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PYO Alumnus Stefan Koch: The Journey Back to Music and Discovery of Composer Richard Stoehr

It’s not often that someone becomes a professional musician later in life, but that’s just what one PYO alumnus did.

Cellist Stefan Koch (PYO ’82) joined the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra under Joseph Primavera while he was a student at Temple University. PYO’s variety of repertoire and extra orchestral experience beyond what Temple offered drew him in. Primavera’s inspiration and striving for excellence kept him.
“I learned things from Primavera that I still think about,” said Stefan. For example, Primavera told Stefan once that he played all the major and minor scales and arpeggios every day. “So now, every time I warm up, I play at least either all the major or all the minor scales and arpeggios, and I think about [Primavera] every time I do that.”

An experience with Primavera before a rehearsal at the YMCA on Arch Street has also stayed with him to this day. “One time early on warming up before rehearsal, I was working on some passage we were going to play, experimenting a bit. Then I thought, ‘I should be playing this as if Primavera was standing right behind me. I should be warming up as if the conductor is standing right behind me.’ And he was!”
After Stefan’s experiences with PYO, including as Principal Cellist on the orchestra’s inaugural international tour to Australia in 1981, and graduating from Temple, he went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Philosophy at the University of Michigan. From there, he began working for Borders Books and Music as a purchaser of books and later of CDs. He bought Music, Art and Philosophy books, as well as Blues, Folk, R&B, Rap, and Country CDs.

But classical music and playing the cello began to lure him again. As an adult, Stefan started practicing the cello seriously again, taking lessons, and playing chamber music with friends, and joining orchestras. It got to the point where he couldn’t wait to finish work so that he could come home and practice or go to a rehearsal. He finally made the bold choice to leave a career with a salary and benefits to begin pursuing music as a career. He hasn’t looked back.

One of Stefan’s proudest projects has focused on the work of exiled Jewish composer Richard Stoehr. Stoehr was a highly renowned composer and teacher at the Vienna Academy of Music from 1903 until 1938, when the Nazis fired him from the Academy and banned his music. He was able to secure a position at the Curtis Institute of Music (where Leonard Bernstein was his student in two courses), and later moved to Vermont. After the war, it was too late for Stoehr to revive the vibrant career that he had in Vienna, meaning that the Nazis effectively silenced him, which was their goal.

Mr. Koch stumbled upon sheet music for the composer’s Cello Sonata and Four Fantasy Pieces, works he felt ought to be heard. “I sent this music to some very famous cellists, including Steven Isserlis and Yo-Yo Ma, and asked them to make a recording of it,” said Stefan. When he realized that nobody had time for this project, he decided to take it on himself. In 2014, Stefan produced his very first professional recording for Toccata Classics (London, UK). Since then, he has become a strong advocate for Richard Stoehr, including assisting St. Michael’s College in Vermont (which houses Stoehr’s collection) to digitize the sheet music and scores (many of which can now be found on IMSLP).

Stefan has continued to study and record Stoehr’s works. His second CD (2018) focused on the Piano Trio in E-flat major (1905) and other chamber works. Stefan’s most recent album—released in January 2020—focuses on works that Stoehr composed in America after 1939. (Of making recordings, Stefan said, “I thought making CDs would get easier, but it didn’t. Your standards keep going up!”)

Stefan’s research and dedication to the compositions of Richard Stoehr have greatly impacted him. “It has opened my eyes to the immensity of what happened to so many artists in that era. The effects of it are still being felt today.” He is eager to share more with audiences about Stoehr’s life and music, including a potential trip to Philadelphia to present a lecture and to perform several works. (If you or someone you know has an avenue for this type of presentation/performance, please reach out to Danielle Johnson at djohnson@pyomusic.org to connect with Stefan.)

Stefan lives in Ann Arbor, MI, is cellist and Personnel Manager for the Lansing Symphony Orchestra, and is an avid hiker, cyclist, and Beatles fan.