Symphony for Train and Tower Was a Masterpiece of Music & Timing

Train and Tower was an incredible feat of timing and musical daring do
Train and Tower was an incredible feat of timing and musical daring do

This summer, several classical music festivals will grace the Hamptons. One is the Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival (bcmf.org), which concludes this weekend with a “Bach to Bluegrass” concert on Friday, August 19 at 6:30 p.m. at the Channing Daughters Winery Sculpture Garden and “A Joyful Finale” at 6 p.m. on Sunday, August 21 at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church. Another is The Hamptons Festival of Music, which will present a series of concerts by Beethoven, Bach and others at LTV Studios in East Hampton on September 9, 10 and 11.

Classical music concerts have become successful in recent years, and I’m glad to see it, but it does remind me of one of the first festivals that took place over a seven-year span from 1998 to 2005. The Musical Festival of the Hamptons drew only a handful of people who witnessed 15 consecutive performances of Mozart and Vivaldi under a tent in a pasture that could seat 200. Then, one remarkable evening, hundreds of people came to witness the performance of a musical instrument that weighed eighty thousand pounds. And those who witnessed it will never forget it.

This concert series, year after year, was overseen by a wealthy woman named Eleanor Sage Leonard who hoped that the public would like to come to her festival for 15 consecutive nights to honor the memory of her great-uncle Benno Moiseiwitsch, a highly regarded concert pianist who performed on the international stage during the lull between the First and Second World Wars. I was among those on her board of directors at that time, and we would meet monthly at her oceanfront home on Sandune Court in Sagaponack to plan the upcoming year’s concerts.

“We continue to have very poor attendance,” she told us. “I just don’t know why that is. People should come.”

Among guest musicians performing with the Atlantic Chamber Orchestra night after night were Itzhak Perlman, the Harlem Boys Choir, and narrations of Peter and the Wolf by celebrities such as Roy Scheider and George Plimpton. Lukas Foss conducted.

Well, she’d just have to make up the loss of revenue for her concerts out of her own pocket.

One year, with still almost nobody there, I sat through a spirited rendition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons under the festival tent in Sayre Park, which sits between the railroad tracks and the driveway into the Hampton Classic Horse Show. At a climactic moment, the 8:55 p.m. westbound train honked its horn and roared on through alongside the tent and just 100 yards away, drowning out Lukas Foss conducting his orchestra. He swished his baton angrily this way and that. And the train was gone.

In 2004 at her home, I spoke about this. The train was an intruder. Why not have it thought of as an asset to a composition? Cannons are fired in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Could it be done?

Train and Tower Comes to Fruition

An estimated 400 people, a standing-room crowd, came on that night in 2005 to witness the premiere. It was a warm night. The sun set around 7:55 p.m. Everyone hung onto their seats to prepare for enjoying the winning composition, the 14-minute Train and Tower After Sibelius. And they were not disappointed.

Needless to say, since I had thought of this at that fateful board meeting a year earlier, it was decided that I should take charge of making this competition happen.

That fall, invitations went out to more than 30 music conservatories, Juilliard and all the others, inviting students to compete for a prize. Compose a 14-minute-long piece that would include a train roaring through. Conductor Lukas Foss would judge the entries. And the winner would get $500 and a free trip to the Hamptons to witness Foss lead the orchestra on the final night of the festival in Sayre Park.

Over the winter, 55 students entered. And I agreed to host the winner as a guest at my house for that weekend.

Of course, I had to call the Long Island Rail Road. My intention was to ask them to have the 8:55 slow down a bit as it roared through toward New York City. We’d work around it.

They did not agree to do that. Instead, James J. Dermody, the LIRR president, said he would arrange to have an entire six-car train there, separate from the 8:55. Our train would park at a siding at the Bridgehampton station a mile away and, at a signal given over a cell phone, lurch down the way and come roaring through.

“We’ll send it out in the morning,” the president told me. “You can rehearse a few times during the afternoon.”

Not only did the LIRR president come out for the day, but also the railroad’s publicity director, Sam Zambuto, reporters from The New York Times, the BBC, and NPR, among others. We nailed it on the second try. But that was the rehearsal. Could we do it in the evening?

Mark Petering, a student at the University of Minnesota, had won the competition and was sitting in the third row. His parents were there. An earlier piece, by Debussy, came to an end. And then everyone got very quiet.

The Symphony for Train and Tower begins with the plucking of some violin strings. It tiptoes along quietly, and then it builds. It builds and builds.

The cellos come in, the bassoons and the French horns joining up, and then come the trumpets, bells and trombones and it gets louder and louder and skitters along toward some sort of crisis (cue the train) where, with a full-throated climax by the entire orchestra, the cymbals and kettle drums crash and suddenly — silence!

And in that silence, along the tracks there came the train at 40 miles an hour, chattering and screaming its horn triumphantly as it thundered alongside our tent fortissimo until like a rocket it was down the way and fading into the distance.

The place went nuts. Audience, musicians, everybody, all leaped up screaming and applauding. A grand slam home run.

You can hear it and watch it yourself. Go to youtube.com and search for “Mark Petering Train and Tower” (or watch it above). There’s nothing anywhere like this.

Today, Petering is a professor of music at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He conducts and composes. We write back and forth. He’s married and raising a family.

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