Janacek in performance- only in New York

7:30 AM: Sunday morning and I’m up too freakin’ early- I’ve got a short window to meet my dear old friend, the marvelous horn player Nancy B, for breakfast. I’ve got to walk to Central Park South in time for a 9 AM meetup, then David Y can pick me up at 10:30 to head to Brooklyn for our concert.

9:00 Against all odds, I have found the restaurant on time, and Nancy is there.

10 AM: Breakfast is a delight, and with our stomach’s full and a line forming outside the restaurant, Nancy and I decide to vacate the table and have a walk around Central Park.

10:15 my phone rings. It’s David Y, who sounds collected but urgent-“Hey Ken, change of plan. My back just gave out on me while I was on the phone- I actually fell over. I think it’s better if I don’t drive. Can you come back here and drive us?”

Of course, I agreed, said a quick goodbye to Nancy and hopped in a cab back to 51st.

10:45: I arrived at the house, however, David Y was far from waiting to get in the car. Instead, he was balanced precariously against the mantelpiece in his room, in obvious agony. My back gave way completely about a year ago while I was in Portland conducting Rose City Chamber Orchestra. I recognized what David was going through right away and instantly realized our concert was in jeopardy. After last year, I travel with some strong muscle relaxants/pain pills in case of another attack- I offered one to David Y then went downstairs to meet David E, who had just arrived.

11:15: I go upstairs to see if the medicine has had any positive effect of David Y- apparently not. He has collapsed to the floor and is unable to move without agonizing shooting pains. We begin to discuss our options- we can give the drugs a little time to work. Since a muscle spasm is not quite the same thing as an injury, it is possible that if the electrical storm in his back passes, David could play, but not until he can move…

12:00 David E and I are not optimistic, but David Y is determined. We decide I’ll bring the viola upstairs and see if he can sit up and play a bit- if he can’t do this, there’s no point in braving the horrors of the stairs. The experiment fails completely before I can get the viola. He tries to sit up a bit, but the man cannot move at all.

12:15: We’re looking at options- we can do the Schubert Trio Satz without viola as there is an alternative 2nd violin part. That gives us 10 minutes of music. We can still do “Let’s All Go Down The Strand,” which we’re playing from a piano score anyway (except we haven’t looked at it yet- that was a job for the sound check). Good- that gets us to 12 minutes of music. Shit. David Y asks if I’ll play some Bach- I could probably do the 3rd Suite if I had the music, which I suppose I could print off the internet. That gets me thinking- maybe we can print a few more 2 violin cello trios off as well? Actually, I could play the 2nd-5th Suites if I had the music. Damn!

12:35: David takes a call from the presenter, and has to tell him about his condition. “Don’t worry,” he promises “you will have a concert, and a good concert” In the background I hear what sounds like blind panic.

12:45 I’ve had a better idea than printing off Bach Suites- “David, this is New York, can’t we find a decent violist who can come in and at least do a Mozart quartet or 2 that we all know?”

“Good idea, man. Can you bring me my laptop?”

12:50 David is still on the floor, in his concert trousers, holding his laptop gingerly against his knees, looking for a number. He finds one and calls- “Tanya, David here. How are you? First thing- are you free this afternoon? Good! I’ll explain…..” In a minimum of words he recaps our predicament. “so we were hoping we could at least do a Mozart you all know and have some kind of a concert with a solo piece or two.” Tanya says something I can’t hear, then David answers, “Janacek 2- that’s right, Intimate Letters. You do? You would? Really? Don’t feel pressured to- we’re just trying to make sure the presenter has something for his audience, it doesn’t have to be the concert of the century….. Cool- look I’ll talk to David E and Ken and call you right back.”1:00 David E joins us upstairs for a conference. David Y updates us “Tanya can play- she’s wonderful. You know her, don’t you David?” David E nods. “She says she knows the piece well- studied it in grad school and played it a lot and is willing to have a go at it.”

What she’s proposing sounds too good to be true, and bordering on impossible, or bordering on the insane. The piece is so sectionalized that the likelihood of us getting through it without discovering some radical discrepancies between how she played it and how we’ve been playing it is very small. The three critical editions we worked from this week all have huge discrepancies- what if we are playing something ppp she’s used to playing ff?????

David E looks at me and says “do want to even try something like that.”

In a twisted way, I realize, it sounds fun… “Yes. I think so. What have we got to loose?”

Moments later Tanya is in a cab, headed our way.

1:30: Tanya and the cab pull up to David Y’s house in Manhattan- we’ve got 30 minutes to do a 20 minute journey to Brooklyn, which is cutting it fine in New York, even on a Sunday. Tanya pulls out her score and David E begins graciously and calmly talking her through our interpretation- this we speed up a bit, slower here, very long eighth notes there, you lead this, about 144 to the quarter, yes like that…..” In the end, we have five minutes for us all to make chit chat and catch up.

