A Composer's Adventures

Great Memories in Music

StravinskyAs musicians we often complain about the hardships of our profession—funding problems, lack of appreciation for quality, and the intense competition for employment. But when we’re together, we usually share stories about the fun and sheer enjoyment of making music.

In thinking over my many exciting memories as a performer and composer, one stood out especially — for combining great music, fine performers and near disaster.

The work before us was Les Noces with the composer, Igor Stravinsky conducting a concert at New York’s Town Hall in December of 1959. This incredibly exciting work for chorus, soloists, four pianos and six percussion, requires a razor-sharp conductor as well as four pianists with the highest technical precision. As always, Stravinsky was less than incisive in wielding his baton. The four pianists were all big names as composers: Lukas Foss, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Roger Sessions. Foss was an excellent pianist, but Copland, Barber and Sessions — though all great composers — played what is referred to as “composer’s piano,” suitable for composing and maybe a little accompaniment, but not up to the virtuosic demands of a work like Les Noces. I organized the percussion and felt confident that our section could handle the demanding piece.

Everything went fine in rehearsal until the climactic section where the four pianos play thunderous chords in unison, along with the tubular chimes. These chords require the sharpest beat from the conductor to help the pianists play together. As I watched Stravinsky with his usual loose approach to beating time, I knew we were in for trouble with the entrances. Sure enough, he gave a vague downbeat for the first chord so that the expected sharp ringing “BONG” sounded more like “ge-bong.” Stravinsky glared at the pianists as Sessions looked the other way, Barber shrugged, Copland muttered something under his breath and Foss shook his head, raising his hands in helpless resignation. It was almost pointless for Stravinsky to say ”Together gentlemen.”

When played well, the color of four pianos playing unison octaves and ninths along with the chimes and crotales creates a beautiful, brilliant ringing sound that cuts through any hall at the climax of the work. Here our unison attacks sounded more like a large plate glass window falling down a flight of cement steps. As Foss bounced up and down on his piano seat trying to get the other pianists to play with him, I quietly writhed in pain, wondering where exactly to play my chime notes amidst the spray of piano chords. Another percussionist also played unison with these chords on small metal cymbals of very high pitch (crotales). Suffice it to say, we were waiting for divine intervention. Between rehearsals I would quietly smile at the irony of five great and demanding composers struggling helplessly to perform this rhythmic feat. Somehow we got through the performance and the whole memory warms my heart, standing as one of the great musical experiences of my life.

Incredibly, the chorus and ensemble were taken to a Columbia Artists recording studio a few days later in a hopeless attempt to salvage this historic event on tape, to be included in the “Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky” series of recordings. But to no one’s surprise it had to be re-recorded later with new pianists.

I’d love to hear some of my readers’ most memorable and inspiring stories as musicians, so please add them to this page.

Michael Colgrass

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