I’m in the midst of processing a complex blend of emotions.
We’re coming up on three years since our initial investigations into moving into this small-town community up in rural California wine-country. We came for a lot of reasons, but one of the plusses was what appeared to be a very active music scene.
In the last three years, I’ve been increasingly astonished by the depth and excellence of this music scene. I got to sing the Bach b-minor Mass in Mendocino with professional soloists and instrumentalists from San Franscisco, and the Mozart Requiem here in Ukiah with the Ukiah Symphony. There’s a Christmas sing-along at the Presbyterian Church a short walk from my home that packs the pews every year, and has featured harpist Anna Maria Mendieta, principal harpist of the Sacramento Symphony and well-known soloist, who comes up because she loves the community spirit of the sing-along; I found this out because I had the final rehearsal time wrong and showed up early, while she was sitting in her car waiting for someone to open the church, and we talked for a bit — a lovely, gracious woman, and a fabulous musician.
It’s just that kind of place.
Last night we went to the 26th annual Professional Pianists’ Concert. This was established in 1992 by Spencer Brewer, a well-known recording artist who lives in these parts, founded because — as he explained — he hated piano competitions. Instead, this concert is an informal and intimate inclusive affair, with a large, comfortable living-room set on the stage, and around a half-dozen pianists. Spencer says they all spent “moments and moments” rehearsing for this concert, and the general rule is, while they know who is going to play first, they have no idea who will play next, or what they will play. The pianists themselves decide; and sometimes, at the last minute, they change their minds and play something else. Or they drag one of the other pianists to the other piano and they do a mash-up.
It’s a very eclectic mix of styles, from boogie-woogie, to swing, to jazz, to New Age, to ragtime, to classical, and all of the pianists are well-seasoned performers who compose, improvise, do a little stage-theatre, and crack ad-lib jokes. Last night’s performance featured Spencer Brewer, Elena Casanova, Sam Ocampo, Tom Ganoung, Chris James, Elizabeth MacDougall, and Wendy DeWitt.
Last night, I heard my piano concerto from the stage for the first time.
Only snippets: as Elizabeth mentioned while introducing the piece, it’s 20 minutes of music, and she wasn’t about to play the whole thing. But it was my music, and it wasn’t coming from me, or my computer. Someone else was playing it. On stage.
She called me out as the composer from the stage before she began; the house lights came up, and I stood and bowed briefly to friendly applause. Then we all sat back and listened.
Though it was only snippets, Elizabeth did a magnificent job, and the audience loved it.
So many complicated emotions.
I think the closest I can come to describing it is to talk about watching my sons graduate, or get married. It’s the point when you realize that you are done raising them. They are really, truly all grown up. You’re still their father, and always will be, but it’s different — they are making their own way, now. You are so happy, you are so proud, and yet you are also sad. A phase of your life has ended.
The concerto was a surrogate daughter: I might as well put it that way. We lost a real daughter to SIDS in 1985, and it was sometime in 1986 or 1987 — I think, memories from that period are a bit fractured — that the first notes of the third movement popped out of my fingers one late night and surprised the heck out of me. I’ve been nurturing that music for thirty years, completing the movements, adding the orchestration, rendering again and again with ever-improving MIDI sound samples.
While I always knew it was good music, I never expected it to be performed in my lifetime.
Even in the heady days of the great piano concertos, it was almost always the composer who performed it first, and while I could play the piece in the late 1990’s, there are also issues of endurance, showmanship (the ability to mess up royally and just keep going with a smile), and stage-fright. This last is, for me, crippling, and it’s always worst when I’m out there playing at the edge of my ability.
Those heady days are gone, however: no one writes piano concertos any more. That’s not exactly true, but they’re quite rare, and the Western classical-romantic style of my concerto — with a tonality and emotionality drawn from all the music I loved most — is definitely out-of-vogue among the contemporary musical literati.
Plus, maybe it wasn’t really as good as I thought it was. After all, every child is beautiful in the doting father’s eyes.
I made a few tentative attempts to move the concerto toward performance in the 1990’s, which were generally rebuffed without interest. It wasn’t personal: it was business, and music, like writing or acting, has always been a difficult business for newcomers to break into. Unlike writing, there isn’t a lot of logistical support for the budding composer.
I think what kept the dream alive for me is that not even one of the gatekeepers I approached was actually interested in the music. I contacted one publishing house, and they explained that they were interested in following a composer’s career, not a single work by some unknown composer. Academics and web-based articles suggested that I go back to school and get a graduate degree in music, or submit my work to various national contests, like the Aspen Music Festival.
As with nearly everything in this time and place, it’s all about revenue streams. It’s about money.
For me, it was never about a career. The concerto was something sublime that had introduced itself into my life, unbidden. It was something I wanted to do justice: not just in terms of trying to reduce the music in my head to harmonious sounds from cat-gut, wet reeds, and brass tubes, but also to at least make an effort to let the rest of the world hear it. To give it wings. What a father would want for a child.
Over time, I wrote other music, and some of it has been performed. In the back of my mind was the idea that, if I could get a foothold as a composer, I might someday hear the concerto performed. But my hopes weren’t high.
When we moved out here, I decided to give it another push. I approached Les, conductor of the Ukiah Symphony, and pointed him to my website. I’d recently finished my Summer Symphony, and thought it might be of interest. He listened, and instead decided he liked the piano concerto. He wanted to perform it. He even lined up a soloist.
Last night, I heard bits of the concerto from the stage for the first time. In three weeks, I will hear it again, the whole thing from beginning to end, this time backed by a full orchestra.
It’s a little overwhelming.