Getting Lost in the Music

Rome seemed to be under total attack on New Year’s Eve. From the terrace of the American Academy, high above the city, we watched a barrage of fireworks explode above every block of every neighborhood. There is no planned municipal display here. Instead, everyone buys his own. No one knows exactly when it should start or end. It continues for an hour.

Two days later, my new trio was premiered by the Trio Volans on a program of music of American composers—all living, save Ives, who had his Violin Sonata No.2 performed by Xak Bjerken and Stephen Mihaky. The sonata featured a recently discovered notated part: a cluster of the page turner’s choice is banged out in the lowest register during the finale of the first movement, sounding like a stampede during a percussion parade. Also performed was Roberto Sierra’s Tema y variaciones for clarinet and piano, Verge by Sebastian Currier, and The Horse with the Lavender Eye by Stephen Hartke.

I basked in two days of intense rehearsal, having the trio all to myself, listening to them practice in the austere, resonant music room at the Villa Aurelia. Walking around an empty room while someone plays your music is a thrill, a luxury, a gift that never gets old.

The evening of the concert is a different matter: I am aware of everyone’s breathing, of little shifts in chairs, in energy and concentration. My piece, which opens the concert, begins quietly and intimately, and is immediately interrupted by a banal cellphone ring. I am sitting next to the director of the Academy and am sure she senses my whole body tense. It feels like the atmosphere of the piece has crumbled. I look up to see how the trio has reacted to the ring, but they are still focused, still precise. The piece is fifteen minutes long—and I can sense people’s attentions waning. Or perhaps it’s all neurosis. In any case, it’s a relief when intermission arrives and I am approached by polite people offering little compliment-tidbits. I go backstage and share a glass of Amarone that we bought in celebration. The second half of the concert is shorter, and I am more relaxed. I can enjoy the music, especially the Hartke, which I find brilliantly engaging.

Afterward, there is a cocktail reception across the street at the house of Martin Brody, the new arts director. There is a little talk of my piece, with few people beginning their spiel with, “I don’t know much about modern music, but…”, and a few braver souls who simply say, “I got lost.” And I begin to wonder if it’s not their fault but mine—the piece does lose focus for a good five minutes somewhere in the middle. I begin to think of possible solutions, ways to tighten up the structure, to allow for greater clarity.

There is a month until the next performances in Holland and Berlin. Time to get to work.

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