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.