Mad Love | Rumpus Music

A Year In The Life: An Introduction

By

Lara Downes:

The composer Danny Felsenfeld is my friend. For a while, he was my Best Imaginary Friend, because our friendship was confined, as relationships can be between busy creative artists who live on opposite coasts, to the third dimension of Facebook. Then we had coffee and took a walk together in New York one summer afternoon, and now he’s real.

I wrote this bio for him a couple of weeks ago one day when he was feeling low:

Daniel Felsenfeld is the greatest composer in the universe, plus he has beautiful blue eyes, plus he is a sparkly unicorn, plus he is super smart about untangling silver shoes, plus he is an expert temporary tattoo artist.

All of this actually makes sense within the story of our friendship, with the exception of the unicorn bit, which is just silly. We have very quickly made a history together of shared moments, inside jokes, and a lot of common experience, which makes us very real friends. Both Danny and I are musicians, writers, and parents, and those three things pretty much define our daily existence.

We’re both also native Californians, lazy Jews…

Instant message, 8 a.m. PST

Lara: Does eating a chocolate croissant count as fasting for Yom Kippur?
Danny: It does if you are in France.

…anxiety-prone, self-critical, always too busy, and occasionally (Danny: Often—always…) overwhelmed.

Right now, I’m getting ready for the world premiere of Danny’s piece “Mad Love at Bargemusic,” under the Brooklyn Bridge, on February 26. And next month we’re launching a collaboration—one of many, we both hope—that will last over a year, challenge our energies and our time, probably test our friendship, and hopefully yield something wonderful and lasting and grand. Danny’s going to be composing a year of piano music—a new piece every month—which I’ll play in live concerts and record for immediate digital release and radio airplay. Then at the end of the year we’ll present concerts in NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, and elsewhere, and release a full album of the whole set of twelve pieces. Working title: A Year in the Life. And in the meantime, we’re living our lives one day at a time. This is a day in the life of A Year in the Life.

 

Daniel Felsenfeld:

Sometimes I am absolutely baffled by the interactivity—the mode and the sheer amount—of even the classical music world. We all use social media like everyone else; we all struggle with emails and texts like everyone else; many of our communications are electronic, like everyone else. And like so many people of our generation, sometimes our friendships are largely electronic. Such was the case with Lara and myself. I was in San Francisco last January when I got a message on Facebook from a pianist named Lara Downes, whose work and reputation I knew well, and whom I had fully intended to contact at some point to send her some of my work. So how lucky was I that she reached out to me?

Let me back up for a moment here: I’m a classical composer, and this, more often than not, requires a bit of explanation. It means that I write symphonies, operas, concertos, string quartets, piano works, songs, etc. None of it sounds like Mozart—nobody’s music has sounded like Mozart since the time of Mozart. It sounds like… well, that’s a little trickier to formulate, especially in words. But to me the most important aspect of my work is writing for people, rather than for instruments in the abstract. Hard to do when you are writing for, say, an orchestra or an opera company, but when you are writing solo or chamber music, it’s essential. In other words, I prefer to write for a pianist, not for a piano.

Enter Lara Downes, who I liked instantly very much. She’s fast-talking and wry, ferociously smart, and unafraid of moving herself forward as an artist on her own steam. “Are you calling me ambitious!?” I can hear her saying, referring to the word a lot of men often use to damn career-minded women with faint praise. Plus, she’s funny and also able to “get” me in a way not many do. And, like me, someone who is experiencing the complex and challenging life of an in-the-trenches working artist with a family. And so far, in a short spate, we have three projects going, including this musical diary-exchange, which suits my kind of deep psychological expansiveness.

 

A Day in the Life of Danny

This morning I, as usual, made my daughter breakfast while also preparing her lunch. This meant a kind of proto-balletic sequence of maneuvers in the kitchen like I was a line cook for a single fussbudget customer who also could not work the television (or so she claimed). Proudly I thought I had it all timed to maximum efficiency, only to realize that the bread in the oven which I defrostedDaniel Felsenfeld | Rumpus Music (my secret: warm bread in preheated oven for as long as it takes to hum the overture to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, which by the way also works for a spectacular soft-boiled egg)—had not even defrosted a little because I had neglected to put it in the oven. So much for my ballet. Meanwhile, the Octonauts engaged in their third “Creature Report” in the other room, and I began to envy the neatness of their animated lives. Parenting is the hardest—best but hardest but best—thing I do.

Phone call, 9:30 a.m. EST

Lara: Danny, do me a favor with this piece, and don’t write anything that requires a ridiculous effort to find fingering that works. I’m practicing all this Bach and the fingering equations are making my head hurt.

Danny: I was planning not to write anything impossible. And anyway, you can do what you want. After all, you’re the pianist. You can just tell me if there are things that don’t work. I’ll fix them!

