Tag: standard repertoire

A Composition Competition and the Quest for Standard Repertoire

A few years back I entered a pipe organ composition competition. I have a brother who’s an organist and have written a bit for the instrument, so I’ve seen enough to know that the organ world is a world unto itself, with its own idiosyncratic concerns and ideals. So I was particularly struck by the fact that the competition required an accompanying essay asking the composer to explain how the proposed piece would consist of an “important addition to the repertoire.” I had to wonder whether this question had produced the desired results in the past—or whether, indeed, it would do so in the present, no matter who won the commission!

In fact, the more I pondered the question, the more I felt like it got to core issues regarding what music was about. Is music meant to be ephemeral or enduring? And indeed, are those two goals consonant with one another, or at odds? For those who take as their mentors, our sources of inspiration, and our measures of quality long-dead Germans like Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, perhaps the ultimate goal would be to write, like they did, something of value that transcends our era. But can one write a piece with the goal that it become “an important part of the repertoire”?

The overwhelming majority of music that’s being created today is, of course, being made with an entirely different goal in mind—to create a hit, catching fire with the broadest possible listening public in the moment, with no concern or regard for any kind of historical endurance.

On the other side of the continuum, though, is concert music, written for a very small, elite audience, a subset of an already-small classical music listening public. I have a feeling that every composer of concert music harbors a secret desire that their work have a life beyond its original premiere, that it be labored over, loved, interrogated, and admired by future generations. And yet most enduring works are very grounded in the specific circumstances of their origins (very few have been born from composition competitions!), and if the phenomenon of 21st-century concert music is going to be regarded at all from the rearview mirror, it too is almost surely to be seen through the lens of the peculiar circumstances from which it came into being.

Be that as it may, there is surely some kind of a continuum between the impulse to write a work that will be effective for a specific occasion and the impulse to write something that will stand the test of time. There probably are composers who only swing for the fences, who write for history exclusively, but most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

I often write for jazz musicians, and in jazz one writes for a specific player or set of players, for their unique personalities or voices. When I perform myself, the music is that much more localized, as I strive for a kind of unique sound in my playing that’s not intended to be replicated. So in that sense the music is not necessarily intended to have a life beyond the musicians for which it is written.

But when I write for a strictly classical instrumentation, I confess that I do somewhat indulge my more grandiose tendencies. After all, if you’re writing for string quartet or orchestra, you’re writing for a medium whose core repertoire is more than a century old. You’re automatically entering into a dialogue with the past, and have enduring works as models. So it’s natural to give some thought as to what it might take for your piece to become something that speaks to a broad variety of musicians and music lovers over a span of cultures, places, and even epochs.

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (www.flickr.com/photos/brownpau/)

Organ Console Remnants. Photo by Brownpau (www.flickr.com/photos/brownpau/)

That Elusive New Piece of Organ Repertoire

The desire to write a piece that would enter the organ repertoire is particularly apposite since, despite the tireless efforts of musicians such as Carson Cooman who proselytize for contemporary organ music—and notwithstanding noteworthy contributions by eminent composers of the last 50 years as diverse as Philip Glass, David Lang, Milton Babbitt, and Györgi Ligeti—contemporary works simply do not figure prominently in the organ repertoire.

It may seem difficult to define precisely what the standard organ repertoire does consist of, but I think a survey of organists would yield a broad consensus around a group of works all of which have existed for at least a hundred years. As varied as the pieces in that group may be, they tend not to avail themselves of any particular extra-musical theme, program, or “concept,” but rather are pieces that succeed as pure music.

What features would a piece that could make its way into the organ repertoire have? Again, perhaps a difficult question to answer definitively, but one can arrive at some at least preliminary answers, some necessary if not sufficient conditions for a piece to have a chance for lasting success.

For a piece that is at the center of the organ repertoire, in terms of its ubiquity, I cannot think of a better example than the Widor Toccata (originally composed as the finale of Charles-Marie Widor’s 1879 Symphony for Organ No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42, No. 1). The piece may not possess the depth of the organ music of Bach, Brahms, or others, but it has acquired a permanent place in weddings and other services as the quintessential recessional and is frequently heard in concert programs as well.

A series of Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (www.flickr.com/photos/rexroof/)

Organ Levers. Photo by Rex Roof (www.flickr.com/photos/rexroof/)

Based on a close look at the Widor, as well as a reflection on many other pieces that are widely performed, I have identified seven necessary conditions for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire.

1. Style and Stylishness. Works in the repertoire traverse a broad swath of styles; a piece apparently doesn’t have to be written in any particular style for membership. On the other hand, inasmuch as style, in the sense of stylishness, is the essence that makes a work stand out, that reaches out and grabs the listener, that commands instant attention, it is of crucial importance. Stylishness bespeaks self-confidence. Canonical works like the Widor, soaked through with neoclassical triumphalism and grandeur, are brimming with stylishness.

2. Substance. As important as stylishness is, a piece has to have substantive ideas, or better, one overriding idea that unites it through multiple transformations—the Schoenbergian grundgestalt—for it to endure. Schoenberg regards the idea, and the working out of the idea, as the highest objective, much more important than style, but I think this is overstated. Nonetheless a unity of thematic, harmonic, and melodic means is essential.

3. Integrity. Pieces that have entered the repertoire tend to have been written with a great seriousness of purpose, a fervent desire.

4. Craft. Exquisite manufacture is essential, from the micro scale of melodic construction and counterpoint to the macro scale of formal structure. There must be a kind of perfection to each event, and a perfect equilibrium in the flow between events. The work needs an inner propulsion that carries the listener forward from start to finish. This can—indeed must!—include surprises and the unexpected, but the “long line” of the piece cannot abate. In addition, it must wisely deploy the forces at its disposal and be effective for its medium. And finally it should be as idiomatic as possible, intelligently written for the instrument; it should be at least somewhat challenging, but never unreasonably so.

5. Simplicity. At the heart of every canonical work there is a simplicity. Strong, simple, iconic ideas abound. The Widor Toccata, with its repetitive keyboard pattern and very simple scalar chorale melody in the pedals, is the essence of simplicity.

6. Complexity. There must also be an element of intricacy that balances the simplicity and that creates intellectual interest. Simplicity has its limits; there needs to be subtlety and sophistication as well. In the Widor Toccata, the complexity inheres in the surprising modulations and asymmetric phrase structures, the form beautifully molded to create a satisfying sense of a musical journey.

7. Contrast. Also important are contrasting ideas that create a kind of intellectual tension. The Widor Toccata has less contrast than many pieces, but still there is dynamic contrast and certainly plenty of tonal contrast—causing the listener to wait with bated breath for the final return of the F Major.

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/)

Organ Pipes-photo by stevesnodgrass (www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/)


I’ve outlined seven attributes that are prerequisite for a work to enter the standard organ repertoire. Looking at the issue through the lens of the organ, and the Widor Toccata in particular, gives focus to a topic that’s already potentially too broad to be meaningful. If you look at standard repertoire in classical music generally the variety is unmanageably immense—it’s hard to talk about the attributes of the Widor and, say, Wagner’s Ring Cycle in the same breath. Then again, the very fact that both of these works are still widely performed more than a century after they were written argues that things like scale and instrumentation are completely irrelevant to the discussion.

But, in attempting to dissect elements of works of the standard repertoire, I’ve ignored a factor that is less reducible, yet has perhaps more weight than the rest of these factors combined. It’s the idea of inevitability or need, a difficult-to-articulate but much-discussed sense that a piece must exist.

The ancient Greeks had a term for this—Ananke, a goddess who personified the need, the compulsion that leads to existence. Beethoven, that quintessential manufacturer of standard repertoire, had his own expression: Es muss sein.

