Friday, 29 July 2016

Trio tale

It may be instructive to show how a new piece, in spite of being well-adapted to the practical and aesthetic norms of the central performance culture, can find barriers to its realization in concert.... which are not due to insufficient musical quality and interest, but to the usual circumstantial hazards which plague concert life behind the screens of civilized decorum.  Although classical chamber music concerts may offer a well-organized and disciplined decorum, the road for a composer, to eventually get there, may be bumpy and rather bizarre. Once, a chamber music piece of mine which I still like quite much, seemed to attract mishap and bad luck all the time, as if a curse hung over it.

In the nineties, the brilliant violinist Vesko Eschkenazy, who had shortly before landed in Amsterdam from Bulgaria to embark upon a solo and chamber music career, had set-up a string trio and called it the Solare Trio, with a hopeful reference to a sunny future and in the same time, to three notes of the scale: so, la and re. He asked me to write a piece for the trio and incorporate these three notes, for their first concert in the following season, a kind of baptism commission. I liked the idea and began to work, finding that the three notes could be developed into an interesting theme in a Haydnesque manner. After some time however, Vesko informed me that the trio had been dissolved and that he had to withdraw the commission. 

Some years later, while working at a small artist management that I had set-up with a friend, a young collegue in the office had organized a foundation and began to set-up a tour project with various chamber ensembles through the Netherlands, and his attractive idea was to create a commission for every ensemble for a new piece, which would be included in an overall programming strategy which would focus on 'expression'. The project was called: 'Sound of Romanticism' and for that reason, knowing the nature of my music, I was one of the composers he approached for this project. The ensembles ranged from piano quintet to string trio, and the composers were asked for which combination they preferred to write. Since I was apparently last to ask this question, and nobody wanted to write for a string trio (the musical resources of which are very limited), the trio combination was the only item left on the list: I had the choice of doing the trio or not being part of the project. Since I had already begun something of a trio, I accepted and wrote a piece in which I took the classical Viennese idiom of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven - no less - as a point of departure, as a stylistic example, and treated it in my own way, i.e. where I felt I had to deviate from examples, I did so, which provided the freedom to explore possibilities which otherwise would have been impossible within the historical style. I still think it is one of my most effective pieces; especially the 1st movement was pleasant to work on, and the last bars I still find touching as if it were by another composer altogether. My piece was given to a famed ensemble with well-known chamber music players, which out of respect I will not name. These brilliant musicians were also member of other combinations - the string trio is not a 'fixed' combination like the string quartet, and is mostly run by musicians who have their main activities elsewhere, either in bigger ensembles or in orchestras, or in a solo career. By the time the rehearsels would have to begin where I was supposed to be present, I still had heard nothing; making some inquiries appeared to be difficult, the players not being easily contactable, but then the news was sipping through that there had not been any rehearsel with all three members together, and that while the date of the first concert of the tour was getting very near. In the end, each of the players had practiced his part individually, and one day before the premiere they got together for the first time and tried to put the piece into a  whole, coached by me in one afternoon. That was utterly frustrating, since the feel for the togetherness was not there. I left the conservatory building, where the rehearsels took place, with quite some worry, while the players were going to work on the music for the rest of the evening. The next evening the performance was a disaster: it sounded stiff, unexpressive, anxious and forced - a caricature. Later performances were a bit better, surrounded as they were by new ensemble rehearsels, but only at the end of the tour - the last concert was in the concert hall in Enschede, in the east of the country - it began to sound close to what I had intended. Also the reason for the lack of normal, regular rehearsels transpired: the cellist had suddenly decided that he was gay and got into a complicated divorce process which prevented him from doing anything apart from his job at one of the national symphony orchestras as first cellist. Because the players felt rather guilty about the maltreatment of my piece, they offered to make a recording after the last concert, and this took place also in that very hall in Enschede. Since the last concert had taken place at noon, there was plenty of time, and the technician monitoring the mikes and recording facilitities did his best to comply to all our wishes. A couple of hours of rehearsing and recording provided enough material for a satisfying recording, so that at least I would have something positive to carry with me after the whole frustrating enterprise. The players, getting increasingly inspired, did their very best and indeed, later in the afternoon there began to blossom a really good piece - the piece which the audiences should have been able to hear. At home however, it appeared that there was a strong buzz in the recording. Discussion next day with Enschede revealed that the buzz had entirely escaped the attention of the audio technician because it was not heard in his own head phones, and the cause was a microphone which had some sonic problem. So, the recording was worthless and the entire exercise of tour and recording quite pointless. Because of all these mishaps, the players never wanted to have anything to do with me, the contact would remind them of this unlucky project they wanted to forget as quickly as possible.

