Philanthropist Steve Goldman’s eclectic genius and generous spirit benefits those stymied by STEM and compelled to compose. And he only applies his talent — and money — to the hard stuff.
Sure, if you’re trying to describe Steve Goldman, “Renaissance man” is a good place to start. That’s how I summed up the Winter Park philanthropist in a profile four years ago, and that’s how he was pegged in a recent issue of Winter Park Magazine, when he was rightfully included on a list of the city’s Most Influential People.
Goldman is indeed a bona fide polymath, a person who has cultivated an expertise in multiple fields: in his case, art, science, economics, education, haute cuisine, physics and even motorcycles.
Yet, although Renaissance man fits, the more I get to know Goldman, the more inclined I am to favor a more humble descriptor: He’s a high-end do-it-yourselfer, a regular DIY King.
No, that doesn’t sound nearly as illustrious as Renaissance man. Yes, now that you mention it, “DIY King” does sound like the name of a new burger joint. And “do it yourselfer” brings to mind people who install their own garbage disposals.
But I’m sticking with the characterization. Goldman is a blue-sky DYI guy with global reach, an imaginative do-it-yourselfer who has spent a lifetime picking his own battles and finding imaginative ways to win them.
He doesn’t even think of himself as a philanthropist.
“What that word means to me is just writing checks,” Goldman says. “I do that, too. But what I’m most effective at is finding a need for a resource and addressing that need with my own talents. And I only take on the hard stuff.”
The hard stuff that he tackled in 1977, when he formed Digital Processing Technology, was the need to speed up the flow of information through computer circuitry. The system pioneered at his company came to be called RAID: Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks.
The world as we know it now revolves around such disks: People who understand how computers work and what RAID did to enhance them have been known to ask Goldman for his autograph.
In 2000 Goldman sold Digital Processing Technology in order to devote himself to philanthropy. His version of philanthropy, that is. Following in the footsteps of his father, Sig Goldman, he became a patron of the arts.
The elder Goldman was a World War II veteran who had built up a mechanical contracting business. His most notable contribution was as an early supporter of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, where one of the theaters at the Loch Haven complex is named for him and his wife, Marilyn.
The younger Goldman’s interest was in music, and he became a key backer of the now-defunct Orlando Symphony Orchestra. But he soon broke away to begin working on an annual event now known as the National Young Composers Challenge.
Its inspiration goes back to Goldman’s teenage years, when he was a student at Maitland Middle School and Winter Park High School, where he played clarinet in the marching band.
One of his hobbies was composing music for a full orchestra — an activity that didn’t do much to enhance his social status. “I was pretty much of a lone ranger,” he recalls.
Goldman would go on to graduate from the University of Florida with a degree in physics. (While in Gainesville, he also played in a rock and roll band during an era when an up-and-comer, a long-haired guitarist named Tom Petty, was also making the rounds of local clubs.)
Although Goldman’s career led him to computers, he never forgot the pleasure of composing music — or the loneliness that accompanied it. He wondered if there was a way he could help young people who, like himself, were musically inclined and in need of encouragement and feedback.
In 2005 he devised and financed something to do that: a competitive, educational event for young, would-be composers.
“What I realized is that there’s a lot of attention in the educational system that goes out to kids that are struggling, and that’s important, no question,” Goldman says.
“But no one was addressing the need at the other end of the spectrum, with these high-functioning but isolated kids. It’s a national resource that should be cultivated. This is the next generation of great composers.”
The Young Composers Challenge, funded by the Goldman Charitable Foundation, has reached hundreds of bright young overachievers. But in terms of numbers it’s not Goldman’s most successful educational outreach endeavor.
That distinction is reserved for Why U, an Internet-based tutorial program that has reached millions. Through the program, whimsical but informative videos — written by Goldman and animated by Tampa-based artist Mark Rodriguez — augment STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) in the K-12 and college levels.
Why U, a non-profit educational organization funded by Goldman’s foundation, offers free access to its videos through its website, whyu.org, or its You Tube channel.
The genesis for Why U (which has the phrase “Branius Maximus” emblazoned on its logo) can be traced to 2002, when Goldman volunteered to serve as interim president of the Orlando Science Center.
While there, Goldman commissioned Rodriguez to create a series of oddball but engaging animated vignettes that explained key scientific ad-vances such as the Tesla coil. The videos were in-stalled in kiosks throughout the center.