Whatever you call it, this sense of inevitability may indeed have to do with forces completely beyond the control of the composer. How does one come to be a composer in the first place? For most of us, the origins that lead to our dedication of a great portion of our lives to an arcane art are shrouded in mystery. We all train, study, and prepare in innumerable ways in the hopes of making a strong, and ultimately a lasting, contribution. But ultimately the confluence of factors that lead to the enduring popularity of a piece like the Widor Toccata—which extend to matters sociological, political, and circumstantial—are beyond any mere mortal’s power to comprehend.

The First Time

As everyone in the concert music community has been gearing up for the centennial of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, I noticed that WQXR-FM in New York City recently called several composers, performers, and radio hosts and asked them when they had first heard the piece and what their reactions to it were. I was curious what the answers to these questions were because I had an inkling that most of those answering were going to say “concert hall” or “recording.” Sure enough, out of eighteen respondents, seventeen of them remembered fondly this performance in Carnegie Hall or that high school performance or hearing it on an LP or in a college class or on the radio in the car. Most were in their teens or early 20s when they got their Printemps cherry popped, and all were strongly affected in one way or another (as a side note, I’ve noticed anecdotally that while the initial reactions of musicians to Pierrot Lunaire tend to be mixed

, most first impressions of musicians to Le Sacre tend to be emphatic and positive.)
But what about that eighteenth respondent whose first exposure to Stravinsky’s work was neither the concert hall nor a recording? Violinist/composer Owen Pallett was the only one who came clean–I am a bit dubious that he’s the only one from that list who falls into this category–and admitted that the first time he experienced The Rite of Spring was in a movie theater when he saw Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia.

The very topic of Disney’s musical pastiche writ large can be cause for eyes to roll and the animated treatment of Stravinsky’s work in particular is rarely set in a positive light. Although Stravinsky sold the rights to Le Sacre to Disney for the project (as well as those for Firebird, Petroushka, and Renard) and, at the time, seemed pleased with Disney’s adaptation, his comments about the film after it had failed at the box office ranged from “terrible” and “execrable” to “an unresisting imbecility.” For those who know the work well, listening to the Disney adaptation is more than a little disconcerting, as some sections are excised altogether while others (such as the opening) are reprised in accordance with the needs of the visual narrative.
It was not always like this. Just a year after it was premiered, an article in The Musical Times proclaimed:

A work that has had to fight for its place on the ballet stage and concert platform suddenly becomes an unquestionable masterpiece in the picture theatre. The music fits the picture to admiration, and Stravinsky comes out as the ideal auxiliary to a screen cartoonist. (Sept. 1941)

Seven years later, a Musical Times critic continued:

The same music was chosen for a different purpose in Disney’s Fantasia; and the corresponding label–death of the last dinosaur or whatever it was–is at least as valid as that attached by Nijinsky or Massine. In fact the Disney interpretation is more real to the present generation than the ancient dances were even in their own time, since the cartoon has been witnessed by the millions, whereas only a few hundreds saw the dances. (March 1948)

This last statement is telling because it can only be amplified many times over in the present day; hundreds of millions of people have seen this version of Le Sacre, many of whom were only children at the time, and were affected in some way by it. I myself don’t remember much of my early childhood, but I have always remembered my first time going to a movie in the local theater when I was three or four years old. It was in 1973 or 1974 and my parents took me to see Fantasia; it had been reissued in 1969 and occasionally was shown in art house theaters and on college campuses through the mid-’70s. To a young child at that time, that music combined with those images was extremely potent, and I was excited to see it again when it came back into the theaters in 1977 and 1982. Seeing that film was, I think, a direct precursor for my professional interest in music and film.
I’m not embarrassed at all to say that the first time I experienced Stravinsky’s work was through Disney’s eyes, but of course it wasn’t the only time I experienced it for the first time. Hearing the work as it was intended on an LP from my dad’s record collection was breathtaking and getting to hear it live for the first time was immensely powerful. During the first semester of my doctoral studies, Elliott Antokoletz’s Stravinsky seminar introduced me to the work afresh as we watched the video of the recreation of Nijinsky’s choreography; seeing the work in its balletic context allowed me to interpret the now-familiar lines in a completely new light.

