A Mockingbird Returns to the Curtis Institute

As a student at Curtis in 1982. (Photo credit: Norman Stumpf)

As a student at Curtis in 1982. (Photo credit: Norman Stumpf)

There is a moral imperative to protect the vulnerable, I thought, taking my seat that March 2011 evening where once Samuel Barber had sat—between Ralph Berkowitz and Gian Carlo Menotti—in the picture displayed on my friend Ralph’s piano in Albuquerque. I was back at the scene of a hundred character-building experiences from my youth as a composition student “singing my heart out,” as Harper Lee once described a mockingbird, at Philadelphia’s famed Curtis Institute of Music. Thirty years later, the school had commissioned me to compose a little trio called Book of Days for clarinet, viola, and piano to be toured as part of the 2011 iteration of its "Music from Curtis" program. Arriving in Philadelphia that afternoon, I’d had a note from eminent organist and theorist Ford Lallerstedt in which he had written, “I’m thinking today of Curtis, of unmerited favor, of a sense of grace.”

I inhaled the familiar smells of wood polish and upholstery, winter coats, bay rum, and Chanel No. 5 as Curtis faculty-member Ignat Solzhenitsyn, son of the great writer, dove into the piano part, joined by a student clarinetist and violist. The first movement, called Monday, began with a little chorale I had composed in 1982 for Ford during the first week of classes at the Institute. The tune was a gloss on the melody of Ring a Ring o' Roses, a nursery rhyme which has come to be associated with the Plague. It immediately morphed into an instrumental piece crafted as a tribute to Karen Hale, for whom I had composed Days Without You, a song cycle for soprano and orchestra that we’d premiered together as students. Somewhere in the Curtis library is a recording of the 1983 premiere.

Taken back in time by the music, I remembered the moment that I’d first been in the presence of talent as freely-flowing and endless as a pure, montain stream: the second movement, Tuesday, unfolded, painting with sounds the burgundies, blood-reds, and dirty vermilions a memory of the 1982 night I fell in love with my then girlfriend, sprawled out on the wine-dark, plushness of the carpet in the Horszowski Room, listening to her practice, from memory, illuminated only by light creeping in from a streetlamp outside in Rittenhouse Square, the Bartok Solo Sonata. A cadenza for solo clarinet that I called Wednesday pulled me back into the present, and then hurled me back into the past; in it I shared my musical recollection of how it felt as a student when, tears coursing down my cheeks, I had first heard Messiaen's Quatuor pour la fin du temps performed at Curtis on a student recital—purely, before learning its title, history, or program.

A movement I called Thursday followed. It was about a night during students days that I had visited Norman Stumpf, my best friend (a good, innocent, talented, emotionally vulnerable composition student at Curtis who took his life) in his hospital room. I imitated the sound of a heart monitor, "slap-tongue," in the clarinet, doubled with pizzicato in the viola. I followed it with a quotation of the tune to which Norman had set our favorite poem, Roethke's The Waking with which I memorialized him back then in a symphony. The next movement, Friday, was surely the song of the mockingbird, a tender elegy for a fellow singer of songs. Saturday began, revisiting music I had penned to give a taste of the insomnia that set in like a piton during my Curtis years. The final movement, Sunday, revisited the Plague chorale. It was meant to soothe, to draw closed the curtain on those years. If, on the one hand, one risks by looking backwards turning into a pillar of salt, one must also recall that nostalgia is often "the bread of creativity."

My song ended, I bowed, emptied, and felt nothing.

The next morning in the Common Room I seated myself next to the walk-in fireplace on the chair in which the school’s receptionist Shirley Schachtel had taken my hand 30 years earlier. I thought again of Ford’s note, which had continued, “A little boy gives all he has, everything he depends upon. No motive.” I looked around, remembering myself standing there for the first time, nervous excitement and exhaustion mingling, my stomach a-flutter, intuiting that the rest of my life was, all at once, opening before me. I could almost smell Shirley’s delicate perfume. “So, you’re brand new,” I remembered her observing gently, and smiled inwardly. Brand new. Yes.

Perhaps I looked in need of help, because a pretty child placed her hand on my shoulder. She reminded me of Filly as a teenager. Like her, she smelled of rain. “Are you okay? Do you need something, sir?” she asked. Her innocent kindness. To her, I am an old man, I mused. I looked down at my arthritic knuckles. “No. Oh, no,” I answered gently, looking up. She smiled sweetly, and sort of danced across the room toward a knot of friends. I rose, strolled to the painting of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, smiled affectionately at it, and took a final look around before leaving. I pushed the heavy door open. After the stuffy Owl Light of the Common Room, the sunshine outside dazzled. Across the street, a new café called Parc had opened. The sidewalk in front of it bristled with little Parisian-style café tables. I crossed Locust, took a seat, and turned to take one last look at the old mansion. Is this how this song ends? I asked myself. Yes. The last fragment of Ford’s letter came to mind: “No motive. Just unqualified love. The results are surprising, unpredicted. Tell others.”

Presently, the eager to please bearded boy that I once was—the one who met Ned Rorem for the first time in Room 235K, the tiny attic-classroom on the top floor across the street and intuited that he would have to be extraordinary to earn Ned’s—and by extension, what he thought was the music world’s—attention simply so that he could sing for them, joined me. I regarded the Other Daron—the brother who died after only a few days—tenderly. You know, my little Mockingbird, I said to myself, you’re the last of my dead. He smiled back at me, secure in his essential goodness. He smiled the way that I once did, the way that my sons do. At length, he rose, reached for my hand, held it fiercely in his small, strong one for a moment, smiled, nodded affirmatively, released it, turned, and walked slowly into Rittenhouse Square, never to return. He had never realized how beautiful he was.

You can listen to, and learn more about, Book of Days here. This piece originally ran in the Huffington Post on 16 August 2017. You can read it there by clicking here.