APM: Composers Datebook
May 16, 2019 While many great composers have also been great conductors, this can be the exception rather than the rule. On today’s date in 1959, the American composer Ned Rorem tried his hand at conducting the premiere of one of his own compositions, a chamber suite entitled “Eleven Studies for Eleven Players.” Rorem recalled: “I learned that the first requisite to becoming a conductor is an inborn lust for absolute monarchy, and that I, alone among musicians, never got the bug. I was terrified. The first rehearsal was a model of how NOT to inspire confidence. I stood before the eleven players in all my virginal glory, and announced: ‘I’ve never conducted before, so if I give a wrong cue, do try to come in right anyway.’” Fortunately for Rorem, his eleven musicians were accomplished faculty at Buffalo University, and, despite his inexperience, Rorem certainly knew how his new piece should sound. Rorem’s Suite incorporated a few bits recycled from music he had written for a successful Broadway hit—Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer”—plus a bit from an unsuccessful play entitled “Motel” that never made it past a Boston tryout. Rorem’s own tryout as a conductor convinced him to stick to composing, although he proved to be a fine piano accompanist for singers performing his own songs. As for “Eleven Studies for Eleven Players,” it’s gone on to become one of Rorem’s most-often performed chamber works.