Suddenly and inexplicably I am lost, Marin Alsop stops conducting, the audience is utterly silent; I think I say, “Sorry, I have to start the third movement again.”

Written By

Kevin Puts

[Ed note: Few new music performances have been as close to high stakes sports events as Kevin Puts’s performance as the soloist in his own Piano Concerto with the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop at the 2010 Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in Santa Cruz, California. Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin has provided us with a day-to-day account of the entire 2010 festival, but we also wanted to share Kevin’s own account of what happened that night.—FJO]


Kevin Puts
Photo by J. Henry Fair

I don’t know where I am…

Suddenly and inexplicably I am lost. In the orchestra to my left, the piccolo plays a staccato high C, the highest one possible, then a low B-flat spat out sforzando by the contrabassoon, some parallel triads orchestrated with winds and strings pizzicato. I can’t remember how my part fits into that. Marin Alsop stops conducting; the audience is utterly silent. I think I say, “Sorry, I have to start the third movement again.” Marin for sure says, “Really? It was going so well.”

I gather my nerves and start again. I dive into the virtuosic torrent of sixteenth notes that begins the movement, emerging from the bass of the keyboard at about quarter equals 160. At least it’s supposed to be around 160. I must have been closer to 200. Speed kills. Another train wreck. Horror. Now what I had imagined as audience confusion at the initial disruption of the movement’s steady current is beginning to feel a lot like sympathy. I imagine them collectively shaking their heads, “Damn, that’s a shame…”

My own head is awash with confusion and disbelief. How could this be happening? I always play my best when it’s concert time. I had played the concerto every day for eight months, performed it from memory with horrible MIDI and a click track for my students, for other people’s students, for my wife Lisa, for my four-month-old son whom I ran from the piano to entertain during orchestral tuttis. The dress rehearsal that morning had gone splendidly. Sure, I haven’t performed a concerto from memory in about twenty years, sure I’m a little sleep-deprived, but…this can’t be happening.

How do I get myself into these things? I had asked myself that very question fifteen minutes earlier as I checked myself in the mirror of the dressing room at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, home to the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra each summer in August. This is one of the few places in the world I may actually have a following of some sort. Marin Alsop invited me in 2003, did a beautiful and impassioned performance of my Symphony no. 2 at Mission San Juan Bautista, where the orchestra traditionally plays its last concert of the two-week-long festival. Since then, she has had me back almost every year, and Cabrillo has begun to feel like a summer home for me. Many of the musicians, who come from orchestras all over the country, have become friends, and if not friends, colleagues with shared respect for one another, and I feel the Cabrillo audience—an eclectic mix of critics, composers, performers, new-music aficionados, surfers, hippies, and innocent bystanders—and I have a certain rapport, almost a sense of trust which I suppose sprouted that first summer at Mission San Juan.

So how could I do this to them? As a composer, the thing I strive for above all else is flow, inevitability, the sense one has when hearing Mozart that one moment flows seamlessly and organically into the next without contrivance or effort (I try and conceal the effort).

Well, if it was there, I have destroyed it, I say to myself. What’s the point of going on?

I begin to hate the sympathy I am imagining from the audience, from Marin, from my friends in the orchestra. I have got to make this happen. I try to feel the weight of my arms into the keys. I do what Lisa had suggested the night before, to exhale rather than inhale before beginning a passage. I begin to feel solid again. I think about what John Schertle—the clarinetist in the orchestra whose year-round job is associate principal in the Hong Kong Philharmonic—had said a couple of days ago: Rather than try to dazzle with every passage, to just play the notes and let the piece do the work. I remember what Matt Albert—the violinist for eighth blackbird who also plays in the Cabrillo orchestra’s violin section every summer—had mentioned offhand a few days before when I was trying to adjust to playing with an orchestra: When playing in an orchestra, the thing to do is to wait until the very last possible moment, at the very precipice of being late, to play the note. Sound advice. The piano speaks so quickly. I mustn’t rush. I feel slow, but I trust that I am fast. Marin has been reigning me in all week, “No faster, no faster!”

I start the third movement again, and I begin to feel a wonderful thing, a welcome and excellent sensation, one that almost eclipses the disgust with myself I am battling at the moment.

They’re rooting for me.

I make it to the end in one piece, finally, and the audience bursts out of their seats. I am not sure I feel elation at this moment. I am mad at myself, though I am trying to smile. I am embarrassed. Marin gives me a nurturing hug as we take our bows. Backstage I hug people numbly, a few orchestra members are telling me stories of similar memory slips at Carnegie Hall and so forth. I see their mouths moving. I am trying to smile. Mason Bates whizzes by and says in my ear “What a response!” John Adams grabs my arm on his way out and says, “You have nerves of steel.” Lisa’s smile is huge and warm, but she knows what I’m feeling.

What truly pours over me at this moment? Renewed respect for what performers endure when I ask them to play my difficult notes six weeks after I hand them the score, or when I decide a concerto which is already demanding needs—on second thought—to be longer and even more demanding. Respect for the shape they have to get in and stay in, for the galvanized nerves they must have every night, for the tricks they must play on their brains to peak at the right moment, to be their best on the big day. How easy it is in the living room, with Sibelius 6 playing the orchestra part and my son, Benjamin, batting at his toys. Composing is hard, but it rarely comes down to one moment.

I am looking for the next opportunity to play the piece. Maybe I will use the music.