“I realized that a science center is really a lousy place to teach kids about science,” he says. “There are just too many distractions, too many things going on, and the exhibits are limited in what they can get across.”
In 2003 the kiosk program, dubbed Wired Science, won the Communication Arts Magazine Award of Excellence, the HOW Magazine Design Merit Award and the American Advertising Federation Gold ADDY Award.
Goldman gifted Wired Science to the center. But its success inspired him to create a much more ambitious educational program in Why U.
“What students have tended to get are exercises, problems to solve,” says Goldman. “It’s much better for them to understand the principles underlying those theories. That’s what Why U does.”
The animation makes those principles easier to visualize — literally and figuratively — and the lectures are delivered by a kooky cast of characters from Goldman’s fertile imagination.
“I visualized them as a sort of demented version of the characters in Archie comic books,” he says. “Ditzy jocks and nerds, that sort of thing.”
Of course, Archie and Jughead rarely if ever discussed, say, the commutative law of addition or the geometrical properties of various types of curvatures, nor did Betty and Veronica ever get around to the issue of working out linear systems in three variables.
People all over the world — at least 4 million, according to the analytics — have used Why U, which is why Goldman and Rodriguez continue to stay busy creating others.
We generally think that humanitarians, spiritual leaders and shoulder-to-shoul-der celebrities singing We Are the World are the primary orchestrators of global goodwill.
What Goldman has discovered is how lovey-dovey people around the world can be when you help them figure out how to distribute infinite solution sets parametrically or understand commutative, associative and distributive laws of math.
“We get messages from very grateful people, teachers and students, from everywhere, including places that don’t necessarily like the United States,” he says. “Saudi Arabia. Iran. The Middle East. Actually I can’t think of any place in the world we haven’t heard from.”
The orchestrator of it all is a laid-back, jovial soul, a 64-year-old free spirit with a full gray beard and an evident weakness for fine foods. (If he weren’t such a genius he’d make a first-class department-store Santa.)
Goldman and his longtime companion, Melanie Love, live in a sleek, 10,000-square-foot, modern minimalist home on Lake Maitland.
They spend several months of the year in Marin County, California, in a second home near the peak of Mount Tamalpais. From there they enjoy a view of San Francisco, the Farallon Islands and, on clear days, the Sierra Nevada.
Goldman is an admirer of Albuquerque architect Antoine Predock, a master of the simple lines and open spaces synonymous with Southwest Modernism. You can see that influence on his home’s exterior, which is dominated in front by a castle-like, milk-glass façade that rises two stories.
Created for Goldman by architect John Hackler, the sprawling structure has the feel of an extremely elegant treehouse.
At its heart is a circular, second-story office, which serves as the headquarters for both Why U and the National Young Composers Challenge.
The only furniture in evidence is a chair and a desk made of glass with a computer terminal poised atop it. Oh, and there’s also a transparent, 600-pound egg-shaped sculpture by Christopher Ries, one of Goldman’s favorite artists.
Thirty speakers perched on a high ledge encircle the room. Curved, floor-to-ceiling glass walls on one side provide a lush view of the surrounding cypress trees.
Goldman spends much of his time in this office, alone, coming up with scripts for Why U. He also still composes music; the Orlando Ballet once performed to one of his symphonies, Acadian Dance.
Throughout the home, Goldman’s passion for art glass is on display. The most impressive piece is a massive Chihuly sculpture suspended in the middle of a winding, freestanding staircase just inside the front entrance.
Shimmering Chihuly “Persians” — the artist’s term for these eccentrically shaped objets d’art — decorate one wall, giving the appearance of a vertical array of multicolored lily pads floating in space.
The Chihuly designers were momentarily stumped when trying to figure out how to complete the installation. In the end, though, a solution emerged in the form of an ingenious system of moveable armatures.
You can probably guess the name of the veteran do-it-yourselfer who came up with that idea.
WHEN KIDS STRIKE THE RIGHT CHORD
Its official name is the National Young Composers Challenge. But Steve Goldman likes to call it “a dragnet for talent.” He can call it whatever he wants. He is, after all, the man who invented it.
The competition, created by Goldman in 2007, is held annually for teenage composers from all over the country. It culminates with the National Young Composers Challenge Composium, held in Orlando.
