I’ve been a little, how would one say, focused on thinking about composers over the past several years. Figuring out how they do what they do, asking them all sorts of questions, spreading the word about how many talented ones there are, pondering how to help students learn how to join their ranks. And I’ve gathered and learned quite a bit—so much, in fact, that it will probably take me a couple of years just to unravel all the information and ideas that I’ve been collecting, not only to present them to others but in order to get my own head around them. Because, as I mentioned, I’ve been a bit focused on composers.
But not today.
Last night, I was thrown a curve ball of the greatest magnitude. Didn’t see it coming. Blindsided, not by a young, unknown composer or a mind-bending compositional language or some genre-blended conglomeration of musical ideas and concepts, but by a cellist, performing Bach.
It had already been a special evening. Months before, our small but mighty liberal arts university had taken the plunge to bring in a “name” soloist for our music scholarship concert. Man-hours galore of preparation culminated in a two-day maelstrom of rehearsals, masterclasses, fêtes, dinners, receptions—all leading up to the grand finale: a concert with the honored guest. He listened from the wings as our student symphony maneuvered tastefully through the Strauss overture and the Elgar warhorse, works that set the stage both dramatically and aurally in their traditional late 19th-century accoutrements for the second half, where there would be no surprises.
When a well-known soloist is brought to bear these days, either by a performance organization or an academic institution, it is standard fare for them to present a standard repertoire work that we all know, so we can most easily experience their special talents in silhouette against all the other performances we’ve heard of that piece. And when that soloist is a cellist, “standard repertoire” equals Dvorak’s well-worn concerto which, as I mentioned, was no surprise, either in its programming or in its rendition. The soloist’s performance was exquisite and the student performance surrounding him was impressive; SUNY Fredonia is not a performance-intensive school, as it is one of the largest music education centers in the country, so to hear the symphony perform with such subtlety was a joy for all to hear. Everything was moving along nicely in accordance with the playbook that I’d seen before at other institutions when they brought in “name” soloists.
After the thunderous applause that brought soloist and conductor back from the wings several times, he came back out with his instrument, setting off a fury of shouts and whistles from our packed-to-the-gills auditorium. Once he took his place alone in front of the orchestra, he negotiated with the wide-eyed students surrounding him what he should play as an encore and settled on the Prelude from the sixth cello suite by Johann Sebastian Bach. We all settled back in our seats; this was going to be a nice little “extra” before the expensive ticket-holders dashed off to the after-concert reception with their Sharpies and CDs and the students careened back to their dorms to regale each other with excited play-by-plays.
This, however, was no simple “extra”.
As he began to play, the Baroque strains written over a century and a half earlier than anything else on the program were startling to the ears compared to the lush music we had just experienced, but there was more. There was the realization that all of us in the room, numbering over 1,200 or so, were being given a gift, seemingly on a lark, by one of the few people alive in concert music whose name is a household word around the world. They had seen him play with orchestras, with Elmo, in the Olympics, at our current president’s inauguration, and just two days before at the Kennedy Center Awards. And yet he was here, in our small Midwestern rust-belt village bringing us this gift of Bach filtered through several multiples of Malcom Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule”. And it wasn’t simply a gift to the group—it was a gift to each of us individually, performed in such a real, human way that it transcended everything that had preceded it. I am not an overly emotional person in the concert hall, but within a minute my eyes were shut, glasses in hand, and I did my best to keep my tears and silent sobbing spasms hidden from my neighbors.
This was no encore. This was the concert.
I have been lucky enough to have experienced live performances by some of our history’s best performers during my jazz years—watched Miles and Dizzy from the audience, Stan Getz from just off-stage, and had Tito Puente egging me on with his cowbell, elbow-to-elbow, as I soloed on baritone sax on his “Mambo Inn” a lifetime ago—so I was aware of the special nature of being in the presence of someone who we all know as a “name,” but over time that idea had dulled as my focus pulled away from performers and towards those who wrote the music.
Last night, however, our guest reminded me of the powerful importance of the performer in our art. It mattered not to me that he was playing music of the past—this was performance of such an intense and effortless nature that I forgot about the music and the master who wrote it. It was an intimate, physical, visceral experience of sharing among our community in the hall, and I shall remember it.