Interlude 9: A Performance Nightmare

The dream takes a different shape for everyone. Sometimes in the dream you are giving a speech and realize that you are naked. Or perhaps you’re onstage in a play and realize that you haven’t learned your lines. Maybe you stand up to address the jury, your client’s life in the balance, and find you have no voice.

Or you are playing in a concert but don’t know the music.

In the early fall of 2003 I attended a University of South Dakota alumni event in New York City. The focal point was a performance by the Madrigal Chamber Singers, a group with which I had sung when I was a student. During the post-concert mingling I met Larry Schou, then chairman of the music department. On learning about my background he said “Well, you should come back to Vermillion to perform.” I said that would be great, certain that nothing would come of it. But a few days later I got an email from the violin professor and director of the orchestra—we’ll call him John— inviting me to come play a concerto the following spring.

At that point I wasn’t really playing at all, and the most recent concert experience I had was 10 years in the past. But I had a full six months to prepare and figured I could master the Vivaldi D major concerto. So John and I spoke by phone and agreed on a date in April 2004 and the Vivaldi with a small student group. In addition, he suggested we play a chamber piece with a cellist—did I know the Paganini Terzetto in D major? “No, but I have heard it on recording and I can get the music.” So we agreed on that as well.

One of the things that had always held me back from reaching my full potential as a player was a lack of preparation. I would play a piece in recital that was just at the point of being ready, but not fully in my command. I promised myself that I would be ready—really ready—for my first return to the USD recital hall. So I set about learning the music, and by March I felt very confident. I had a “Music Minus One” recording of the concerto and could breeze through it at a good performance tempo, secure in my fingerings and interpretation. The Paganini had some very challenging solo parts for the guitar, but I felt equally confident that it was ready to go. I looked forward to the trip, and to showing my wife the places where I grew up and having her in the audience for these performances.

We were due to leave for South Dakota on a Wednesday morning, and on Tuesday evening I spoke to John to confirm details like meeting times and rehearsal locations. At the end of the call, almost as an afterthought, he asked the question that changed everything: “By the way, you did prepare the Terzetto in D for viola, cello, and guitar, correct?” My response took a long time to work its way to my mouth: I had prepared the Terzetto in D for violin, cello, and guitar.[1] I mean, he was the violin teacher! I’d been around the music world long enough to hear all of the viola jokes and it never occurred to me that anyone would willingly play the viola instead of the violin.[2]

Well, no problem, right? String players learn new music all the time, and it would be easier for them than for me, surely? But the cellist was not a professional and John didn’t believe he could adjust. He thought the best course was to muddle through, and he would arrange to get the music to my hotel in Sioux Falls before I arrived. I said I would do my best.

What happened after that is a little blurry. We made it to Sioux Falls, and I know that we did some sightseeing because I have the pictures. Sometime on Thursday we drove to Vermillion and I huddled in a practice room in a waking nightmare. A first read-through of the Paganini with John and the cellist. Much of the guitar part consisted of relatively simple accompaniment, easy to sight read, but some solo passages were fiendish and whole sections had to be simplified, or cut altogether. 

One more rehearsal on Friday morning and then a noontime performance of the Paganini at the National Music Museum before a mercifully small audience. It was better than it might have been, but that isn’t saying very much. 

That evening, John had arranged for me to play in an informal setting at a downtown cafe; very much the sort of thing I did when I lived in Vermillion. That was the first time during the trip that I was able to relax and enjoy the experience.

The Saturday performance was held in the art gallery of the Fine Arts Center on campus, and several of my former USD professors were in the audience. The Paganini was better, although still very rough around the edges. But the Vivaldi was all that I had wished, and my careful preparation resulted in a lively and confident performance. When, in the third movement, the orchestra began to speed up I had no trouble keeping up with them, and managed to bring them back to earth by slowing down the solo sections.

The trauma of the Paganini was intense, and even today the thought of that first performance makes me very uncomfortable. But something even more powerful came out of that South Dakota trip—for the first time in many years, I felt like a musician again. 

[1]The source of confusion? The work for viola, cello, and guitar is titled Terzetto Concertante; the work with violin is simply Terzetto. Both are in the key of D major.

[2]For example: How can you tell a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving. Seach “viola jokes” online and you’ll be both amazed and amused. Unless you play viola.