Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Eve at the Virginia (part three)

When I took the stage last night at the Virginia Theater to play William Albright's "Grand Sonata in Rag" I was surrounded by memories. Those of you who live in the environs of Champaign, Illinois, and particularly those of you who don't mind that I'm here making music among you may be interested to know that you kind of have Mr. Albright to thank for that.

I was a struggling graduate student wondering where I was going to come up with the astronomical sums of money needed for school. At the time I was finishing a Master's degree during my second year and getting ready to audition for the Doctoral program. Despite loans and despite grants, I couldn't keep up with the remaining out-of-pocket cost of school. I had own some piano competitions the year before graduate school and I think the government looked at my savings account and decided that if they took all of it the first semester it would magically grow back in time for the next payment three months later. I came really close to selling my piano. It had never left my parent's house anyway--I couldn't afford the cost of moving it three states away.

That winter Bill Albright came for a visit. He told us to call him Bill. He was informal, funny, knowledgeable, and of course, a celebrity to us. A composer from the University of Michigan whose colleague, William Bolcom, visited the U of I campus about a month ago, the faculty arranged a concert of his works, and some students got to join the faculty in performing the works. My friend and roommate was a saxophonist, and he arranged for me to play Albright's Sonata for Saxophone and piano with him.

I found a performance of that recently on Youtube. It is a wild piece, very atonal and avant-garde. If you heard the "Grand Sonata in Rag" I played last night you would never think those two pieces were written by the same person. But the man had many facets.

We opened the concert with it and it brought the house down. In the cavernous St. Paul's church the applause was particularly thunderous. Some students told us that it was one of those performances they would remember for a long time. The composer was very complimentary.

I think I had been too nervous about the piece for too long to take it all in. We'd had to put it together pretty fast; it was difficult, and besides, I remember thinking, at your degree recital you don't have Beethoven sitting in the front row.

Perhaps I was a bit over worried. At the coaching we had the afternoon of the concert he seemed eager to just let us make music. I had looked at the score with all of those adjectives over practically every chord in the fourth movement and thought "what a control freak!" and feared I wouldn't get everything just right. My friend at one point missed several notes in a run and Bill said seriously that he needed "more information" which is one of the phrases we'll always laugh about until we die. I asked him a few philosophical questions about his music and he was evasive. And at the dinner afterward he was genial and funny.

The day after the concert the chairwoman of the voice department charged into the Dean's office and announced that she really wanted Michael Hammer to accompany her 20th century art song class. I overheard, not because I'm a busybody, but because I happened to be working in the office at the time. I did work-study for a couple hours around lunch every day, answering phones and questions when the staff was at lunch, and until then I was in a little cubicle on the other side of a wall and cut off from the hallway by the as yet unopened window, so she didn't know I was there. The Dean agreed, and after I was accepted into the Doctoral program, they cobbled together a Graduate Assistantship--one that didn't exist yet. It included my teaching a remedial theory class to two sections of incoming freshmen in the fall and spending the rest of the year accompanying lots of singers for their lessons and recitals, and, of course, that 20th century art song class. There wasn't a lot of funding for graduate students at Peabody then, and I had been trying to get one of a very few theory assistantships but having no luck. On the third try, they made one up and I got to stay in school at the eleventh hour.

That chairwoman was Phyliss Bryn-Julson, who knew practically every major musical figure of the twentieth century and premiered many of their works, and that dean was Steven Baxter. I owe them big. My Doctorate wouldn't have happened otherwise.

And if I hadn't stuck around Baltimore for a few more years I wouldn't have developed a relationship with a young woman at my church who thought I was kind of cute and who I married once she graduated college. At which point she and I decided that the program with the funding and the flexibility that she needed to become an MD/PhD was right here in Illinois. And now you know the rest of the story.

William Albright's role in all this was, of course, indirect, and unsuspecting, but he got the ball rolling. I can't help think of this episode in my life when I play his sonata. I learned it a year later after checking to see what else he had written that might prove of interest. Phyliss Bryn-Julson heard me play it in recital and suggested I send the tape to Mr. Albright but I didn't think I had played it very well. The composer never heard it. He died only a year after I encountered him for the first and only time, much too young. He had been an alcoholic and he died of liver failure. It was a shock to us. I heard that his colleague across the hall had some harsh things to say at his funeral.

Such is the nature of memories. They are not all pleasant. But they make up the story of our lives. Particularly the turning points. So if you are not in despair at my being here  in Central Illinois you know how it happened. I'm certainly not sorry about it. I'm lucky to be able to play such music for all of you, friends, neighbors, relatives (my parents were in the audience last night). Year after year we go to the Virginia for a night of fun and celebration and it feels like home. I hope those of you in the audience and on the stage know how special this is, and how many people, present and past, made this possible. And as we got to celebrate Scott Joplin's Victory over his critics and the New York school of velocity I could feel all of us enjoying the music, together. Including the ghost of Bill Albright, hovering close by.

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