Having performed the greatest works written for piano and orchestra for forty years, perhaps the most rewarding experiences stem from my relationships and collaborations with living composers of our time. When I met Jake Runestad in Minneapolis in October 2011, it was for a performance of William Bolcom’s “Prometheus” for piano, orchestra and chorus. Mr. Runestad was standing at the stage entry door, and introduced himself as soon as the rehearsal was over. I asked him to join me for a quick lunch break. It only took fifteen minutes of conversation for me to pause, and ponder…’I don’t know what it is about you, but in speaking with you about music, and your work in writing new works for mixed ensembles, vocal, choral etc, I just have to say that I think you should be the next composer in my continuing commissioning projects!’ Silence. Startled. I think I surprised Jake with this affirmation. But I sensed something very unique about him and his love of music.
It was the weeks which followed that we talked often, sharing phone calls and emails. I asked for a composition for piano, orchestra and chorus–all three in which Jake excels. We tossed ideas back and forth about text, poems, ideas etc. One day, Jake called and said, ‘I think I have the theme of the project.’ When he told me about returning soldiers and their plights upon their return from war, I was somewhat unaware of the deeper details of these physical and emotional handicaps. Jake sent literature to me, and shared his idea. He wanted to bring about an awareness of these soldiers and how they have returned home, fallen from the society they once enjoyed. I was fascinated with his idea, and agreed. He told me that I would need to understand their situation, read about them, and perhaps meet veterans in this capacity. He asked me to portray the soldier at the piano. Not an easy task, but one which I had to take on. I have never served in the military, but my mother’s brother, Irving Needleman, served in WWII, and played saxophone in the army band. My father was stationed in the Aberdeen Proving Grounds during the Korean War, and then became a Captain of the New York City Police Department (109, 111 and 34th Precincts). Photos of Uncle Irving and family stories helped, yet meeting with today’s veterans via Skype was the turning point for me. I met Justin Gourley who served in war, and his wife, Shawn Gourley as well. Justin was a man of few words, and I read Shawn’s book, The War at Home: One Family’s Fight Against PTSD. I read the book the night before our Skype meeting, which helped significantly. The one statement I had to make to Justin directly was, ‘I want you to know how much I respect and thank you for everything you did for the sake of freedom, and that what I am doing with music will never trivialize what you went through. Instead, it is my hope that the music will help people understand what you lived through, and returned home to deal with’.
Being the first performer of a new work is very interesting in that there are no other performances to refer to. My performance sets the standard for the future of the work, and this allows me to create the new work, rather than re-create it based on previous knowledge of how it might sound to the listener. Having the feedback with the composer is incredible to me, because I have many questions for Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Gershwin! Connecting with veterans, reading their stories, speaking with them, interviewing them on the telephone or simply by email with questions and answers, has helped me tremendously to feel their inner emotional turmoil, and, in some cases, resolve. One veteran shared that he was not a great student, but after his service in the military, he set up a company to help provide various insurance policies for veterans. My neighbor who lives several homes down the street returned from Afghanistan recently, and shared how music is very much a part of his life. Connecting on Facebook with many military and veteran groups has helped opened many doors to their lives, and I hope they will watch the performance in its live webcast, or come to New Orleans to experience the performance.
I am looking forward very much to revisiting with Jake since out first visit two years ago. This time, though, will be for the World Premiere of his new and very powerful composition, “Dreams of the Fallen“.
For more information about “Dreams of the Fallen,” visit the official website.