Curious Incident in Philharmonic Hall
It was in 1985 or so, during the winter season of our local Philharmonic Orchestra, that Sonya and I were sitting in our usual aisle seats in Row MM downstairs and reading the Program for the evening's concert. The opening piece of music was to be the premiere performance of Richard Barton's Somber Encounter: Haiku For Strings and Tympani. Then the Mozart Piano Concerto #20 in D Minor before intermission, and for the last part of the program the Sibelius Symphony #2. The Mozart and Sibelius were familiar enough – more than familiar – they were burned deep into me, both of them reminders of my youth in a way I could never tell Sonya (or anyone else). But Barton? I turned the page for program notes:
Somber Encounter: Haiku for Strings and Tympani
Richard Barton (b. Detroit, Michigan, 1924)
Taking its title and development from a poem by Shizuo Doi, this purely instrumental work is made of musical phrases composed especially for each of the poem's seventeen syllables...
Born in Detroit in 1924? I was born in Detroit in 1924 myself. I pointed this out to Sonya. An unimportant coincidence, she said. Barton was a professor of composition in a well-known conservatory in New England, according to the program, but we had never heard any of his music. Never heard of him, either, for that matter; he must have gone to a different high school. I said to Sonya, “Maybe I should tell him about it.” She said, “Don’t start.”
The program opened as advertised, with the "Haiku," a pleasantly depressing work. When the applause began the conductor pointed directly at me and Sonya, urging us to stand up and take a bow. At least, that's how it looked for a moment. Actually, Richard Barton -- the composer himself -- was sitting directly behind me, in Row NN on the aisle, and it was to him the conductor was pointing. Mr. Barton stood up, bowed and smiled, and the audience clapped and clapped. We applauded him too. Mr. Barton then himself applauded the players, who applauded him back. And so it went, with the percussionist and the concertmaster taking their bows too, all the while gesturing towards the composer, who kept standing there behind us, nodding rather uncertainly here and there until it was clear that he was allowed to sit down again.
When all that was over, the piano was brought on stage and its position carefully adjusted. Then the first violins came back, the pianist emerged (to another round of applause), the conductor too, and the Mozart began.
So Richard Barton was sitting directly behind me. I had taken a look at him and he seemed a mild man, pudgy in a tweed jacket, wearing rimless glasses and a shock of grayish hair combed in all directions. He looked uncomfortable receiving all that applause, as if being in the limelight was not his style. Having his piece played by the Philharmonic must have been a bit of a prize for a fairly unknown composer, no longer so young, after all; and doubtless he enjoyed being heard. Being seen was another matter, one he was just as glad to have end. He took his seat quietly, and did not cough during the Mozart concerto. Not even once, nor did he creak in his seat or rattle his program. Chances are he didn't even read the program, there being little a composer is likely to learn about music in that way.
When the applause for the concerto had died down and people were filling the aisles for intermission, I turned around and on an impulse said to my quiet neighbor, "Mr. Barton?" He seemed surprised that I knew his name. He said, "Yes?"
"My name is Ralph Raimi," I said, "and I was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1924."
He looked startled. "That's funny," he said, "You know, I was born in Detroit in 1924 too!"
Both of us thinking over this exchange, there seemed nothing sensible left to say, that could take us out of our uneasy silence. We must have said something, since (as I remember) we parted amicably enough; but he did not return for the Sibelius.
Ralph A. Raimi
7 October 1990
Lightly revised 6 January 2008