I met Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer and the author of Appalachian Spring, purely by chance one day in 1963 backstage at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
I was thirteen and fanatically addicted to concerts of classical music. I was thinking of being a concert pianist, or perhaps a composer, or perhaps both.
Lucky enough to be the son of a traveling philosopher, I found myself in London, where every afternoon and every night I would go to a different concert, sometimes two or three in a day. Concerts, in those days, cost about $2 to sit in the highest balcony.
Some of my favorite haunts were Wigmore Hall and The Royal Festival Hall, which I believe had only recently been opened, and was shiny and new.
It was my habit, as a brash teenager who knew no better, to crash the backstage area and blend with the after-concert well-wishers, cadging cookies and generally being a precocious kid.
I met many famous musicians of the day, including pianist Rudolf Serkin, Antal Dorati and many, many others. I waited in line with all the other nobodies and shook hands and basked in the reflected radiance of so much classical music expertise.
My idol was composer Aaron Copland because of his Appalachian Spring, and because as a budding American composer one could have no higher example of quality and brilliance than the great Aaron Copland.
One day I managed to get tickets for a gala concert at the Festival Hall, and on the bill was Copland, who conducted the Appalachian Spring Suite.
What fascinated me almost more than the music was the backstage world of maestro and divas, and concierges shooing me away. I gained entrance to that world only because I was so insignificant as a raw youth that no one took any notice of me.
But this evening was apparently very important, for there were film crews and security and velvet ropes cordoning off the backstage area.
A huge crowd swelled at the backstage entrance, which I dodged and managed to skirt, arriving at the door. There a burly English guard stood, barring anyone who didn’t seem to belong.
I looked nice, with a coat and tie, and so I suddenly piped up, without thinking at all what I was going to say. “I’m with the family,” I ventured, and like magic the guard smiled and removed the restraining velvet barrier and I was in!
I walked down a deserted hallway toward what seemed to be a hubbub, and turning a corner found a crowd outside a dressing room door.
Having no idea what was appropriate, I pushed my way to the door, which suddenly opened, revealing a smiling gentleman.
Beyond this man I could see into the room, and there was Copland himself, in a white dress shirt, sitting smiling on a desk, surrounded by his inner circle and photographers and a film crew. He was sweating profusely, having just finished conducting.
Suddenly Copland looked at me and smiled. He gestured towards me and said, “Come in!”
I was flabbergasted, as was the crowd and the film crew, but the cameras kept on rolling as the door shut behind me and I was conducted to the inner sanctum of America’s greatest composer.
Copland acted like I was one of the family, and hugged me. I couldn’t believe it. The inner circle laughed as if at some in-joke, but it was all good-natured and too delicious to understand. It was all happening so quickly.
Suddenly Copland says to a photographer, “Jerry, you gotta get one of me and the kid!”
A news photographer jumps to the foreground, and takes a flash snap of Copland with his sweaty arm around me, grinning like I’d just won the Prix de Rome.
I managed to mumble that I admired him and wanted to be a composer, but all of a sudden a tide of crew and glitterati and well-wishers pulled me from the great man, and the next thing I knew I was back out in the hall.
My impression was of a kind man who sparkled with a radiant personality.
I spent all of ninety seconds with him.
Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press