John Downey Obituary | 12/20/04

Goodbye, my friend.

Downey Composed City's Identity

UWM emeritus professor worked with Youth Symphony Orchestra


Posted: Dec. 18, 2004

John Downey was a conductor, composer and teacher key to Milwaukee's identity in the world of contemporary classical music whose sometimes abstruse and always heartfelt works were performed and lauded here and across the oceans.

An emeritus professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who taught there from 1964 to 1998, Downey also had a long relationship with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra, for which he was the director of music theory.

He died Saturday at Columbia St. Mary's, Milwaukee Campus of stroke complications. He was 77.

Once called the "dean of Milwaukee composers" by a Journal Sentinel critic, Downey wrote more than 70 compositions - including "Chant to Michelangelo" and "For Those Who Suffered." They were performed by several of the world's leading music bodies, including the London Philharmonia Orchestra and the Warsaw National Philharmonic.

Downey also embraced his role as teacher. His former colleagues said his gentle, soft-spoken nature made him universally beloved.

"They sometimes describe the way he taught as somewhat otherworldly," said Francis Richman, executive director of the youth symphony.

His students have included some of the bright lights of contemporary classical music, such as composers Jerome Kitzke and Michael Torke.

"He was very influential to me in many ways," Kitzke said.

A major festival of Downey's work was performed at UWM in 1998 and again over four days in London in 1999. The latter slate received superlative reviews, though Downey's hard-to-define style befuddled one scribe from The London Guardian, who crankily described the work as "a combination of 'Hippie-Romantic' and early modernist."

For his part, Downey described as "undercurrent jazz" the elements flowing in his multi-layered pieces. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music told of how he used "modified serial procedures to achieve pitch coherence and large-scale harmonic relationships."

In any case, a Downey work never was easy to perform.

"It's challenging, but accessible," said Margery Deutsch, UWM director of orchestral activities.

In the 1970s, he was a founder of the Wisconsin Contemporary Music Forum. Downey also enjoyed a long collaboration with his wife of 48 years, Irusha, a linguist who died in 2000. In 1974, their collaboration, "A Dolphin," was performed at UWM.

They had met while both were graduate students in Chicago. Their marriage was predicated on Downey learning her native Ukrainian. The judge for the test, which he passed, was her father.

John Wilham Downey was born and raised on Chicago's south side. A talented pianist as a young boy, he honed his skills while playing jazz and blues improvisation in the city's toddling corner taverns.

He went into music as a living tribute to his brother James, who was killed in World War II.

He received a bachelor's degree in music from De Paul University in Chicago and a master's degree in that subject from Roosevelt University in Chicago. A Fulbright scholar, he earned a PhD from the University of Paris, where he wrote about the composer Bela Bartok.

Downey taught in Chicago before he was hired in 1964 by UWM's fledgling fine arts program.

"We were looking for someone just like John," said cellist George Sopkin, another early faculty member.

He received many honors for his work, including an honorary knighthood from the France in 1980.

Survivors include a son, Marcus, of Milwaukee; a daughter, Lida Munson, of Chicago; and two grandchildren.

A visitation will be Tuesday from 4 to 8 p.m. at Bruskiewitz Funeral Home, 5355 W. Forest Home Ave., and a funeral Mass is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, 812 N. Jackson St., both in Milwaukee.


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Ralph Gola (Unknown)

Dear Prof. Downey,

Thank you for your thorough and creative teachings. Also, thank you for your wisdom and kindness in life. You are certainly missed. May you continue your journey onward.

Ralph Gola

Benjamin Ponder (Unknown)

The memory of you behind the piano and whispily croaking outa tune during our Monday night Form and Analysis Class and the Fine Arts Center in Milwaukee back in 19...73? is indellibly etched in my memory for all time. How kind you were to a callow and very frightened child who composed purely by instinct, but lacking in any theoretical or formal training. You would hold me after class, play my latest disaster, and give me one of your transendental lecturettes in your etherally wise and fatherly way. I remember your telling me to become an instrumentalist first... there is no money in composition. You suggested I come back to composition later in life. Well Dr. Downey, I heard you. I have become an instrumentalist, and I perform and teach. And now that I am close to retirement age, I will spend my later years in composition... thanks to you. Wow, you were a huge influence in my life, and I thank you for your kindnesses and care for an innocent yet ambitious waif like me.

Benjamin Ponder

Stanley DeRusha (Unknown)

John Downey was my professor, mentor, and friend. He inspired me, he encouraged me, he joined me in celebrations of his music. But most of all, he was a contagious enthusiast of great music and great performance. He will always remain for me a great friend and a finite musician.



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