Music In His Heart – The Passion of Richard Bellak
Tallahassee Democrat February 20, 2016
Author – Marina Brown (edited)
Some people seem to achieve in life through talent and perseverance. Richard Bellak, now 70, is a case in point. It is that personal magnetism and the immensely beautiful products that Bellak has produced over a lifetime of musical composition that set him apart, as well as the wit, the breadth of knowledge, and the passion that animates every conversation. But first, who is Richard Bellak?
Bellak’s conversation ranges from music to law to medicine, and from antiques to 3-D movies. He makes jokes; he passes psychological judgments; he mesmerizes with informed opinions. Bellak is the man you want at your dinner party and the professor you wish you had.
Yet, who is Richard Bellak? Let him tell it.
“I was a maladjusted kid,” Bellak quips. “And Bach saved my life.” “ Bach was my escape.” He had begun piano lessons. “I practiced 4 and 5 hours a day,” he says. By 11, he was also devouring Russian novels and garnering academic accolades. “But I was still hermetically sealed,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, as time went on, universities sought Bellak. He received a full scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where instead of law like most over-achievers, he decided to study music. “I give full credit for everything I’ve achieved as a composer to my then teacher, the Curtis- Institute professor of composition, Andre Vauclain.”
He then went on to Princeton on a music fellowship for a masters degree and back to Penn for his Ph.D. There, following his own inner inclinations, Bellak bucked the then-current modernist trend toward dystonic 12-tone compositions, and wrote his dissertation on Romantic pianist and composer, Franz Liszt.
What followed were years of productivity and achievement. He became Head of the Music Department at Franconia College; Founder of the White Mountain Music Festival; presented the U.S. premiere of Schumann’s complete Manfred. And he conducted and composed. String quintets, fugues, fantasies, poems set to music. But, he smiles, “I’m one of those people who has two loves.” Bellak also loved the law.
When Franconia closed its doors, he made a career right-angle turn. He went back to school–at FSU– to become an attorney. “Law was really my entree into life,” he says. He became a sought-after private anti-trust attorney, moved to the Public Service Commission, and culminated over 30 years in the law at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. “I loved the law. I loved being an attorney,” he says. Yet he had never turned his back on his first committed relationship–music.
Even as his law career soared, Bellak was composing. Now on Youtube, his Fantasy for Brass and Organ, Fungi from Yuggoth, and Twelve Preludes and Fugues for Piano can be seen, rife with tips of the hat to jazz and even disco beats.
But with his retirement in 2013, Bellak decided this was, at last, his opportunity to write a really “big” work. “I got my music-lined paper and listened to the music that was forming in my head.” It was arduous and exhausting, but slowly the musical lines developed for the solo piano. And the parts for strings. And for brass and winds. Each of these sets of notes united in Bellak’s head and very slowly began appearing as small musical hieroglyphics on the notebook in his lap. It took more than a year, but he is proud of the result.
Bellak has had his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra simulated and recorded. It is bright, romantic in style, and thoroughly accessible to listeners. In Maryland, an internationally known pianist is already learning the part. But what the composer wants most is to hear it performed live. “Music should not be for some future generation,” he says referring to the sometime dissonance of so-called modern music. “Rather it should be made for the experiences of current audiences. It should be beautiful enough that you want to hear it again!”
With Richard Bellak’s beautiful internal music insisting on being heard, it seems certain that such passion will keep him creating far into the future.