoned performer. She plays violin and viola and spends a substantial portion of her time performing in the orchestras of her composing colleagues in film and TV. She can be heard on the soundtracks of “The Incredibles” and “Meet the Fockers” and on TV’s “Alias” and “American Idol.” She was also soloist on a Grammy-winning 1992 recording of film composer Miklos Rozsa’s Viola Concerto.

“One way I’ve been able to stay really sane in the music business,” she says, “is that I do so many different things. I’m able to do my share of studio and jingle music and record dates. At the same time, I’m able to fulfill commissions. And I have a great love of sacred music.”

Indeed, Newman can be seen nearly every Sunday conducting at the Pacific Palisades Presbyterian Church, where she serves as director of traditional music.

Born in 1962, she was the youngest of Alfred Newman’s seven children. She remembers scribbling on her father’s score for “The Greatest Story Ever Told” at age 3 and, throughout her childhood, listening to top L.A. musicians play chamber music -- a great love of her father’s -- at their Pacific Palisades home.

After graduating with honors from the Eastman School of Music and doing graduate work at Yale, she returned to L.A. but spent several years as a player before venturing out as a composer around 1990.

“I wanted to write music that I could play,” she says. Then, “wonderful players started to say, ‘Hey, can I get some music from you?’ and it started from there. Suddenly I was offered composer residencies and jobs of all sorts as a composer, a teacher and a player.”


She founded her own chamber ensemble, Viklarbo, which still performs occasionally in the Southland, and spent a decade as composer in residence at the Icicle Creek Music Festival in Washington state. There she met her husband, violist Scott Hosfeld.

Today, her catalog encompasses about 90 pieces, about two-thirds of them chamber works; the rest is made up of concertos, choral works (including a requiem) and orchestral pieces. At least one Maria Newman work is performed “practically every week,” she says.

Over the last few years, she has also quietly dipped a toe into a different kind of film music: original chamber-music scores for silent films, including “Daddy-Long-Legs” with Mary Pickford (1919) and “Mr. Wu” with Lon Chaney (1927), that have been frequently performed live.

The advantage of scoring silents, Newman says, is that “there was no director to tell me what to do,” and she could meet each film’s musical needs using her own style. “Chamber music is, in a sense, democratic. There is one player on a part, there’s no conductor, and everybody tells each other what they think. It’s egalitarian.”

“Pennipotenti” (Latin for “birds”) is her 14-minute Pacific Serenades piece. Each of its four movements is named for a different species: “ ‘The Dipper’ is fun and follows all kinds of shapes, ebbs and flows. ‘The Snowy Owl’ is written in a kind of chorale format, the owls in their trees hooting; I use some harmonics for the sound of the owls. ‘The Hummingbird’ lasts about a minute; they’re tiny and quick and it’s a tour de force for the flute. ‘The Falcon,’ the final movement, is possibly the most intense and complex. It’s dark, but it has a lot of light sections; it goes through many different phases.”

Says Carlson, who will play flute: “It’s a very demanding piece. That’s one of the things that I like about Maria’s music. It’s rewarding to play a difficult piece if it’s enjoyable.”



Pacific Serenades

Where: Private home, Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Price: $50

Contact: (213) 534-3434 or


Where: Pasadena Neighborhood Church, 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: UCLA Faculty Center, 405 N. Hilgard Ave., Westwood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Price: $29