Tiburon resident Ron McFarland has written everything from choral music to symphonies to children’s songs. Yet people typically think of him more as an opera composer. “I’m definitely known for doing things for the theater,” he says.
Two of McFarland’s short operas will be performed at the College of Marin in Kentfield this month as part of Homegrown 2, a program showcasing Marin composers’ opera works. The first, The Audition of Molly Bloom, is based on the last page of James Joyce’s Ulysses; the second, Tamsen Donner, is an operatic rendition of the famed Donner family’s final moments in the snowbound Sierra.
McFarland’s long career has included not just writing in other musical genres but performing as a pianist and teaching music as well. It began back in the 1940s when, as a young teenager, he became the protégé of legendary concert pianist Ethel Leginska. Though he also studied under the composer Arnold Schoenberg, McFarland lived in an apartment adjacent to Leginska’s studio and spent so much time learning with her that he became like part of her family. During this period, he was introduced to many of the great masters of 20th-century composition and started writing music of his own.
Leginska was a demanding teacher who pushed McFarland to enter many composition and performance competitions and essentially make music his life. After six intensive years, he decided to spread his wings. In his early 20s, he left Leginska and music behind and wound up in New Orleans pursuing other callings. “I realized I had no life of my own, that I was dominated by this very demanding woman,” he explains.
But after several years trying his hand at both dancing and commercial art in the Big Easy, he returned to music, his first love: “I’ve tried other things and even though I could make a living at them, they weren’t fulfilling to me in the way that music is.”
This time, McFarland focused primarily on composing. He moved to Tiburon in 1960 and since then has written chamber music, choral pieces and symphonies as well as music for the likes of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater and the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. His work has been described as “fresh and original” (by the Opera News) and “substantial, varied, ambitious” (the Sacramento Bee). He also teaches piano and composition classes regularly in his studio in Tiburon.
So what’s next? He’s considering several projects to follow the Kentfield shows and just finished composing a trio. In his 70s, he has no plans of easing up anytime soon. “I’ve been in the limelight since I was a teenager,” he says. “Music has been my life for a long time.”
Catch McFarland’s short operas January 18 to 27 in the Fine Arts Building at the College of Marin in Kentfield; 835 College Ave., 415.485.9460, contemporaryoperamarin.org. Learn more about his music at mcfarlandmusic.com.