Recently Frank J. Oteri explored the idea of familiarity, its importance in building audiences and the necessity of repeated performances of new works over a long period of time. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, through the filter of Disney’s film, could be seen as a good example of Frank’s ideas put into motion. Le Sacre du Printemps–indeed, all of Stravinsky’s early ballets–were well-known to conductor Leopold Stokowski (who had conducted the ballet in 1930 with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and music critic Deems Taylor (who first suggested the piece to Disney to go along with his story of the earth’s creation). Based on the aforementioned articles in The Musical Times, the reaction to such a new musical work was made easier by its inclusion in the film.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine such a film project happening today with a piece composed less than 30 years ago–say, Short Ride on a Fast Machine or Different Trains (both composed within the same window of time between Le Sacre’s premiere and the opening of Fantasia)–not because of the nature of the music, but because of the lack of trust between music and film presenters and audiences that would allow them to be open to new ideas and repertoire. If anything, this can bring us back to the qualities that make Le Sacre satisfying both immediately and with repeated study; it transcended that mistrust and became a door–a misshapen door, perhaps, but a door nonetheless–for many to venture into contemporary music throughout the past 73 years.

The Genius Myth, Part Two

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

GeniusLast week I began considering the pervasive genius myth and some of its ramifications. I postulated that a central aspect of our conception of the genius is in its removal from our quotidian experience, and that this distancing leads to two negative consequences: 1) our thinking that geniuses invariably lived in a different time and place has helped lead to an ossification of the classical orchestral repertoire, and 2) our belief that the products of the geniuses are exceptional absolves us of our responsibility to grapple with the issues raised by their work; because we are by definition unable to truly understand their arcane elements, we don’t need to make an effort to do so. Thus, as David St. Hubbins of the fictional band Spinal Tap most famously stated, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh, clever.”

Another troubling aspect of the genius myth is that in application it invariably buttresses the status quo. In a world in which the default “composer” is white and male and in which other flavors of artists find their works shunted into sub-categories, we tend to reserve the center of the canon for those who most closely resemble the creators of the past. Indeed, the 2009 Encyclopedia of Feminist Literary Theory states that the “concept [of genius] is tied to gender and power in ways that cause problems for women,” and goes on to argue that “Romantic, Victorian and Modernist artists claimed that only ‘geniuses’ produced ‘great art’ and that only a man could be a ‘genius.’ However, in practice they defined ‘great art’ in contrast with the art of women and others who were labeled ‘inferior.’” This practice continues even today in much criticism.

In the music world, I think that the main way to stand against the racist and sexist applications of the term “genius” is to remember that some of the best art being created today was composed by people who are not white and male. We should ask ourselves why we’re neglecting to mention Saariaho, Gubaidulina, and Neuwirth in a discussion of the greatest European composers working today. Or if we’re considering orchestral music composed in the U.S., can we fully represent the range of excellence found in contemporary composers while neglecting Chen Yi, Jennifer Higdon, Shulamit Ran, Tan Dun, Joan Tower, Augusta Read Thomas, and Olly Wilson (just to pull a few names out of a hat)? Aren’t we doing ourselves a disservice when we write on American opera without mention of Anthony Davis and Deborah Drattell?

I’m not arguing for a watering down of standards or for us to have quotas. But with so much amazing music being created by so many different types of people, we should stop ourselves before producing yet another white male composer festival. Why would we blithely neglect to program music that might represent the unique concerns of more than 50% of our potential audience members? Why not question our choices in order to consider if the music we’re programming is indeed the best music out there. We might realize that we simply forgot about that composer who writes music that we adore but who we haven’t thought about in a while because they aren’t considered one of the usual suspects. Rob Deemer’s “A Helpful List” might be a good place to start looking if you need ideas for composer’s names.