This year’s composium is slated for Sunday, Oct. 18 at the 2,700-seat Walt Disney Theater, the main venue at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
That’s where the young winners will hear their compositions discussed, rehearsed and played by a full complement of professional musicians led by a world-class conductor. The event is free and open to the public. No tickets or reservations are required.
Here’s how the competition works: Every year, novice composers are invited to create a composition of five minutes or less and submit a score and an electronically created sound file. Four judges, including Goldman, listen to every piece and send every entrant a recorded critique.
Composers of the top three orchestral pieces get $1,000 each, while composers of the top three chamber ensembles get $500 each. This year, due to the generally high caliber of the record-shattering 117 entries — more than twice as many as last year — five ensemble winners were selected.
The winners are invited to Orlando, where they’ll work individually with conductor Christopher Wilkins, previously musical director of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and currently musical director of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra and the Akron Symphony.
“It takes somebody with the right personality to do this,” says Goldman. “Chris is very engaging. Now and then he’ll turn around to the audience and ask: ‘What do you think?’ ”
Wilkins and the musicians rehearse the winning compositions, while Wilkins discusses the finer points of the music with the composers. Each work is then performed and recorded before a live audience.
For the rookie composers, it’s the musical equivalent of a fantasy baseball camp.
They sit on stage during rehearsal and have the opportunity to become critics themselves, making technical suggestions about how their music should be played. One year, during a particularly meticulous critique, a droll Wilkins turned to the audience and noted: “This is the problem working with living composers.”
Another year, Goldman remembers, “There was a winner who really got carried away as his piece was performed. I guess it put him into a trance of some sort. When the conductor turned to him and asked him how he liked it at the end, he just sat there in a daze.”
One of this year’s winners is Sterling Maffi, an 18-year-old college freshman and a budding composer who lives in Artesia, Calif. Maffi hopes, someday, to write film scores.
“I love the sweeping melodies and frantic action motifs I can use in this genre,” he says. “There’s such a lushness of texture in this type of music.”
Maffi, who plans on studying composition and film scoring at a California conservatory next year, has been composing music on his own in the meantime, sometimes humming the melodies that come to mind, sometimes using a software program that simulates the sound of musical instruments.
“I’ve never had a professional orchestra play my music,” says Maffi, whose winning submission, The Water Phoenix, is a full-orchestra score written to accompany a story he envisioned about a creature that rises from the sea to save a harbor town from a tempest.
“Most of my time writing is spent locked alone in my room,” he says. “The outside world has a habit of disappearing on me.”
In addition to Goldman, judges included Jeff Rupert, director of jazz studies at the University of Central Florida; Keith Lay, department chair of music technology at Full Sail University; and Dan Crozier, associate professor of music theory and composition at Rollins College.
The four met earlier this year over the course of several evenings to listen to the submissions in a glass-walled, second-story office in Goldman’s home on Lake Maitland.
There, surrounded by Goldman’s collection of luminous Chihuly Persians and other priceless art-glass sculptures, judges squinted at printed scores and took notes while listening intently to each piece, weighing everything from modern abstract compositions to traditional waltzes.
Then they passed a microphone back and forth to record feedback — meticulous and technical, but always encouraging — for each bedroom-based novice. As they listened, reactions from the judges ran the gamut, from bemused to inspired.
“You really made full use of the orchestra, but you wander around a bit. Pick out one or two themes and stay with them.”
“I really like how you’re out-of-the-box with your melodic lines.”
“Think about the articulations, especially the woodwinds.”
“You should listen to Mozart, to Hayden. Listen to the base lines, the chords.”
“Nice accumulation of tension at the end.”
“Beautiful use of tubular bells. But a little overused. You don’t want to put too much spice in the dish.”
“Just one thing: You don’t have that many cellos in the orchestra.”
Despite the sheer number of submissions, the judges only seemed to gather momentum as their late-afternoon sessions stretched later and later.
“Wow,” said Rupert one evening, after listening to a 13-year-old’s vertigo-inducing entry, entitled Multi-Rotor Drones, “I’d like to meet this kid.”
On another occasion, after listening to an uneven but wildly inventive whirlwind of a composition, Lay grabbed the microphone to provide feedback for its creator. The first words out of his mouth were both high praise and, appropriately, a challenge:
“You have to be a composer!”