Determined, dared, and done

Standing in the doorway at the back of the auditorium I hear Anthony Del Donna, a professor of music at Georgetown University, describing The Chaconne Project to the waiting audience. “It’s a masterpiece of the repertoire,” he says, “and one of the greatest works of music ever written.” Or something like that. I am deep in a fog, thinking about all of the things that have brought me to this moment and this performance. But hearing him say my name pierces through, and the applause that follows sweeps the fog aside as I walk down to take my place on the stage.

McNeir Auditorium is nothing like Mixon Hall, but the piano bench in the center of the stage is just like the one I sat on that June morning that now feels so long ago. Instead of empty chairs in front of me are faces, some familiar but most unknown. Just for a moment I think back to that morning, playing to an empty hall, until I feel some of the calm that I felt then. When I am ready I strum the big D major chord that opens my first piece and lean into the music.

Renaissance lute music, the lovely Julia Florida by Agustín Barrios, two pieces by Mertz, two preludes by Villa-Lobos, and then, too soon and at long last, it’s the Chaconne. I’ve been talking to the audience between pieces and so I say a few words about this last piece on the program. I sit for a few moments, hearing how I will play the first four measures in my head before I touch my fingers to the strings and play.

Performing the Chaconne at Georgetown University, February 7, 2020

For the most part the performance goes according to plan. Here and there a note that doesn’t quite sound out like I want it to, and a couple of spots where I’d like to hit rewind and play again. Each of those spots happens because my concentration is suddenly interrupted by a little voice in my head saying “I am actually doing this!” and my enjoyment of the moment leads me astray.

Later, at a post-concert dinner my friend Clark Baxter gives me a significant look, says something about an English poet and I hear the words “dared and done.” I email him later to find out what he said, and he sends me the citation: it’s the final two lines from “A Song to David” by Christopher Smart (1722-1770)

And now the matchless deed's achieved,
Determined, dared, and done!

I’m not sure the deed is matchless, as many have played it before me. Nor is it fully done, with two more performances already on my calendar over the coming weeks. But I understand his sentiment and appreciate both its generosity and its meaning, for I have indeed done that which I set out to do.

Yesterday, a couple of days after drafting this post, I came across this story from David Dobbs, in which he quotes a violin teacher who had set him to work on this same Bach D minor partita. The quote is lengthy, but it is worth reading the whole story.

“This is Bach. And Bach, more than any other music, and these pieces, more than any other Bach, is music complete. This doesn’t just mean it’s beautiful. This means you can play this music all your life, even just this Allemande, and no matter what you do, it will expose you. It will expose everything you are and everything you’re not. It will expose everything you can do and everything you can’t. It will expose everything you’ve mastered and everything you’re scared of. And I don’t mean just about the violin. I mean about everything. It’ll show all that today and it’ll show all that when you play it again in 10 years. And people who know music, who’ve seen you play it both times, they will see you play it and know who you were and who you’ve become.

“There is nothing you can do about this. Or actually there is only one thing you can do about it. And that’s to play the f—ing music. To not play scared, even if you’re terrified. To not rush. To not short anything. Inhabit this thing. Play it full.”

–David Dobbs, “What Malone Said”

This seems to me to be as true as anything I have read since I started the project a year ago. I know I am not done.