Pianist Remembers Dad With A Little Help From His Composer Friends

Adam Tendler commissioned 16 composers to write works for his ‘Inheritances’ recital at the 92nd Street Y in New York. (Photos by Joseph Sinnott)

NEW YORK — The unusual thing about “Inheritances,” Adam Tendler’s piano recital March 11 in memory of his father, was that all 16 of its short memorial pieces were composed by the pianist’s friends. The recital, at the 92nd Street Y, was attended by a spirited audience of Tendler’s other friends. They looked happy to see one another, and there was much post-concert socializing. Several composers attended as well.

Tendler was not even that close to his father, who, at his death in Vermont, had another wife and child. The pianist was confused when his widow handed him a manila envelope full of cash from his father in a Denny’s parking lot. Tendler guessed the amount would do for a couple of months rent on his New York apartment.

Then he had another idea: Why not commission a few friends to write short piano works for him to perform in his father’s memory? As an award-winning concert pianist, expert in Cage and Copland, who also performs standard repertoire, he knew plenty of important composers, as well as a number on their way up. Hoping for an acceptance or two, he invited the likes of Laurie Anderson, Nico Muhly, Timo Andres, Pamela Z, and others to write him a piece. To his astonishment, all agreed.

Adam Tendler with a photo of his younger self.

More money needed! Two months’ rent worth clearly wouldn’t do it. Fortunately, Tendler’s wide circle includes a Philadelphia arts patron, Anthony Creamer, whom he had never asked for anything. Until he did. Presto! One problem solved. The 16 friends each composed a piece, adding up to 80 minutes of music.

Much as he longed for a New York premiere, the pandemic shut down its venues, but with the help of Minnesota-based Liquid Music and the Los Angeles-based Wild Up, the event had a run-out in Minnesota in April 2022 and another in Los Angeles in July. So Tendler arrived here loaded for bear.

For this breakout evening, he wore a tight white polo shirt with tie (also headphones, briefly, and an electric mouth stick to work the pedal when his feet were busy). Behind him was a lavender screen with titles, movie clips, and anything visually pertinent. That helpful idea simplified the musical substance, adding color and clarity.

The composers were born mostly in the 1980s — prime age for losing a parent — which probably drew their attention to the project. Anderson, born 1947, is by far senior of the group; her Remember I Created You had spoken lines, one being about “a minute of music your father wouldn’t understand.” Tendler did not give the composers guidelines, but he encouraged them to “fly their freak flag.”

Listening to the pieces as a group, their differences actually became less significant, in spite of the composers’ range of age, color, sexual orientation, religion, and background. Nothing was violent or virtuosic. Some pieces were pleasant (Marcos Balter’s False Memories) some less so, some twinkled and sparkled, some pounded, some did both (Missy Mazzoli’s Forgiveness Machine, Angélica Negrón’s You were my age), some were dreamy or reflective (Nico Muhly’s Eiros, Sonos, Sarah Kirkland Snider’s the plum tree I planted still there), some thorny and assertive. Sweetest was Hushing by inti figgis-vizueta, with musical interest coming in second to onscreen home movies of the pianist as a child. Several required the piano’s strings to be plucked or perhaps swept with fingers, like Ted Hearne’s Inheritance, which also used a mouth pedal.

Adam Tendler with another image of himself as a boy.

Tendler is an accomplished artist, and this collection will be a valuable long-term inheritance for him. He may feel closer to his father now.  Over time, he will choose from among the pieces, adding this or that one to recital programs, or using one as an encore. There are several ways they could be fit in.

Everyone experiences the death of a parent — or any loved one — sooner or later, so these pieces, separately, are destined for wide relevance.