This Saturday night I’m having a premiere of a piece with an unusual backstory.

Some friends of mine, a couple here in town, inaugurated a chamber music series in their home a couple of years back. They pack 40-50 people into their living room, dining room and another adjoining room while the musicians gather around their Blüthner piano.

The husband is a doctor and the wife is an English professor and writer. Last spring, she approached me with a sonnet she had written in honor of her husband. She wanted to commission me to set the sonnet to music for their chamber series. Since her husband is an amateur violist, I set the piece for mezzo, viola and piano.

She presented the score to her husband for his birthday last Thursday, then sent me this note:

Jonathan spent the whole evening after we gave him the manuscript, going over every note. He had never conceived of anything like this, and I had to keep telling him the timetable, and what order we did everything in, and who knew what when, and we had such a laugh when he realized that when we were all over at your house you had done such a good job keeping the secret! And then I got to tell him about the planning for the concert, and again he could hardly believe it. Anyway, it couldn’t have gone better, as a gift I mean. I don’t think I’ll ever top that one.

Can a composer have a more gratifying reception for a new work than that? I’d trade a thousand anonymous ovations for this.

I wrote about my work on Still Point a bit in June here, but it was still a surprise then, so I couldn’t give any details. I just love the poem — and now I can share it:

Still Point

The days rush by in fleets like drifts of clouds.
We mean to note them, find their shapes or plot
their known locations, call their names out loud,
but they are here before we know they’re not.

A flock of starlings wheels and turns and dives
as one, the individual birds suppressed
by boundless number; seamlessly they fly
till darkness forces them, like us, to rest.

I’ve heard that when you die your brain reviews
your life, and pauses on the scenes that mean
the most. But what if days, like clouds, refuse
to stop? Like starlings, won’t alight, be seen?

I seek the one still point in all the roiling air.
I close my eyes, and you are there.

– Shona Simpson

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