Authorizing Tehillim

I’m not someone to whom “stories” tend to happen. But I told a story from my youth in class yesterday that I don’t believe I’ve ever made public.

In 1982, the New Music America festival was in Chicago, directed by Peter Gena (my by-then-former composition teacher) and Alene Valkanas. I was “administrative assistant,” third in command. Fresh out of grad school, I had reached the hoary age of 26. The festival was being funded by the city of Chicago, via Mayor Jane Byrne’s office; the official title was “Mayor Byrne’s New Music America.” The day before the opening, Dennis Russell Davies was rehearsing Steve Reich’s Tehillim with members of the Chicago Symphony in Orchestra Hall, for the festival opener which would be one of the work’s first performances. The meter changes in that piece are a nightmare. At the end Reich started complaining that the piece wouldn’t be ready, that he’d have to cancel the performance unless they could get another hour’s rehearsal. Dennis Russell Davies called out from the stage and asked for authorization to keep the orchestra working for an extra hour. I was the only representative in the hall of either the festival or the city. It was explained to me that the orchestra cost $15,000 an hour.

I ran out to the pay phone in the lobby. I called Alene; she was nowhere to be found. Called Peter; he was nowhere to be found. I hung up the phone, pasted a smile on my face, sauntered back into the auditorium, and with a completely unjustified air of false confidence, gave the Maestro an OK sign and yelled, “Go right ahead!” They rehearsed for another hour, and the subsequent performance went swell.

My salary for that year was $12,000, so if they had decided to take the $15,000 out of my salary, there wouldn’t have been room. But before the bills got presented to the city, Jane Byrne was voted out and Harold Washington was voted in. I imagine his staff had no idea what the NMA ’82 cost overruns were all about; they just paid them and no one ever said anything.


  1. says

    Thanks for the great story. I remember NMA Chicago very well (I think I still have the festival program lying around somewhere). I heard the performance, if memory serves me, on WFMT, which broadcast at least the major events from the festival.
    I wonder how much it costs today to rehearse the orchestra for an hour?

  2. says

    That is awesome, and proves my oft-repeated point that few people can tell the difference between real and fake confidence. If you can fake it convincingly, almost no one will be able to tell that you’re almost scared shitless.

  3. says

    Gosh, it sounds like you really missed your calling as a lackey for the Republican Party.
    Haliburton Rep: “Well, Mr. Gann, of course we can provide logistical support to your operations in Iraq. It’ll cost you $13 Billion, and you have to promise not to look too closely at our operations and our bookkeeping.”
    Kyle Gann: “Sounds good to me! Now, what about a performance of The Desert Music while you’re over there?”
    Or, perhaps more to the point, as long as we’re doling out porkbarrel spending, how about some porkbarrel arts spending? I’d gladly write the citizens of Alaska a Symphony to Nowhere for a mere fraction of the cost of that bridge project.
    Good story :)

  4. Joseph Franklin says

    Cool story about NMA ’82. Sounds like some of the stunts I pulled when working with the City of Philadelphia on NMA ’87 (see the book!). All the best…

  5. Mark says

    Wonderful story! I remember that festival well. The extra hour must have been worth it, because when I saw Tehillim performed at the festival, it made my hair stand on end — definitely in my list of the top ten musical experiences of my life.