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.

Farewell to Little Pete's

Little Pete's Restaurant. Cash only. A Philadelphia treasure, in October 2014. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Little Pete's Restaurant. Cash only. A Philadelphia treasure, in October 2014. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

Closure #1: OCTOBER 2014

This is a piece about Closure and the closure of Little Pete's, a belovéd greasy spoon across the street from the Warwick Hotel in Philadelphia. A wrecking ball is set to fly through Little Pete’s. Progress commands that a 300-room hotel must take the place of the parking ramp at 219 South 17th Street in whose corner nestles one of Center City Philadelphia’s treasures. We’re not talking Bookbinder’s (which is now, ignominiously, an Applebee's), chock full of tourists and overpriced, or the smattering of trendy boutique restaurants that surround Rittenhouse Square like hipsters lounging on the margins of a poetry reading. We’re talking about a Genuine 24-Hour Greasy Spoon, Home to Collars Both White and Blue, an Insomniac’s Oasis in the Night, a Caffeine Addict’s Last Resort, a Trusted Purveyor of that mysterious mélange of grill top odds-and-ends, Scrapple. We’re talking about Little Pete’s, for Pete’s sake. I'm afraid that the news is grim.

I’ll forever associate Little Pete’s with my youth, not just as a composer coming into his own, but also as a person whose world was opening up in one Big Bang. My life as it was then, almost impossibly full, was discussed, vivisected, celebrated, dreaded, and mourned at Little Pete’s.

Autumn 1981. This Wisconsin Boy, a tender nineteen years old, had only just moved to Philadelphia. The Grace of Whomever had handed me a lottery ticket in the form of an invitation to study at the legendary, preposterously intimidating Curtis Institute of Music. I was a Brooks Brothers shirt and blue jeans sort of guy. I grooved to Stockhausen more than Rorem, Berio more than Barber, and Bernstein even more than the Beatles. 

Little Pete’s was the setting for countless post-lesson symposia. During my lessons, my mentor Ned Rorem casually dropped priceless aperçu and dry, acerbic criticisms while slashing through my compositions, his pencil waving this way and that like a rapier. Afterwards, a bit shell-shocked by the enormity of Ned’s self-assurance, my best friend, and fellow Rorem pupil Norman Stumpf, and I would head for Little Pete’s, where we would debrief. “Did he tell you that you succeeded in being boring?” I asked Norman, over Pete’s wretched, perennially burnt Joe, one afternoon. “Not this time,” Norman replied. “But he told me that William Flanagan wrote my song better in the late 50s.” “Who was he?” I asked. “That’s what I said,” replied Norman. I already knew what Ned’s answer had been: find out.

I didn’t yet have a telephone in my apartment. I’d use the payphone in Little Pete’s to call home for reports of my mother’s gradual submission to cancer back in Wisconsin, and then drink with a cellist friend until four or five in the morning, attempting to slake the thirst for silence in my head. I cannot recall how many dawns I greeted, my body still young enough to absorb the alcoholic gut punches dealt it during the previous hours, doing my counterpoint exercises at Pete’s lime green counter, “scrambled eggs and“ a few inches away, untouched, the dread of disappointing Ford Lallerstedt in class a few hours later by presenting mediocre work pulling me back from the edge.

I celebrated my first critical triumph as a composer at Little Pete’s; I also received my most gratuitous wing clipping by a music critic there. In 1983, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s august music critic, Daniel Webster gave my string orchestra work, Prayer for Peace, which William Smith had just premièred with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a glowing review in the paper. I’ll never forget my brother Kevin, who had come to town for the performance, spreading the newspaper on the table between us, skimming it before reading it to me, so that, if necessary, he could spare me the worst bits. Seventeen years later—a lifetime, really—my alma matercommissioned a piece to celebrate its 75th anniversary called Much Ado. Made careless by the standing ovation the piece had received the night before, I spread the Inquirer out on a table at Pete’s expecting at least a casual nod from the critic. Instead, my frothy showpiece was dealt a pasting. Composers do read reviews. Well, I used to—until that day, anyway.

