Last Sunday, October 12, was a big day for my music. Here in Cleveland, Liliana Garlisi gave the first performance in Ohio of the complete Starry Wanderers on a concert of the Cleveland Composers Guild. And, in St. Louis, Avguste Antonov was the soloist in the world premiere of my piano concerto, with the University City Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Leon Burke. Both concerts happened more or less simultaneously, and while I was glad to be here in Cleveland for Liliana’s fantastic performance, missing the concert in St. Louis stung a bit.
The good news first. Liliana gave an amazing reading, from memory, of Starry Wanderers. As a composer, the feeling of having someone take a piece that seriously is second-to-none. Dianna Anderson, who gave the premiere of Starry Wanderers and my piano sonata, has treated my work in the same way, as though she were playing Beethoven or Scriabin rather than the work of a relatively obscure Midwesterner. I now consider myself fortunate to have collaborated with three pianists who bring that kind of musicianship to the table.
During Lilian’s performance, a child who had been brought to the concert began to fuss, and let’s just say that it won’t be a pristine recording. A colleague at the concert expressed her dismay in an email later this week, and while I appreciate her sentiment on behalf of Liliana and myself, I personally think that it’s wrong.
I teach students every day who don’t buy into the “pristine concert hall” experience. In fact, it is one of the factors they find most intimidating when they attend concerts as required. In our kid-friendly world, how can we expect that people won’t bring their children to something that children have every right to experience? I was fortunate to grow up in a time and place where schoolchildren were regularly exposed to such things–the Columbus Symphony Orchestra gave a concert at my high school twice while I was there–but with budgets and grants increasingly less available, this just doesn’t happen as often.
If someone wants to come to a concert on which my piece is being played, and the only way that they can do so is to bring their young child, then let them come. The point of a concert is not to make the perfect recording — if that is what is required, then the dress rehearsal should be recorded, or a studio session scheduled. I put my music before the public so as many people as possible can experience it in the way it was intended to be heard–played by a living person in front of a living audience. I would no more ask my audience not to breathe. I would love to know that my music elicits audible responses from time to time–laughs, gasps, sighs, cries, whatever. And if that recording is so important, than whoever listens to it will have affirmation that it is, in fact, a live recording rather than a studio recording with applause edited in at the end.
The St. Louis performance went well, so I’m told. It was frustrating that a piece I had been thinking about for twenty years, and spent most of 2013 writing, was premiered without my being present. I talked with Leon Burke over the phone, and he also tried to have me listen in on a rehearsal over his cell phone. This was frustrating, because as I followed the score, I could almost hear my piece through the distortion, if I really squinted my ears. I held on until the end of the run-through, so that I could take a moment to thank the players, but there wasn’t really much that I could tell them. I’ve seen pictures of the performance on the Internet, and the concert was recorded and videoed, so hopefully I will have those artifacts–again, the recording is crucial, but is not the piece itself. I wasn’t there because the funding was there from the orchestra to bring me out, and the composition business has done well this year, but there was no money for a plane ticket. As a younger, single man, I would have hopped in the car and driven the eight hours, and probably driven back immediately after the concert so that I wouldn’t miss class on Monday morning, but I have responsibilities now. I had been hoping for a second performance in Pennsylvania this year, but that doesn’t seem like it will materialize, so at this point, there is a major work of mine that has been premiered, but that I haven’t heard, except as a ghost of itself through a cell phone. Avguste, having taken the time to learn the piece, is now behind it, and hopes to play it again in 2015-2016, but nothing firm has been committed. The irony is that usually I take a performance that goes on without me as a sign that I’m making progress as a composer, but it has happened only rarely for a premiere. The last time a piece was premiered without me, though, was in 2009, when my flight to North Dakota was cancelled, and I missed Dianna Anderson’s premiere of Starry Wanderers, which has gone on to be a relatively important piece, and was the start of a significant collaboration with my former teacher. Perhaps, then, there are more and better things in store for this concerto.