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A living legend returns: Famed composer, school of music founder, 87, to debut new work on campus

A living legend returns: Famed composer, school of music founder, 87, to debut new work on campus

Frederick Kaufman has written a concerto for the Wertheim Music Festival that serves as a love letter to the university’s remarkable 4,226-pipe organ. Everyone is invited to experience the power of this magnificent instrument on one very special evening.

October 27, 2023 at 11:00am

Frederick Kaufman has circled the globe during a storied six-decade-plus career as a composer, educator and musician. But this week, the former director of the FIU school of music has come "home," back to a university that loves him as much for his engaging character and passionate, inspired leadership as the timeless, beautiful music he has written to wide acclaim. A piece he composed especially for the Wertheim Music Festival will premiere at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28. 

A jazz trumpeter with the Woody Herman Band in his early days, and a distinguished professor at various institutions over the years both in the United States and abroad, Kaufman has cultivated an ardent following among lovers of classical music and more. His compositions have won numerous prizes and been performed and recorded internationally by renowned artists.

His “Kaddish,” a concerto for cello and string orchestra dedicated to his late parents, premiered at the Lincoln Center and landed him the first of two Pulitzer nominations. His multi-cultural “Kaminarimon,” for taiko drums and flamenco dance, has been called "remarkable" and "stunning" and was voted the number one classical composition of 2002 and "the most imaginative new work of the year." His “Guernica” piano concerto, inspired by Picasso’s painting of the same name, was recorded in Prague by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, with foreign music publications calling it “brilliant, emotional, passionate and vivid,” “a poignant work,” “written in the soul.” He has 152 compositions to his credit.

Closer to home, the 87-year-old Kaufman remains a beloved, catalytic figure in FIU history and someone the university claims as its own.

“In the pantheon of people who built the university, there is a place for Fred,” states none other than FIU’s fourth president, Modesto A. Maidique, who presided over unprecedented growth during his 23-year tenure. “Fred and I just hit it off from the moment we met,” he says. “It was his energy, his temperament, his creativity. His vision of the future and mine coincided.”


With their home up for sale in Philadelphia, where he was academic dean of the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts, and every intention to move to Paris with his artist wife, the maestro was encouraged by a composer friend to visit little-known FIU in 1993 for a job interview. Despite arriving on campus with some skepticism, he quickly found himself smitten with the roughly 60 students in the small department of music. “Why would you come here?” he remembers them asking him. “I said, you’ve got professional baseball and palm trees,” the Julliard-trained artist and diehard Yankees fan replied. (The Marlins had just started their first season.) “They all laughed,” he recalls, “but I meant it.”

Maidique promised Kaufman the world if he would take the job. And in short order, the new hire garnered accreditation for the music program, guided from start to finish the construction of a campus performing arts center, more than doubled the faculty and added some big names, grew by five-fold the number of music majors, established the first artists-in-residence, launched the first music festival in 1996 with luminaries he personally invited and accepted the position of founding director of the newly established school of music.

All of those accomplishments continue to impact FIU today as does another of Kaufman’s early decisions: to hire Karen Veloz as the first administrator of a production program to teach students the business end of the industry. Today, the veteran concert and music producer is director of the school and appreciates that Kaufman saw in her the value she brought at a time of great possibility. It is she who commissioned a concerto from him and invited him back to the school and festival that she now runs.

“He allowed the faculty to flourish,” Veloz says of one secret to his success. “He understood that we’re all artists.”


The professor emeritus – he retired in 2008 – retains a bond not only with Maidique and Veloz but with the man who lends his name to both the performing arts center and the music school: Herbert Wertheim.

(Notably, the Wertheims have generously also supported the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine and the Nicole Wertheim School of Nursing & Health Sciences.)

It was in 1999 that Kaufman joined Wertheim on a trip to the Shantz Company in Ohio to inspect the making of a grand concert organ paid for by the benefactor (and named in honor of his late mother) and on which the director had set his heart years earlier. Nearly a quarter-century later, the crown jewel of the Wertheim Performing Arts Center - one of the largest and finest pipe organs in the American Southeast - will see the world premiere of a Kaufman concerto commissioned for this very instrument.

The composer notes that the third movement of the 18-minute work is called Jubilation, “which really is Herb Wertheim,” he says of the music’s explosive energy.


“It’s not easy to write an organ concerto,” says the man who has tackled only one other piece for organ - a short burst of music, known as a fanfare, for Wertheim’s 80th birthday. “I must tell you, this was a challenge.”

The challenge, as Kaufman explains, arises from the sheer number of ways in which an organ can generate sounds. With 4,226 pipes and 55 stops, FIU’s instrument offers a seemingly infinite number of options.

In town from his home in Colorado Springs, he has spent the week working with virtuoso Luca Scandali, an organist from Italy, to determine how to achieve the exact sounds he had in mind while composing at his kitchen table.

“Today was fascinating for me,” Kaufman says of a recent rehearsal with Scandali, whose assistant marked the various combinations of stops – 49 – that represent the registration changes in his work. “I’m standing there, learning all these things,” he explains about the complicated instrument. “It was an eye-opener.”

And while he adds that this particular concerto, out of his standard repertoire, makes him “a bit nervous,” it also includes what he finds easiest: composition for orchestra. The organist will be accompanied by the FIU Symphony Orchestra, a group of some 60 student musicians.

“It means a lot for us students to work with someone who has had a part in the formation of the school and making it what is today,” says violinist Bethany Xiques, a master’s student and member of the orchestra. “As a classical musician, you kind of get used to playing the well-known works, so it’s a really cool experience to play a work by a living composer. This concerto is kind of special, named for the organ it will be played on.” And she adds of Scandali, with whom the students have been practicing, “The soloist is doing a beautiful job of capturing the drama and excitement and intensity that the organ has to offer.”

Tickets for the concert at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28, at the Wertheim Peforming Arts Center at the Modesto A. Maidique Campus are available online and at the box office. The festival runs through Nov. 5.