1:50: We arrive at the hall. Yonah (2nd violin) has been waiting ages for us, since we couldn’t catch him before he left home to warn him- he does’t have a cell phone. The last violinist on earth without one. What a player, though. We introduce Tanya. “Let’s play,” says Yonah. I tighten my bow “let’s play,” he pleads again. David E is changing into his concert clothes…

1:55 Bows on strings. Pencils are flying- every mark is a potential disaster averted. We’ve begged the presenter to give us 10 minutes (10 MINUTES!!!!!!) in the hall to go over things. He promises to hold the audience until 2 PM and agreed to a 2:10 start.1:58: Someone has let the damn audience in. Robbed of 20% of our rehearsal time.  We repair to the green room- actually a kitchen storage room. It reeks of stale cumin, and the fan whirs noisily at 436 hz, painfully close to our A’s. Just flat enough to be obnoxious and to make backstage tuning impossible

2:04 So much for the 2:10 start. With the audience in place, it is getting awkward and the manager begs us to start. David E, Tanya and I make our way to the stage for the Schubert. This we’ve not played a note of together, nor had time to discuss. Once on stage, the auditorium is comfortingly darker than when we were rehearsing. We check A’s, safely away from the horrible fan, then begin. It feels, well… er….. pretty good.

2:20 We’ve decided to ditch the Mozart/Bach Prelude and Fugue because there just wasn’t a moment to discuss it and it’s quite stylized now the way we play it. Instead, Tanya, who just played a recital last week, is going to play a movement of Biber. I love the irony of sending the sub out to do the solo piece while the rest of us sit backstage and arrange the silly “Let’s All Go Down the Strand.”

2: 35 The Biber finished, we take the stage for the first time as a quartet to sight read this silly song. Just before we start, I realize that Tanya missed the most important part of our conversation backstage- “take the repeat!” I whisper…. The audience laughs loudly at the end and claps, but they seem a bit baffled. Apparently, Ron left it off the program- they were expecting Janacek. Ron makes a lovely speech explaining how his Mum, from England (she loved this song, it appears) started and ran this concert series for many years.

2:45 We begin the pre-performance presentation on the Janacek (you can see the blog version of what we presented here, but we did our own demos live, of course). It feels much more natural in a big space than it did in the living room the night before, and we’ve made some judicious cuts as well.

3:00 The beauty of the brief rap is that it gave us a chance to do those 7 excerpts together once at least. All put together, that means we’ve had about 7 minutes rehearsal time with Tanya. Now, to play the beast itself- all the way through. No stopping, no mistakes. Bows on strings. It feels, well….er…pretty good. We’re all communicating our butts off, at every moment one concentration lapse from disaster. Balances are different, of course, and we’re standing on our heads to make the tuning work on the fly. All said and done, it’s better than surviving it- it was pretty damn fun.

3:45 Hugs, congrats and goodbyes. We all tell Tanya she’s amazing, and we all mean it. The three original members of the four-day-old group all thank each other. Yonah is the last one I congratulate- “Cheers man, thanks so much.”

“You’ve got to lose the “cheers”, Ken,” Yonah replies. “You can’t say “cheers” here- it’s very un-New York.”

Lose the cheers- fair enough. When in New York…

This has been my first New York chamber music concert, and it was every bit the “only in New York” experience.

6:00 I make it back to David Y’s place on the subway after a quick lunch. He’s still on the floor where I left him, still too sore to move. I fill him in on the concert and thank him for finding the amazing Tanya. “We’ll find another date where we can play it together for real” I say of the Janacek. I really feel awful for him- he’s done all the work to organize this concert and didn’t get to play the piece he’d built it around.

10:00 I’ve had a relaxing evening walking the streets of Manhattan, up to Rockefeller Center then over to the UN. I’m ready for a cold beer- maybe it’s because this part of NYC is so expensive, but one doesn’t find welcoming neighborhood bars around here. Also- East Coast culture is much less beverage focused that West Coast. Even fancy bars don’t have decent beer lists. Finally, I find a quiet pub where at least the football is on quietly. They’ve got Sierra Nevada on tap—a notch above what I’ve had all week, but after this day, it feels like the nectar of the gods. Refreshed and relaxed, my mission accomplished. I can call it a night. I get the tab and settle up. “Thanks much and goodnight,” I tell the bartender.

“Cheers man,” he says in reply. Apparently, you can say cheers in New York after all.

I leave quickly before he can see me crack up laughing.

Post script- David Y’s back has loosened up, and he’s back to his usual indestructible and tireless self. Watch this space for info on our next attempt at Janacek 2, hopefully to be paired with Janacek 1.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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