Music professor retires from teaching

Tomas Svoboda will retire from Portland State University at the end of this term, but it won’t be for a leisurely-paced life of fishing. Svoboda, an internationally recognized American composer of Czech heritage, will have no problem filling his schedule with composing, performing and conducting music.

Svoboda, who has been in partial retirement since 1998, is a professor of music composition, theory and arrangement. Winner of the 1983 Banford Price Millar Award for Faculty Excellence, Svoboda has been in the music department since 1970.

After graduating from the University of Southern California with a master’s degree in music in 1969, Svoboda chose Portland out of the positions offered to him. He described Portland in 1970 as “a larger village” with fresh air and without the difficult parking that we have come to expect at PSU.

Prior to receiving his master’s, Svoboda received a bachelor’s degree from the Conservatory of Music in Prague, with specialties in percussion, composition and conducting.

Svoboda, whose last name means “freedom,” was born on December 6, 1939 in Paris where his parents fled to avoid the war. After spending his early years in Boston, his family returned to Prague in 1946 at the end of World War II.

While in Boston, Svoboda began his musical education with piano lessons at age three. He completed his first opus at nine. At 15 he continued his studies as the youngest student of the Prague Conservatory of Music. He was unable to take formal classes in composition during his first years at the conservatory.

However, he surprised audiences of the prestigious FOK Prague Symphony Orchestra when they premiered his Symphony No. 1 (of Nature), Op. 20 at Smetana Hall in Prague, under the baton of Dr. Vaclav Smetacek. Many did not realize that the composer was not yet formally schooled in composition and only 16 years old.

In Prague, he studied composition with Miloslav Kabelac, and participated in numerous performances and radio broadcasts of his music. These brought wide national recognition for Svoboda, who had become Czechoslovakia’s most important young composer.

In 1964, the Svoboda family emigrated to the United States.

According to Svoboda’s official Web site,, his catalog consists of more than 160 works. Of the six symphonies, two cantatas, two piano concertos and the violin concerto that make up the current body of his work, over 70 have been composed on the upright piano in his office on campus.

Some of Svoboda’s students have gone on to play in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra among others. Some have become professors and are passing on the knowledge of music. Still others are conducting and performing all over the world.

Eric Funk majored in composition, piano and percussion at Portland State, where he studied composition with Svoboda and Sandor Veress. He now divides his time among teaching at his private studio and at Montana State University, conducting the Helena Symphony and the new Gallatin Chamber Orchestra. He has taught music theory at colleges in Oregon, Washington, Texas and Montana.

Karl Mansfield studied with Svoboda as well. He has written theater scores for Haven Project, Portland Center Stage, Tygres Heart Theater, Triangle Productions, California Shakespeare Festival and Oregon Cabaret Theater in Ashland. Several of his original musical compositions have been produced, including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Gift of the Magi.”

Paul Dickinson began his musical studies on piano at age 11 and in composition with Svoboda at age 12. In 1987 he graduated “with distinction” from Eastman School of Music and received a bachelor degree. He then enrolled at Northwestern University, received a master degree in 1988 and a doctorate in 1995 studying with Alan Stout, Stephen Syverud and Lynden DeYoung. Dickinson is currently an assistant professor of music theory and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

Paris is now the home of former student James Wilson. Wilson uses his classical guitar to express a lively and creative style of acoustic jazz. He currently fronts the James Wilson Trio, performing original compositions and arrangements featuring Bobby Rangell on flute, sax and piccolo and John Silverman on contrabass. Wilson has toured and performed extensively.

Wilson earned his bachelor’s degree in guitar and composition through studies with Bryan Johanson and Svoboda at PSU.

Steve Funk, a graduate of PSU, studied music composition with Svoboda. He has participated in various community service performances and has been a member of several new-age, world music ensembles. Currently he is working on a musical project with Voxanova.

Another composition student of Svoboda’s, Michael D. Golden, is a professor of music composition and theory. Prior to 1998 he was the associate professor of music for three years at Marshall University in West Virginia and a visiting assistant professor at Colby College in Maine for two years. Golden has taught and developed courses in music composition, theory, computer music, world music and jazz piano, and twice received the Marshall University Merit Award.

Composer and performer Alex Abele studied at the University of Vermont where he received his bachelor’s degree in music theory, and then went to Towson University for his master’s of music in composition. In between degrees, Abele worked for the Oregon Symphony and the Portland Symphonic Choir, and began his post baccalaureate studies at Portland State, where he studied with Svoboda.

Portland local Jack Gabel studied music composition with Svoboda. He has received an award from University of Akron, the NEOTUBA-UATE Prize for a new work for euphonium & strings. He also has participated as the composer residencies at the Ernest Bloch Festival at Newport, Ore. Commissions have come from The Jerome Foundation for The Dale Warland Singers, the Bunkyo University Symphonic Wind Orchestra and Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival.

Rob McKendrick, who is returning for his second year as chief drumming instructor for the Highland Musical Arts Summer School in Port Townsend, enjoys a successful career as a player, pipe band instructor and clinician.

In 1984 McKendrick started the drumming program at the Summer School for Piping and Drumming in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and was an instructor at the school for 15 years. He is the principal drumming instructor for the summer school of the Saskatchewan Pipe Band Association in Regina, and held the same position with the Western Academy of Pipe Music in Vernon, British Columbia, until its final year in 2000.

McKendrick is a career musician and holds a bachelor of music degree from Portland State, where he studied composition with Svoboda.

Along with his accomplished students, Svoboda remains active and continues to add to his list of accomplishments. Currently, he is working on viola compositions and is excited to enter full retirement.

PSU and the students he has taught will certainly miss him.