By doing so, we will hopefully be able to re-define the idea of “genius,” working towards a connotation that’s more appropriate for our contemporary society. Until then, I suggest retiring the term entirely and casting about more broadly to find the best music currently being created.

Getting Music Out of Purgatory

Save for the ubiquitous concern about achieving the premiere of a new work (or the commission of a work not yet written), the issue that seems to garner the most attention from composers is the generating of repeat performances of their existing works. This topic was recently touched upon in a Chorus America article (“What Happens After the Premiere?”), written by former NPR producer and amateur choralist Don Lee and approaching the subject from several points of view. It is heartening to see the topic covered by such a high-profile organization and to know that, at least in sections of the choral community, there is some traction towards the encouragement of performing works beyond their inception.

In Lee’s article, several choral conductors, composers, and arts administrators express their views on the benefits and difficulties of re-programming a new work once it has received its attention-grabbing world premiere. These views range from American Composers Forum president John Nuechterlein relaying the frustration he has heard from composers about second performances and Los Angeles Master Choral director Grant Gershon explaining the importance of collaboration between composer and conductor to the practically opposite programming concepts between Philadelphia’s The Crossing, which focuses on the generation and promotion of premieres, and Jersey City’s Schola Cantorum on Hudson, whose Project Encore initiative provides the opportunity for composers to submit their once-performed works for inclusion to a database with the hopes that other choirs will seize the opportunity to program them.

The reality of how large ensembles, be they choral, orchestral, or wind-based, program their seasons is an important concept to understand when considering repeat performances. It is easy for a composer to forget that, from an ensemble’s perspective, the premiere of a new work will be used as a marketing tool to generate attention and entice curious audiences to buy tickets. Without that valuable cachet, it is much harder to convince large ensembles to program new music, since they usually have a limited number of slots in their season for works outside of the established repertoire. This mindset puts once-performed works into an odd position—a purgatory of sorts—where they lack the excitement that comes with the experience of a first hearing as well as the comfort that well-known works offer.

It is this purgatory that needs to be addressed, not so much for the individual creators (who I’m sure would appreciate the additional performances) but for the health and well being of the very established repertoire with which composers find themselves in competition. Conductors and artistic directors would do well to see themselves as much as gardeners as caretakers when it comes to the repertoire/canon/whatever-you-want-to-call-it; by actively considering newly premiered works, over time the standard repertoire will grow to allow the inclusion of these works if they become popular—which, of course, they will not become if they are only performed once. Repeating premiered works in subsequent seasons, performing works that other ensembles have recently premiered, even repeating a work on the same concert—all are useful “gardening” tools to allow audiences and performers to more fully understand and enjoy a piece.

Composers, however, should not be left off the hook here; in the same way that conductors prefer to premiere new works because of the “excitement” factor (which offsets the “hard work” factor that comes with bringing a new work to life), composers, being the creators they are, can easily neglect their already-composed pieces as they tend to composing new works. Grant Gershon brings up a good point in the Chorus America article when he suggests to composers that they not write works that could only be performed by his ensemble; by keeping repeat performances in mind during the creative process, composers can help “prime the pump” and make the conductors’ decision-making process easier. This concept could be nurtured early on as composer concerts at universities could encourage repeat performances of student works, both to allow for revisions and to cement the mindset of future performances in both student composer and performer.

As has been shown in the past week’s discussions on women composers, the concept of programming is a most important one for all composers for two reasons: Not only are we impacted so much by these programming decisions, but we, in many ways, are powerless to affect those decisions (in the same way that performers and conductors are powerless to affect what notes and rhythms we write). With articles such as Don Lee’s to help remind us all about the importance of performing works multiple times, the future of the established repertoire—and our own place within it—will strengthen.