Then—daughter drop-off, gym, work in its manifold forms (responding to emails from students at Juilliard, scheduling lessons, preparing for the sequence of pre-concert lectures I am doing at the New York Philharmonic, sending music to people who want to play it), all before 3:30 p.m. when kindergarten ends and I retrieve Clara from her school. Then it’s playground, an attempt to avoid television, dinner, a shower, Hungry Hungry Hippos, and bedtime wherein we are working our way through A Wrinkle in Time. Then back to the piano and computer, more work, an attempt to sleep, insomnia, repeat.

 

A Day in the Life of Lara

I got home really late last night from Montreal, and then woke up too early, on east-coast-or-whatever time. The kids are at their dad’s house this morning, so I skipped the usual morning rush and was at the piano with Beethoven by 6 a.m., in my bathrobe. I have four, count them four, separate and entirely unrelated recital programs to play over the course of the next three months. This is kind of like working on four separate novels at the same time. Each of them requires a different mindset and focus, presents different challenges and artistic goals. It’s less than ideal, and I’m less than terrific at prioritizing and scaffolding—I’m more of an all-out multi-tasker. The massive stack of music on the piano that ranges from Bach to Keith Jarrett, with many layers in between, threatens at times to topple and take me down with it.

After a while I took a break and talked to Danny on the phone. Then I thought it was time for a shower and actual clothes, and three minutes after I’d gotten into the shower the phone rang again, and I remembered the phone interview I was supposed to do with a journalist from the San Francisco Arts paper, so I grabbed a towel and did a very articulate and thoughtful interview with my hair dripping wet and full of shampoo.

Instant message, 10:30 a.m. PST

Danny: I sure hope this is a Skype interview.
Lara: Rule #1—no video Skype ever, ever, ever.

I had to pack because I was leaving for Indianapolis day after tomorrow. Indianapolis is in fact on the way back from Montreal to California—sort of—but rather than traveling in any way that might make logistical/geographical sense, say spending an extra day cooling my heels in Indy, I always travel home whenever I have a free day between concerts to see the family.

Lara Downes | Rumpus MusicThe contents of a concert pianist’s suitcase are particular and peculiar: very fancy shoes (the infamous silver ones, in fact, that Danny recently heroically untangled from each other in a pre-concert emergency), concert gowns (always bring an extra in case of a last-minute stuck zipper or other malfunction), piles of CDs, music scores, granola bars for the non-existent dinner hour of a concert-day schedule. (Danny: Lara, like every successful musician I know, is an itinerant, so she spends a lot of time in airports. Not at all glamorous. She sometimes texts me a sad photo of a hummus snackpack, with caption, “This is my lunch. It’s what all the famous people eat.”)

Then the kids got home from school and I put on a magic cape and became Supermom, driving to the skatepark, the store, a friend’s house, back to the skatepark—they are at the age when they have places to go, and things to do, and people to see. Often our best, most intimate, moments of connection are captured in transition. You have to just be there to grab the ring. It’s worth all the hours on airplanes and all the hummus snackpacks to have every possible moment with my kids. They’re my favorite people on the planet.

But this at home/on the road thing is so rough. Just the other day, I was rehearsing at the theater, the day before a concert in Chicago. It had been an utterly ridiculous week at home: major emotional crisis of the daughter variety; three conflicting work deadlines; plus an ill-timed, though delightful, arrival of a new puppy. I’d known full well, all week, that there just wasn’t time or focus for me to practice as much as I needed and wanted to. I’d known that I just needed to keep swimming against the tide, and that I would absolutely need to use the ten hours of blessed practice room solitude I’d have after getting off the plane in Chicago to get myself together. I had known that. But then there I was in that practice room, and nothing was sounding the way I wanted it to, and I was beating myself up, just attacking myself with an overload of hostile, very non-constructive criticism about why I wasn’t in better shape, why I wasn’t ready, why I wasn’t, actually, perfect. It’s like a memory curtain goes down between two realities.

There’s so much separating you have to do as a performer—there’s the whole show must go on business where you just have to set everything aside when it’s curtain time. The Supermom cape comes off and the diva gown goes on. You’re a different person and that’s part of the job, but that separation comes with a price. It’s too easy to start believing that you really are two different people, and that you should be able to live two different lives at the same time, and perfectly.

I am working on this. My therapist says it may take some time.


Lara Downes is a concert pianist, writer, and radio producer. As a pianist, Lara is heard regularly on national radio programs including NPR Music, Performance Today, Sirius XM Symphony Hall, and Impromptu. She is the producer and host of The Green Room, a radio program about the lives of classical musicians, distributed nationally by WFMT Chicago. Visit www.laradownes.com for more. Composer Daniel Felsenfeld has been commissioned by and performed with organizations and artists including the New York Philharmonic, Opera On Tap, NANOWorks Opera, San Jose Opera, New York City Opera (VOX), and the New England Conservatory Philharmonic. When rapper Jay-Z performed in Carnegie Hall with Alicia Keys and Nas, backed by a full orchestra, Felsenfeld was asked to do all of the orchestrations and arrangements. He's also collaborated with The Roots and ?uestlove with Keren Ann and David Murray. He is also the Court Composer for John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders, for which he wrote the theme—and which can be heard as an NPR Podcast. More from this author →