Thursday, February 3, 2011
Town and Country
A few days ago, I gave a concert in my new town, which is very much like those crumbling Rust Belt cities that I used to see from the window of the Amtrak Maple Leaf, only possibly slightly less cosmopolitan and slightly more crumbling. The genesis of this concert was a phone call a few months ago from a colleague of mine, a wonderful bass who now teaches at a large Southern university; he told me he wanted to come up to do a concert with me. He needed more performances for his tenure file. So I contacted a few people and arranged for us to do a concert in what may become a regular salon concert series in a beautiful space with a fine piano. I also arranged for him to teach a master class to the local university's voice students. I planned and thematically programmed the repertoire -- all chamber music from nineteenth-century Italy -- made translations, and spoke to the audience about the music. And, as with all gigs, no matter how small, I practiced as if it were the most important gig of my life. We also enlisted a gifted young local tenor, a popular favorite, to sing with us, and there my troubles began.
I think there's a reason that some of the best twentieth-century British comic novels are set in the provinces. My tenor, who I emphasize could be monstrously good, has never made the break to New York, partly because he's well-loved here, and partly because it's cheap enough to live here that he's able to spend a good part of his day taking long baths, watching old movies, and drinking martinis, which doesn't happen much for young tenors in New York, most of whom are office temps by day and/or waiters and bartenders by night. But who can blame my tenor? I'd be drinking a martini in the bath right now if I had some gin on hand.
I gave him the music I wanted him to sing -- all pieces that have rarely been in the past hundred years or more, possibly never performed in this locale at all, and unrecorded (which meant he wouldn't be able to take the lazy man's way out and learn them from CDs) back in October, but he learned it (sort of) three days before the performance. My bass colleague was slightly appalled for about five minutes, but quickly assured me he'd seen this sort of situation, and this sort of tenor, before: the gifted local favorite whom much is forgiven on account of his personal charm, and who never develops the skills that would afford him a career outside of the provinces. "It's too bad," my colleague said, "because my manager needs a tenor, and I would have recommended him if he weren't so unprofessional."
The moral of this story is that there are no low-stakes gigs. You never know who it is that you may be working with or performing for. I'm not saying that I've never turned in a bad performance -- I have -- but it wasn't because I hadn't learned my music. In fact, I have a recurrring nightmare, as I'm sure most singers do, that an important gig is looming and I don't know my part. I couldn't understand why my tenor would willingly put himself through such harrowing stress, if it weren't that he knew he'd be forgiven any offense by an adoring audience who wouldn't notice his mistakes anyway. I'm trying hard to find this attitude forgivable, for to me it shows contempt for one's audience, for one's colleagues, and for the music itself, which we are privileged to be able to sing.
Our pianist -- who is local and truly excellent -- was chagrined. She had recommended him. She has some connections to New York, has played there, and feels a sort of provincial insecurity around artists from there. "Pentimento," she kept saying me, "when did you last experience this sort of thing?" Well, never, actually. But it's not because singers, or people, in New York are better. It's just that they're different. They're hungry; they're driven. There are hundreds of people auditioning for the same job. There are thousands of opera singers in New York, of varying degrees of success and ability, who have come there from all over the country and the world because they believe they have the relentless discipline and stamina to survive and triumph in that brutal, cut-throat climate. They aren't always better singers than my local tenor, but they are better workers, and in the end, I will aver with my dying breath, that is the thing that matters most of all.
I'm not knocking the life of a small-town artist. I can understand its appeal to a certain sort of person. But I see that it has a lot to do with adoring dowagers and martinis in the bathtub (though not at the same time), and very little to do with art, because you can never really get to the heart of the beauty, the truth, the compelling intimacy, or the healing that is inherent in the music if you haven't bothered to really learn it.
When we went out to a bar after the performance, I told my bass colleague that I felt like a light had gone out in my life since we moved here. "Well, turn it back on, Pentimento!" he roared at me. "Make your niche here! I'm going to call you every day and kick your ass until you do."
It may happen. My autoharp-procuring mentor, unbidden by me, has pledged a fairly substantial sum to fund a vocal chamber music collective in this area founded and directed by me. His idea. I may be writing more here at some point about music-making in the provinces. In the meantime, straight up with olives, please.
(Above: a scene from "Red, White, and Blaine," the show-within-a-show in that great film parody of community theater, Waiting for Guffman.)