I courted my girlfriend for months by walking her each day from Curtis to her train at Suburban Station. The day that she allowed me to carry her violin for her was the equivalent of moving from “vous” to “tu.” Afterwards, a little giddy, downcast, yet hopeful — the way you can be when you are in your early ‘20s and in love and have time and health and just enough money to get by, I bought the Daily News and the New York Times and worked my way through them at Pete’s until I felt the urge to compose percolate up within me like a welcome fever. Then, a man with a mission, I’d head for a practice room at Curtis and spread notes on music paper like jam on bread. God, that felt good. In time, the love affair sputtered. Music did not.

This morning, an old school chum posted the news on Facebook that Pete’s shall soon be no more. The comments following her post were lovely, and they’re still coming in. I shouldn’t be amazed by how much the place meant to all of us. 

No more sentimental reveries over crab cake sandwiches when I return to Philadelphia for the occasional master class, performance, or lecture. One less skein of memory holding me to one of the few places on the planet, and one of the few times, when I was able to summon both the elegia of James Agee and the earnest and callow drive of Thomas Wolfe. “Aw,” a Philadelphia-based friend told me on the phone just now when I called him to confirm the news, “just drive on, old friend. It was inevitable. It had to happen. And it all began the day that they let people throw up buildings taller than William Penn’s hat.”

At "Little Pete's" on 27 February 2017. The restaurant got a reprieve, and is now scheduled to close in May 2017. (Photo by Neil Erickson)

Closure #2: February 2017

Fully three years after I first contributed the article above to the Huffington Post, still accepting "cash only," the diner holds on. The final closing date has been officially announced and accepted by management, and a steady stream of customers has been coming in to say goodbye for months, said the owner when I stopped in this morning.

Enough time has passed that the Warwick Hotel across the street has passed back into private hands and out of the clutches of the chain that had demolished its once elegant lobby and replaced it with a hideous, Euro-trashy, neon-blue fishtank affair.

My wife and I had checked into the Warwick the day before, our two sons in tow. I'd returned to Philly to hear a performance by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia—Michael Ludwig had given a lovely account of the violin concerto I'd written for him a few years earlier. After Michael's vivid, glowing performance of my concerto with Dirk Brossé and the orchestra, I'd dined with my belovéd writing mentor (whom I'd first met as a student at Curtis in 1982) Emily Wallace and her husband Gregory and discussed my memoirs; I'd enjoyed a quick brunch with my good buddy, rising composer and Curtis faculty member David Ludwig, at Pete's the next morning.  I'd even taken a moment to stretch my legs out before me in a favorite chair in the Common Room at Curtis for a few moments before walking to Little Pete's, spreading the Inquirer out on the green formica countertop, and reading a respectful review of my concerto by the same critic who had panned me all those years back. 

June 2017. The original Little Pete's is literally no more. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

June 2017. The original Little Pete's is literally no more. (Photo: Daron Hagen)

A few nights before, I'd sung my "Elegy for Ray Charles" at World Cafe Live in University City, a few blocks away, putting over my good friend Stephen Dunn's lovely words breathily into a hot mic and accompanying myself publicly in this town for the first time since the last time I touched the keys as the lounge pianist in the Barclay Hotel lobby in fall 1982. Then, I was about to make my Curtis debut, conducting my music with the Curtis Orchestra next door, Mother dying of cancer, my life just beginning. The other night, my wife and young sons sat at a nearby table. First, she took the stage and rocked the joint with a spiritual, and then rocked it again by singing the trumpet part(!) of Charles Ives' Unanswered Question in an arrangement by local composer Andrew Lipke. When Gilda and I laid down my new arrangement together of John Henry, I knew that I'd finally licked my ghosts in this town. 

I was awakened this morning by the sound of my son's voice: he was singing the trumpet solo of the Ives as he relieved himself in the bathroom. I knew at once that it would be a good day. After checking out of the Warwick, we celebrated by visiting Little Pete's a final time. The four of us squeezed into the booth in which I first sat tha September 1981—the night I first hit the east coast— and ordered breakfast. The waitress who had presented me with a free piece of blueberry pie and said, "Welcome to Philly, honey," has long since passed away, and the boy I once was has become a man who can no longer eat most of what is on the menu. I couldn't resist introducing my eldest to the mysteries of Scrapple.

I love him anyway.

This essay originally appeared in its original form the Huffington Post on 31 October 2014. Click here to read it there.