A Year in the Life: Deadlines,  A Love Story


Leonard Bernstein once said “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.” Bernstein (Lenny) was, among other things, a composer. So is my friend Felsenfeld (Danny). Composers hardly ever have quite enough time. The problem is that said composers are writing music that we musicians have to play in public, sometimes quite soon. Such is the case with Danny and me. Danny’s been writing a piece for me called Mad Love. I’m playing it tomorrow, February 26, at Bargemusic under the Brooklyn Bridge. You can come hear it if you’re in town.

We came up with the idea for this piece about a year ago during a phone conversation, my end of which took place sitting on the floor in a hallway outside one of those impossibly loud trampoline places where you take your kids on rainy afternoons. Danny and I don’t have much quiet time. We were talking about love songs, how they follow you around reminding you of people and places and moments, some of which might be better forgotten. How they recall fascination and devotion, how they become repositories for secrets and obsessions. How beautiful they can be, and how much they can hurt.

We decided it would be a great thing for Danny to write a piece for me that would be a mash-up of some of my favorite love songs, and some of his. Something sexy and obsessive and reckless and lovely and funny. Mad Love.

The conversation inspired me to construct a whole concert theme around this yet-unwritten piece of Danny’s. After all, everyone has their love stories, and the great composers are no exception. They’ve all been inspired, emboldened and devastated by loves of their own. Take Beethoven and his longing for his Immortal Beloved; Schumann, desperately in love with his Clara despite her father’s violent objections; Debussy’s scandalous adulteries; Tchaikovsky’s tragically closeted affairs. There’s no shortage of great piano music inspired by passion, longing, betrayal and heartache—all the stuff of love songs.

I came up with a concert called Mad Love—music by Schumann, Prokofiev, Debussy, and Felsenfeld. And then I did what musicians do when they have a clever idea for a concert program. I pitched it around, and soon I had a few very nice dates scheduled, on both coasts, a year or so down the road. We agreed that Danny would get his piece to me sometime around the end of the summer. We had a plan, and plenty of time.

Danny and I were both busy this past year. There was music to write, concerts to play, classes to teach, things to do. Life, home, family, and even the occasional emergency. So time went by, the end of summer came and went, and the concert dates I’d scheduled loomed closer and closer. Now we had a plan, and not quite enough time, which may in fact be exactly what is needed to achieve greatness, but is also a recipe, if not for disaster, at least for discomfort. Tensions rose.

Instant Message, 6 p.m. EST

Lara: I’m really worried about time to practice your piece.
Danny: Really?
Lara: I just don’t have fingers or mind until I finish my recording.
Danny: For a moment I freaked out thinking I still had to write it. Like you were waiting on me.
Lara: No so I’m seriously stressing. It’s hard! Tomorrow I’m in Schumann rehearsal. Then I’m in the studio Sunday-Wednesday. And I’m supposed to premiere this piece of yours next Saturday.
Danny: Are you canceling?
Lara: No! But I’m not sure how I’m going to do it though.
Danny: I kinda don’t know what to tell you. You’ll be great it always works.
Lara: No this is a little different seriously. This recording is a big thing for me. Huge rep, etc.
Danny: If you need to postpone then postpone.
Lara: Danny I can’t postpone!
Danny: I’m sort of not sure what you need from me. I think texting is bad, can we talk?

Suffice it to say that the ensuing panicked and pissy phone conversation prompted the following Facebook post from me the next day:

To the composer who suffered my panic attack yesterday: I apologize on behalf of pianists everywhere. It is not your fault that I am overcommitted and overextended.

Whenever I find myself waiting for a piece of music from a composer—ahead of, up to, or after its nominal due date—I feel what I imagine to be the emotions that men experience when observing the progress of a pregnancy: a mix of awe, excitement, helplessness and terror. I may have planted the seed of conception, but incubation is out of my control. I just have to wait, and then raise the baby.

Lara - Mad Love concert

As a performer, I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines. Most of the time, my deadlines have to do with performance or recording dates, and the music I have to prepare for them. Sometimes I impose my own random deadlines, just to keep me honest, and those tend to be masochistic and unrealistic. Deadlines make me crazy. They cause me anxiety, sleepless nights, and self-hatred, but they also make me work very hard, and to manage to always, somehow, so far, pull it off. I probably wouldn’t get much done without deadlines.

But when it comes to deadlines that are imposed on the creative process—the writing of music, that is, not the learning and playing of it—the whole enterprise seems to me unrealistic, unreasonable and eminently unfair. Here’s the thing: Like the love song says, you can’t hurry love, you can’t hurry music either. You can set all the deadlines you want, but ultimately a creative project needs to gestate in its own time.

That is the very weird thing about being a composer—a creative artist of any kind. On the one hand, there is inspiration and creative energy and vision and magic, and on the other hand there are deadlines and paychecks. I don’t know how we reconcile the two.

This piece that Danny is writing for me is a labor of love, and what can I be but overwhelmingly grateful for his gift? But as the time gets short, my anxiety level rises. My nights become sleepless. The nightmares begin: I go onstage, the theater is dark and silent, the audience is waiting. I look down at the keys and nothing comes. I don’t know the music. I’m not ready. 

But I’ve been through this so many times before. A deadline is looming—masochistic and unrealistic, unreasonable, unfair. So what? Sleepless nights; I’ll use them for practicing. I will pull it off. Give me not quite enough time. I’ll show you something great.


All photos provided by Rik Keller.

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 →