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The State of Being Alone in a Field
9 Sep 2011
Inside the Classics

Okay, one more summer camp story and then I’ll stop, I promise. This one isn’t actually about the kids I taught this August, and it’s a story I hadn’t thought about in years, until some old photos started popping up on Facebook earlier this week.

The photos were courtesy of one Brian Alverson, who these days is a doctor in Rhode Island, but who, back in the early ’90s, was my camp counselor. Brian was (and is) one of those people who kids just attach themselves to, partly because he tends to act like a big kid himself much of the time, but mainly because he always, always treats kids as the absolute equal of grown-ups. (In his counselor days, he was also a legendary prankster and wasn’t above helping to set his own charges up for public humiliation, but that’s a story for another time.)

Anyway, back in 1992, when I was 16 and attending Greenwood Music Camp for the 7th year in a row, I got assigned to an unusual chamber group. Chamber music camps tend to hand out mostly well-worn pieces to their teenage musicians – meaty, challenging, but ultimately familiar classics by Brahms, Beethoven, and Schubert. Your more advanced groups might find themselves wrestling with some Bartok from time to time, and particularly (ahem) emotion-driven kids might thrive with something by Mendelssohn or Shostakovich. But that summer, on a Monday morning midway through the camp session, I found myself staring down at a never-before-opened viola part to something called Feldeinsamkeit, by a composer I’d never heard of named Rodney Lister.

I vaguely remember that the camp director had told us the previous week that a composer from Boston would be visiting, but I don’t think it had occurred to me that I might be called on to actually learn and perform one of his pieces. At the time, I still considered Bartok and Stravinsky to be pretty modern-sounding composers, and my one in-depth exposure to “new music” had been a couple of years earlier at the same camp, when we were assigned a newly composed orchestral piece that was so cacophonous and awkward that the conductor called a special rehearsal midway through camp just to let everyone vent about how much we hated it.

So I was more than a little suspicious of what this Feldeinsamkeit (whatever that meant) held in store for me. But I also remember being fairly excited about the other players I’d been thrown together with – it was a cello quintet, always a good sign, and based on the personnel, it was clearly going to be one of the more advanced groups of the week. Brian was on first violin, and the second violinist was a friend of mine named Julian, who these days is rising rapidly through the global ranks of young conductors. The first cellist was a wildly talented kid named Heath, who today manages one of the most innovative community music schools in the US, and the second cellist was a girl named Sandra, one of the funniest and smartest people I’ve ever met, who went on to become a senior fellow at an environmental think tank in Germany.

The composer, as it turned out, was a soft-spoken gentleman of Boston with a memorable mustache and the general look of a man who has become well comfortable with the stereotype of the college professor. I don’t think he was officially the coach of our quintet – that primary job was left to a member of the string faculty – but he was present at most of our rehearsals that week, and I remember there being a certain amount of awkwardness as we struggled to get our minds and hands around this complex and difficult work without offending the composer by complaining about how hard we were having to work.

It was the kind of group experience that could easily have turned sour. We didn’t know Rodney Lister and he didn’t know us, and with only six days to rehearse before the Saturday night world premiere of Feldeinsamkeit (which turned out to be German for “The State of Being Alone in a Field,”) we didn’t really have time to get to know each other even if we’d wanted to. In my memory, what kept the group on track and out of the roadside ditch of negativity, other than just the simple desire not to make fools of ourselves at the concert, was Brian. One of his strengths as a counselor was a seemingly bottomless well of enthusiasm that he was capable of applying to almost any situation, with the result that you frequently found yourself wanting desperately to participate in something in which you might otherwise have had zero interest.

With Brian leading the charge, we plowed through the music day after day, and gradually became capable of hearing more than the maddening complexity of our individual parts. Themes emerged out of chaos, harmonies evolved in our minds from confusing to familiar, and by the time the end of the week loomed, the five of us had become pretty well devoted to “our” piece and the mission of introducing it to the world. I didn’t have any idea whether the music was objectively good or not, since I had almost no experience with other living composers, and therefore nothing against which to judge Rodney’s work, but I’d decided that I liked it, and didn’t really care what anyone else thought.

At Saturday breakfast, less than twelve hours before the evening concert, Brian gathered the quintet together and proposed that we do something special for Rodney at our last rehearsal later that morning. The title of the piece had been an inscrutable presence hanging over us all week, and while we still weren’t sure what the state of being alone in a field had to do with the notes we were playing, we knew where to find a field. So after orchestra was over that morning, we grabbed chairs, music stands, our instruments, and Rodney, loaded them all in the back of the camp’s ancient red Chevy pickup, and hauled ourselves down to the vast expanse on a remote edge of the camp property known as the Lower Field.

We set up the quintet in the middle of the tall grass, found a spot seemingly free of cow pies for Rodney to sit, and there, alone in a field on a glorious summer morning, we played the secret world premiere of Feldeinsamkeit.

L to R: Brian Alverson, Julian Kuerti, Rodney Lister, Sandra Cavalieri, Sam Bergman, Heath Marlow

Later that night, we’d make the premiere official before a crowd of well over 100 in the creaky old barn that served as the camp’s concert hall. Somewhere, there are dusty cassette tapes that prove we did so, and I wish I could find one (and a cassette player, I guess,) to remind myself of the experience, which has almost completely faded from my mind. But the memory of our performance in the field is as sharp as ever – I don’t remember the sounds we made so much as I do the background vocals of the crickets and birds; the smile on Sandra’s face as the two of us found a difficult entrance in perfect synchronicity; and the look of utter contentment that came over Rodney as we played his music for him and him alone.

That was 20 years ago, and I’m pleased to report that Rodney never actually left Greenwood after that first visit. He became the camp’s composer-in-residence the very next year, and in addition to writing many more pieces for us, he’s become one of the fixtures that makes the experience of summer camp special. He can be a bit of a caricature of the professorial composer at times, but he well knows it, and it’s part of his charm. He’s not a world-famous composer – despite his admirably productive career in Boston, his name isn’t mentioned alongside legends like Carter, Reich, and Adams. But in a little town in the Berkshires, an entire generation of Greenwood kids has grown up playing and singing Rodney’s music, and they all speak of him with deep affection. And I’m never prouder than when I get to tell one of those kids that I played the very first piece of music he ever wrote for us – and that we premiered it as it wanted to be premiered, alone in a field.

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