Local composer Stephan Becker will perform at Oak Park

Stephan Becker at the piano in his Oak Park home. (Esther Allweiss Ingber)

Self-proclaimed ‘musical scientist’ teaches piano and plays his own romantic classical composition

“I’ve been writing music since I was 11 and I’ve been gigging all my life,” said Becker, 70, of Oak Park. The self-proclaimed “musical scientist” teaches piano and plays his own romantic classical compositions. His next concert will take place on Saturday July 23 at the Berkley Coffee in Oak Park (see box). Becker performed there on June 19 at the 11 Mile Jewish Music Jam and Open Mic.

Recalling the public reaction to Becker’s music, Berkley Coffee owner Kenny Showler said, “It made the heads of visitors who weren’t expecting to hear it, and they didn’t even know they were originals. It’s unusual for someone to produce original and complex classical piano compositions these days, so I wanted him to be ready for a performance the first time he visited my café.

A scrapbook Becker keeps at home is full of flyers and newsletters announcing his performances. Sites have included the Metropolitan Detroit Jewish Community Center, Birmingham Community House, Oak Park Library, the former Hammell Music Store in Redford and more. He kept biographical documents and press clippings. Online, Becker’s compositions can be heard on YouTube. Many of them come from a CD he released over a decade ago, but Becker said he never stopped composing.

“The music I’m producing now is better than it’s ever been,” Becker said, before launching into several compositions on her Nordiska piano in the living room. Becker’s robust playing adds drama to his beautiful and satisfying melodies. His joy shines through.

“Music has always been part of me,” he said.

Becker’s musical style is inspired by the composers he most admires. No. 1 for him is Franz Liszt – “a rock star of his time and a great showman, like Liberace”. Others he likes include Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach and, from the 20th century, George Gershwin.

A leaflet from years past advertising a performance by Becker in Birmingham.
A leaflet from years past advertising a performance by Becker in Birmingham.
Growing up

Becker and her older sister, Marcy, now married to Stuart Feldman, were born in Detroit to Jean and David Becker. “My dad was an outstanding social dancer,” Becker said. Her mother is 102 and lives at Meer Jewish Senior Life Apartments in West Bloomfield. “She’s so strong to this day and a very funny person,” Becker said. David died of cancer aged 62 on Steve’s 21st birthday. Her late stepfather was Mitch Newman.

In an era focused on rock music, the guitar was Becker’s primary instrument. He took lessons at a music store until he got bored and switched to the piano.

“I was more like Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and the greatest composers played the piano,” he said.

Becker’s first teacher for about four years was Mischa Kottler, musical director of WWJ-TV in Detroit for 33 years and official pianist of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for a generation. DSO pianist Mildred Kilby taught Becker for the next four years.

Always focused on his primary interest, Becker sometimes cut high school classes to study music at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library. Becker said he wanted to “absorb everything about the classics” and eventually became “something of a music historian”, able to speak with authority about the lives and works of classical composers.

After graduating from Henry Ford High School in Detroit in 1971, Becker went on a memorable trip hitchhiking with his friend Ken Emmer. Becker showed up at the New York Times walk-in building and met Harold Schonberg, then the paper’s chief music critic. Schonberg, apparently charmed by the ambitious young composer, introduced him to pianist Vladimir Horowitz. “We discussed music in his penthouse in New York,” Becker recalls. Andre Watts is another famous classical pianist whom he is also proud to have met on several occasions.

Becker studied piano at Wayne State University but did not graduate. More significantly for him later, he said, he earned a certificate in piano composition from his private teacher, Dr. Phil Moore. As an instructor himself, Becker had up to 50 piano students on his schedule and he previously taught music history to students at Berkley High School. The pandemic has ended some of his opportunities, such as playing the piano in the lobby of three suburban Emagine cinemas and at many private parties.

For a time, Becker had hopes of publishing his compositions. After a voluntary Detroit connection died unexpectedly in the 1970s, the man’s brother gave Becker the opportunity to meet a partner at New York-based G. Schirmer Music Publishers. Becker remembers taking 5,000 sheets of his works in a suitcase to the oldest active music publisher in the United States. But Schirmer’s anonymous executive inexplicably “decided they wanted nothing to do with my music.”

Becker turned to sales in the auto parts industry to support his family. On March 17, he celebrated his 26th birthday with Southfield Chrysler Jeep Dodge; he had worked almost 12 years earlier at the Village Jeep in Birmingham. Becker’s close-knit family includes his wife, Barbara (Slifkin) Becker (they married in Temple Israel), a part-time business adviser at Warby Parker, a Somerset collection eyewear retailer in Troy. They met on a blind date and will be married for 42 years on August 2. The Becker children, Julie, 41, and Ryan, 40, live on site.

Music runs through Becker’s family, including his distant cousin Michael Feinstein, the pianist and singer and Great American Songbook archivist. Uncle Leo Dworkin in Columbus, Ohio was a professional trombonist.

To himself, Becker seems fine with the way things have turned out, saying, “If music had become a vocation instead of a hobby, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much.”

He plans to perform some of “my finest symphonic poems” during his weekend engagement.

Symphonic poems are literary works that Becker sets to music, like his Resurrection of Juliet. “I brought Juliette back to life. Richard Strauss wrote the poem and I did the score.

For Becker, “there is nothing like a live performance on an acoustic piano.

Berkley Coffee’s Showler agrees:I can’t wait to see the show and see my grandfather’s Yamaha piano get some more exercise.

Details

Hear classical composer and pianist Stephan Becker live at the Berkley Coffee

Time: 7 p.m.-9 p.m.
When: Saturday July 23
Address: 14661 W. 11 Mile, Oak Park
Telephone: (248) 422-1373
Suggested donation: $5

Stephan’s contacts: (248) 506-9546 and [email protected]

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