The Genius Myth, Part One

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Albert Einstein

Dear Reader, indulge me, if you will, in a little experiment. I’d like for you to please imagine a genius, someone named “Smarty.” Picture Smarty on an average day. What does Smarty look like? In what field does Smarty work? In what era does Smarty live?

GeniusChances are that your genius was someone removed from your quotidian experience. If you’re a composer, you probably imagined a scientist from the early 20th century. If you’re a scientist you likely pictured a musician from the 19th century or earlier. Chances are fairly good that you imagined a white male with disheveled hair, unless, of course, your mental image of genius derives from the Road Runner cartoons in which Wile E. Coyote had business cards printed identifying his occupation solely as “Genius.”

If you Google the phrase “contemporary composer genius” your results will include pages devoted to Benjamin Britten, César Cui (?!), John Cage, Bach, Mozart, and other dead composers, with Philip Glass holding down the fort as the only living representative one finds among those determined by Google’s algorithm to be the most relevant. Obviously, this idea of the dead white composer-genius is outdated, at best. Yet it remains pervasive and, as this notion is applied to contemporary music, it remains problematic and unhelpful. I would like to propose shelving the very idea of the genius composer.

When 19th-century composers looked to Beethoven as the embodiment of the musical ideal, they were arguing for the contemporary currency of his rapidly aging compositions. They felt that Beethoven’s music deserved a continuing place in the repertoire, a newly developing notion, since concerts had previously been filled with the newest possible sounds. Their refusal to let the music of Beethoven fade into obscurity—and their revival of earlier composers—led to the development of the concept of a standard repertoire, focused on music of the past instead of the present. This 19th-century vision of the orchestral repertoire remains in place as we move well into the 21st century, and Beethoven’s visage has ossified as the Platonic ideal of the composer-genius.

We love the idea of the genius, of the Promethean figure descended from on high to bring knowledge to humanity. This Übermensch stands apart from the masses, pulling them forcibly into a future that they can neither understand nor appreciate. We embrace this notion because on the one hand it allows us to imagine ourselves as being among the limited numbers of initiates who can be trusted with the arcana, while on the other hand simultaneously absolving us of our responsibility in the matter—it’s not our fault that we can’t follow the meaning behind the music because we can’t all be geniuses.

When we can’t understand the basic elements of the discussion, we also can’t discern the distinction between the sublime revolutionaries and the ridiculous charlatans. In this sense, the label of “genius” can function as a way to dismiss art that we don’t understand. We’re saying that we cannot be expected to comprehend the art that makes us uncomfortable or that stretches beyond our immediate ability to analyze its constituent elements. And if we have no way to enter into a dialogue with these creations, then we cannot be held responsible for the relative value of the work. Therefore when I describe an artist as a genius, I’m telling you that I don’t understand the art and that I believe you won’t either.

This link between the idea of genius and our inability to comprehend the genesis of their creations is why our initial vision of the personification of the genius was someone removed from our daily existence. When you’re a scientist, you understand the work that goes into designing and then carrying out experiments. You have an intuitive sense of the road that one needs to travel to gain the sorts of skills necessary in order to be responsible for a leap in our understanding of the world around us. Similarly, when you’re a composer, you know how much training you’ve undertaken in order to master the ability to conceive of new sounds. When a new theorem or treatment of harmony arises, those working within the field have the tools necessary to assess the resulting work. Of course, even these experts will disagree as to the relative value of these new concepts, but they also will have a basis for considering them as coming from our human understanding instead of springing fully formed from the brain of a god.

I hope that we can emphasize the humanity of those creators who push the limits of our understanding. By doing so, I believe that we will be more inclined to grapple with those issues that push the limits of our mental capacities.

A Good Night

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.

Yo-Yo Ma performs with the SUNY Fredonia College Symphony Orchestra.

Yo-Yo Ma performs with the SUNY Fredonia College Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Lori Deemer.
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.