The reviews of the whole project were very favorable: the other composers had written pieces where elements from 'romanticism' were treated conceptually, like a chord from a Schumann piece where the performers gradually unwound the strings while playing, so that a slow chordal glissando ended in a nihilistic moaning, or similar sonic treatment which pleased the critics very much, apparently being excited that they understood so much of their own time. The reviews lauded the project and the musicians, and considered the new pieces valuable contributions to the chamber music repertoire - only my piece was rejected out of hand and not even discussed: 'too oldfashioned' and that was that. My way of interpreting 'romanticism' and 'expression' was obviously seen as missing the point. Of all those 'valuable contributions to the chamber music repertoire' nothing was ever heard again.

A couple of years later-on, I was contacted by a young trio who were going to participate in a small contemporary music festival in Den Bosch, an attractive old town with a beautiful gothic cathedral. They wanted to play my string trio there in a small hall, and although I doubted whether the type of music would fit well in such a festival, I had sent them the parts and offered coaching help if they so wished. Some months later, they indeed asked me to coach them which was very hard because the music was, in fact, too difficult for them, not so much technically but musically - they found it hard to feel the flow. I should have stopped them there, but alas, I was too optimistic. I went to the performance which was one of those experiences that you fear to dream about later-on: the program of that particular concert, wich was presented also by other ensembles, entirely consisted of modernist pieces, full of shrill but progressive dissonances, theatricals, and quasi-organized chaos, gravely presented and wholeheartedly applauded by an audience in progressive garb: T-shirts, jeans, long grey hairs (avegare age was as my own, in their fifties), serious glasses and a general air of avantgarde. My poor classical piece was the sudden shock of a culture clash and people looked to each other frowning in progressive disapproval, and the poor players sawed through their parts without much conviction, bowing afterwards exhausted, to boo's in a restless atmosphere of indignation..... it was like a Schoenberg piece amidst Mozart and Brahms at 1910 Vienna, but then the other way around. Instead of thanking on the podium, I fled the building to the railway station, to get back to Amsterdam as quickly as possible.

Reading through the piece again, I still found it quite good, and decided to simply try to interest other ensembles, but abroad, since the musical climate in the Netherlands did not seem to work-out well for a new form of classicism, neither in a classical nor in a contemporary context. In the following years I sent letters and scores to quite a number of players, but in vain. After that, I shelved it for good, I thought, and accepted the bitter reality that the piece would never be performed and could not find a place in music life, if even so marginal. I took the theme of the slow second movement as material for the middle movement of a symphony project, to at least save something from these experiences.

But lo and behold: in 2016 the piece was played again by the ensemble 'Sound Collective' at King's Place in London, the current popular chamber music venue close to Kings' Cross railway station, and it appeared to be an entirely normal and good piece, placed between Beethoven and Brahms. So, in the end, it proved to be possible at all to be performed in a normal, regular format by truly excellent players, and it left me wondering why it had been so difficult to find its suitable context. Was it the 'Zeitgeist'? A mysterious force which draws bad or good luck to performances according to inscrutenable laws? What drives bad luck anyway, if so abundantly related to a particular piece? 'About which we cannot speak, we should be silent'- Wittgenstein.

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