December 9, 2011
Temple University: That’s a new one
I spent three days at Temple University in Philadelphia this week and had what can only be described as a memorable experience. In a good way.
Temple has a new Director of Bands, Emily Threinen. Emily is young, extremely talented, fun to watch, and driven. Before she arrived, the band at Temple only performed in the spring, never brought in guest composers, and seemed to be a sort of anonymous ensemble on campus. Emily is working to change all of that. The band performs throughout the school year now, playing more than double the concerts they played in the past, and she’s bringing in two guest composers every year. I was honored to be the first.
Temple performed two of my pieces while I was there — “Hymn to a Blue Hour,” and “Harvest,” my trombone concerto. The soloist on “Harvest” was Nitzan Haroz, Principal Trombone for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Nitzan = rock star. More on him in a moment.
Emily is a great host, and the students work really hard under her direction. I stayed in Center City, a wonderful part of Philadelphia (basically across the street from the Kimmel Center, the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra). Meals were good (although three separate people took me to the same restaurant — where I am now a regular! Great place, although their website plays annoying music when you click that link.). I had a nice meeting with conTemplum, the Temple student composers’ organization. (I did appreciate that I was allowed to speak to the student composers, since that, um, doesn’t happen everywhere…) It was All Good. The rehearsals were good, and Nitzan is a monster player. Nitzan told me after one rehearsal, “I wish we could perform the piece several times. I think people might be a little nervous the first time around. I had more fun learning this piece than I’ve had learning any other concerto, and I want to play it in a way that reflects that feeling, but this performance might be a little nerve-wracking for everybody. If only we could play it several times!” “You should do it on a subscription week with the Philly Orchestra,” I believe I responded. I mean, how else could he perform the piece multiple times in quick succession? Ha. Stay tuned.
At the concert, the first half of the program went just fine. The students gave a nice performance of “Hymn to a Blue Hour.” Then, intermission. So far, so good. The second half started with a piece by Ned Rorem, whose music I liked until he dissed me at a performance at Carnegie Hall several years ago. (I mean, come on. You have a piece right before mine, you get up to bow, then you go back to your seat — which was RIGHT BEHIND MY SEAT! — sit down, put on your coat, and leave the concert – seconds before my piece starts, and my piece was the last thing on the program? You couldn’t wait 8 more minutes? Was there some big clearance sale on silk scarfs that you had to rush to? Whatevs.)
I spoke to the audience about “Harvest,” then took my seat to listen to the performance.
It started just fine. Intro: fine. The fast music started going, and it was okay. Everybody sounded a little nervous, but it wasn’t bad or anything. Just… not as comfortable and confident as it could. Nitzan is an incredible player, looking completely engaged in the music even when he wasn’t playing. During the drum break, he’d bob his head and look back to the percussion section, smiling. He played some more, and he sounded great. There aren’t many places where he doesn’t play, but he stopped playing during the rests, continued bobbing his head, slid his page of music to the next page, and…
He didn’t come back in.
The accompaniment continued with its oom-pah jazzy thing, but there was no tune on top, because Nitzan wasn’t playing. He was sliding his pages around on his stand. Then sliding a different page. He still looked totally comfortable, as if nothing was wrong. But something was very wrong. His pages were out of order. He was lost.
Were they going to have to stop? Emily avoided looking at Nitzan, sensing that if they made eye contact, he would stop the performance and start over — and we were about four minutes into the piece. Emily spotted a good re-entry point, prepped it, and cued Nitzan, who came back in. I think he was probably only lost for about a dozen measures or so. I suspect only three people in that hall knew that anything was ever wrong.
The rest of the performance went just fine. During the curtain call, Nitzan hugged Emily and said something to her, she said something back, he said something to her, she again said something back (I think she was saying, “no way in hell”), and Nitzan raised his hand to quiet the audience, and he stepped up to the microphone.
“I’m sure you could tell what happened there,” Nitzan said. “I got my pages out of order, and because of that, you missed the best part of the piece. You all, and John, deserve to hear the piece the way it’s supposed to go, so we’re going to do that first movement again. I need to go backstage for a drink — maybe a glass of wine — but in about 30 seconds, I’m coming back out, and we’re going to play the beginning again.” He paused, then added, “you can leave if you have to.” The audience applauded, and Nitzan left the stage – but nobody else left.
I’ve had a lot of performances where, as I sat there, I thought, “this isn’t going well. I wish they’d do it again.” The performance at Temple was not one of those performances. Sure, there was no solo part for a few measures, but the piece still came of very well. Everybody had sounded a little nervous throughout, just as Nitzan had predicted the night before, and the first movement sounded more tentative than party-like, but it was still very good. Since everything had gotten back on track after a short time, we didn’t need a “do-over.” But we got one.
Nitzan returned to the stage, and he, Emily, and the ensemble repeated the first movement. And it was… spectacular. The nerves were gone. There was a level of confidence and energy and fun that are rare in any performance. It sounded, well, like a party, and it felt like one throughout the hall. Whereas I’d sat nervously during the first performance, during this encore performance, I just smiled and enjoyed the energy in the room. It was the most laid-back performance I can remember, but that level of informality made for a more exciting, care-free (but clean!) performance. If only I could share it!
Ah, but I can! Somebody — I don’t know who — captured it on their phone, and posted it to YouTube. Here’s the repeat of the first movement, starting with me telling the audience that a “do-over” really wasn’t necessary, but I wasn’t going to argue. It ends a little weird (not surprisingly, considering they were only doing the first movement, which doesn’t have a set ending, but continues directly into the next movement), but I love it.
Again, my sincere thanks to Dr. Emily Threinen, the students at Temple, and the absolutely bad-ass Nitzan Haroz. I guess from now on, I need to insist that the dress rehearsal be part of the actual concert, ’cause the result is confident, exciting performance.
At the reception after the concert, a complete stranger named Renee joined our group because she “can tell who the most fun people in the room are.” (I guess she missed the pair of hookers in the next section.) She asked Nitzan, who is from Israel, “where are you from? Are you from Jersey?” I guess that’s where the exotic people come from. (Our upstairs neighbor is Albanian, and somebody once asked him if that meant he was from Albany.) Nice to meet you, Renee. (Surrounding her are Jay Krush, Temple’s tuba professor, and Travis Cross, he of great and often distasteful humor.)
Jay, you don’t look as convinced as Travis.
That’s more like it!
Congratulations to Emily on her first semester at Temple — and thank you for having me on campus! This was a great trip. And Nitzan: any time you want to perform “Harvest,” even if it’s multiple times in a night, you have my blessing.