Would you travel 500 miles back-and-forth to experience 30-minutes of music by an obscure composer? You might if the musician had dreamed about the piece for 50-years and his name was Donald Byrd; and if he almost died in the middle of its creation. Five friends, my wife, and I were present along with many who traveled much farther; grateful for Don’s life force, his friendship, and his art.
Don was well-into writing his Violin Concerto – a piece for soloist and orchestral accompaniment – when, in January, 2015 …
I’d been having moderate pain in my left hip off and on for months, and nothing seemed to make any difference. Then it got worse, and I returned to my sports-medicine doctor. He thought I just needed a shot of cortisone, but had me get an MRI. Much to our surprise, the report came back stamped ‘CRITICAL UNEXPECTED POSITIVE FINDINGS’: cancer. A week later, I had a definite diagnosis: stage 2 multiple myeloma. The prognosis was pretty good from the beginning; the treatment plan was chemo, possibly followed by a stem-cell transplant. Well, I responded exceptionally well to the chemo — so well my oncologist wasn’t sure I needed the transplant, but I went ahead anyway … and wrote the middle-section of the last movement in the hospital; I think the cancer mostly helped me focus on completing the damn thing; I really didn’t like the thought of dying before finishing it! The illness also gave me time to concentrate on it, since I couldn’t work much on my normal stuff.
Notice the matter-of-factness in Don’s account? Few of us would have been as resilient or optimistic. Few would have reframed the crisis as a spur to reach a goal.
Rumors claimed, back at Chicago’s Mather High School in the 1960s, that Don Byrd was a genius. What none of us, his fellow classmates, then realized, was that he was more remarkable for his courage. And, as you will read, some other things, too.
Master Byrd is a man who remembers those who helped along the way. A 1990 conversation with a Princeton professor, J. K. Randall, moved him from dreaming to doing:
I told him I wanted to create a violin concerto, but didn’t know how (despite having composed other, less ambitious pieces). He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Well, you’d better write it before you find out!’
Still, another five years passed before Don put any notes down. “Thus, you could say the composition took me only 20-years!”
By profession, Don is an informatics expert at Indiana University (Bloomington) – an aspect of information engineering – and one of the founders of the field of music information retrieval. For those of us less steeped in technology, however, his other interests are fascinating, too:
I’m a certified teacher and lover of t’ai chi. I’m a member of the local Quaker Meeting (“meeting” is the Quaker equivalent of church), and I often accompany hymn singing for the Meeting on the piano. I’m an avid but lazy road bike rider. I like physically challenging and dangerous activities: way back when, flying a plane, riding a motorcycle, exploring caves, swimming across a lake alone at night (and I’m not a good swimmer); more recently, rock climbing, mountaineering, and sky diving (the latter only once, on my doctor’s advice). I’m concerned about American society these days and especially its polarization, and over the years I’ve published dozens of letters to the editor and two or three guest columns, the vast majority in the Bloomington paper.
Based on Don’s daring physical activities, you might think of him as an athletic he-man. He is a small fellow (5’3″) except in his heart. There he is a giant.
As mentioned earlier, people came to the September 24th concert from long distances. Among them was a high school friend named Paul Nadler, an international symphony and opera conductor, who directed the performance. Others included the estimable violin soloist, Madalyn Parnas. Friends and colleagues of Don’s traveled from as far away as the San Francisco Bay area, Philadelphia, Florida, Georgia, New York, Michigan, Alabama, and Chicago. Generosity, too, came from three of the orchestra members and his buddy, Paul, who gave their services gratis.
How to explain this devotion? I asked the question of Doug McKenna, who himself journeyed from Colorado: “Don Byrd is a very loyal person and he inspires loyalty in others.” Many of these folks met the composer in school or became colleagues in the early part of his professional career. Some had not seen him for decades.
One might add something else. Many are, like Don, no longer young, except perhaps in attitude. We all knew the event was not to be taken for granted. The good vibe in the concert venue was enough to float the audience of about 150 people out the door. Lots of smiles and a tear or two. Jealous composers or something else?
We never get to hear eulogies for ourselves, of course, and Don Byrd – thank goodness – didn’t either. Yet, early in his battle against cancer, one could have bet a eulogy was more probable than a performance. My guess is that in Don’s worst moments, his wife Susan Schneider and their children would have gratefully given up the completion of the Violin Concerto for a guarantee of more time. Probably even just the shortening of treatment. But, the maestro survived and his magnum opus was performed. Their grown kids, Alec and Torrey, witnessed it, too.
In this month of children’s holiday dreams, prayers, and guardian angels, we all try to get beyond the world’s dark side.
Don Byrd, his spirit, and his music make that a little bit easier for some of us.
Sometimes dreams do come true.
The concert program and program notes: