On a wire

For all intents and purposes, my hometown is Los Angeles. I was born there and grew up there. But I haven’t lived there for almost twenty years now, and my immediate family has all moved away. When I’m there, I barely even recognize the city I spent the first eighteen years of my life in.

On the other hand, drop me in Philadelphia and all the complicated feelings of a hometown immediately flood my consciousness. Almost every building within a five-block radius of Rittenhouse Square has a memory attached to it, some good and some bad. This city is where I grew up musically, where I met most of my closest friends, and where I faced the harshest criticism (the majority of it coming from myself). When Eighth Blackbird came to do a three-year residency at Curtis five years ago, my shock at the brand new Lenfest Hall was quickly followed by relief when I thought that I probably wouldn’t have to play in Field Hall, the site of auditions, orchestra rehearsals and student recitals when I was a student. That small, modest hall embodies all of my best and worst musical experiences, and still features prominently in my anxiety dreams. In fact, we did have to perform there, and I remember standing in the hallway backstage wondering whether I might drop dead from my heart beating so hard.

Coming back to Curtis to work with students is one thing, and standing in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing a solo is quite another. Besides the fact that they are the Philadelphia Orchestra (!), that orchestra is in many ways a professional extension of Curtis. I don’t know the exact percentage of members who went to Curtis or teach at Curtis, but let’s just put it at over 50%. I subbed there for many years, even when I had a job in DC; almost every face in that orchestra is still familiar, and many of them are good friends.

The anticipation of the first rehearsal was agonizing. It was filled with dozens of reunions and small talk with people I haven’t seen in seven years or so, and double-takes from older orchestra members who recognized me but couldn’t place me. Once we started rehearsing, it still didn’t quite feel real. I was thankful for all of our own painstaking rehearsals as I just let muscle memory kick in while I marveled at the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra up close. Our conductor, Stéphane Denève, was a tall, charismatic man with a head full of unruly curls, a thick French accent, and a joke always at the ready. His dressing room was right next to mine, and before concerts I would hear a mercurial set of piano repertoire – say, the first page of Claire de lune, then the Chopin revolutionary etude, and then maybe some jazz improv, all very expertly played. When I queried him, he replied dismissively, “Ah, there was a time when I was a bit of a pianist.”

The weekend of concerts was actually very fun, once I got over my nerves. I’ve never been more grateful to share the stage with my Eighth Blackbird colleagues, who all put me at ease with their excellence, stability, and occasional winks. We played for three very different audiences: the hard-core Thursday night subscription folks, the Friday matinee retirees, and the boisterous Saturday night crowd. They all seemed to eat it up, though I did hear about one Thursday night concert-goer who pulled an usher aside and asked, “Is it atonal?? Because if it is, I’m not going inside!” Said usher happened to find Jennifer Higdon herself, who reassured him that her piece was indeed “melodic”.  I have no idea if that lady ended up going inside or not, but if she did, I’d pay good money to hear what she thought of it!

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