Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Road Warriors

In Des Moines, a lady came up to me and told the following story:

Leonard Bernstein had always been her hero. When at last she and her son got to meet him after a concert, the son couldn't resist telling Bernstein, "My mom says you're the only guy she'd ever run away with." The maestro spread his cape like gigantic wings and said to her, "Let's go!"

The reason I was in Des Moines was for the premiere of a choral piece I was commissioned to write for a choral festival run out of a sort of New Age church hard by Drake University. The Thresholds festival, invented by the church's choral director Ben Allaway, is based on Unesco's "Six Points Toward a Culture of Peace." The points are all good stuff -- like "respect the environment" and "eschew violence" and "listen to understand." Nothing you could argue with. But taken all together like that, these points have a sort of deadly quality to them. A sort of bludgeoning, dogmatic quality. But maybe it's just me; I have no stomach for dogma of any stripe -- even right-thinking dogma. Even left-thinking dogma.

All the music in the Thresholds festival had to address one or more of these Six Points -- and that went for my piece too. So I wrote an a capella thing called "This World Beats Like a Heart." My inspiration for this piece was ... hip-hop and techno dance loops! So it was with a certain dismay that I beheld my chorus for the first time at the rehearsal, an hour or so before the concert; they were most decidedly midwestern and, um, white. I figured the kids' chorus, at least, would know what I was driving at. As they struggled to grasp a particular rhythm, I told them, "It's hip-hop, guys!" They blinked politely at me.

Considering the underpreparedness and contextual vacuum, the performance went better than I expected. Judith Clurman, director of the Juilliard chorus, flew in that morning and wrestled the piece into shape. The thrill of hearing my own music reverberating in a big room was an incalculable thrill. My songs rarely if ever see the light of day.

The biggest problem became getting out of Des Moines. As my friend James (who came along for fun) and I were en route to Des Moines that Saturday, a fellow passenger told us a big blizzard was expected to plow into the northeast on Monday -- the day we were returning. I could not afford to be delayed; I had to get back to my kids by early Monday evening latest. So pretty much the moment we got to our Holiday Inn Express, we began plotting our escape. It was tough. The early connections to Chicago were already sold out. If we went through St. Louis it would cost 700 bucks. (There are, incidentally, no direct flights between New York City and the capital of Iowa.)

In the end, we realized that we just had to get ourselves to Chicago somehow. And there was no other way to do it than to rent a car and DRIVE after the concert, six hours, through snow and rain, to Chicago. Me and James and Judy Clurman. It could have been awful. In a way it was awful. But we got giddy. Road trip!! We laughed and drove and told stories and drove and laughed. We stopped at the Kum & Go (I kid you not) where Judy bought each of us a Kum & Go teeshirt and an Iowa regfrigerator magnet with a grinning pink pig on it. We pulled into O'Hare at 1:30 in the morning, ditched the car and rented a double room in the airport Hilton. Tired does not begin to describe it. But the beds were delicious, featuring exceptionally fine cotton sheets, of all things.

Four hours later we were in the terminal, haggling our way onto the 8:30 United flight. We all got on it, and we landed in La Guardia a safe hour or two before the snow came in. Mission accomplished.

That evening, while I was washing the dishes, Beethoven 9 was on the radio -- a kick-ass performance by the NY Phil, Maazel conducting. By the final movement I was standing over the boom box, lost in the music. How did Beethoven do it?? How did he (and Schiller) manage to convey everything those Six Points try to say, and more -- without once sounding strident or dogmatic? It's a magic trick! By the end of the Ode to Joy I was still standing over the boom box in my kitchen, dissolved in tears.