ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS
Good Friend, Bad Piece
by William Mayer
for Opera Today
Fortunately there are those golden moments after a concert when you can rush up to a composer friend and, in all honesty, rhapsodize about his work. Much as he will relish your enthusiasm he will be even more grateful if you pinpoint what you like. If you find him getting edgy you may be going on at too great a length, forgetting that a number of people behind you are impatiently waiting to get in their innings. It is best to be brief for another reason: most composers are rather dazed right after their work has been performed and are not open to a lengthy analysis.
But the burden of this article is to tackle head on the classic—and excruciating dilemma: what to say when your friend has laid an egg (at least, according to your own infallible taste).
The immediate question is whether you can get away with saying nothing at all. Maybe, but probably not. “The sounds of silence” are almost always insulting to a composer’s ear. Of course you can sell your soul and say anything but, if you must be a hypocrite, try to be an “honest” hypocrite, i.e., keep your distaste alive and well in the innermost recesses of your brain.
Should you want to hang onto your integrity, here are some gross ploys for starters. You could, for example, bring a cane to the concert. Then, when the time for congratulations arrives, you could rush ostentatiously halfway down the aisle and trip. As you writhe in agony your seatmate, a co-conspirator, could rush to your side, proclaiming that you had broken your ankle.
An even more convoluted ploy is to feign laryngitis. This time your seatmate can come up with you, stating to the composer that your condition prevents you from voicing your enthusiasm but that your body language during the performance indicated total absorption. Both of these ploys fall into the category known as “medical parachutes.”
A simpler method is to give your friend a wordless, post concert hug, indicating that no words are up to conveying your enthusiasm. Still simpler: just wave to him and mimic applause.
From here on let us dispense with the tactics of avoidance and get in line to congratulate the composer. As the people in front of you melt away and you are face to face with your friend (who has that expectant look) what ploys could there be that might save you? “I could see that the players loved the work, a sure sign that it was a winner.” And you could throw in “the audience was riveted.”
Conversely, you could complain that the performance did little justice to the composition or, if performed in a church, “the soupy acoustics obscured the intricate lines.”
Luckily there are very few compositions which don’t offer something to latch onto for praise. For example, you might say, “I so admired the way your ideas interrelated and gave the work a satisfying unity.” (What you don’t say is that you hated each and every one of those ideas!) Be sure that whatever you pick out to extol is not too miniscule, i.e., “I love those surprising thirty-second notes signaling the clarinet’s return.” The composer may smell a rat; you were desperately trying to find something—anything!
And finally there are one liners—all equivocal—that must be followed by immediate exit.
“I’ve never heard anything like it!”
“It evoked so many emotions!”
“It’s so you.”
“Your style came through in every note!”
“I was knocked out!”
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“William Mayer’s music speaks to the heart, the gut and the mind ... one of the outstanding composers of our time.”
— David Dubal, Faculty,
The Juilliard School
“Mr. Mayer’s work sings out with real beauty, both in the vocal writing (he is especially known for his operas and song) and the instrumental settings.”
— John Rockwell, The New York Times
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