A composer can sense when an artist has that sensitivity, that style, that ineffable something to take a work and really make it soar, and so it was with Kirk Nurock, on that sun-dappled afternoon last fall, when Emily entered the room.
Others had come to the audition before her and still others were waiting outside; sniffing, growling, nipping at each other's heels. And yet, when Emily took her place beside the piano and started to perform, there was something, to Kirk Nurock, that immediately set her apart.
"She was very pretty," says Nurock. "I didn't want to say anything, but inside I liked her very much. And then when I started playing, she just threw back her head and howled . . . I could just feel she had some charisma. She came into the room wearing a red kerchief. Everybody thought she was special. A lot of people thought she looked just like the RCA dog . . . I kind of thought she did, too."
Last night, "Sonata for Piano and Dog" premiered at the Carnegie Recital Hall. Progressive jazz numbers led the double bill hall, but the well-dressed audience was clearly here for the dogs--three of them taking star billing with a classically trained professional, Nurock.
"I saw a film of him at the zoo--he was doing a cappella with the seals--they would just pick up each others' chords," said Pat Mulligan, a member of the audience. "I just like the idea of it. A guy in the street was trying to offer me tickets to Vladimir Ashkenazy next door, and I said, 'Sorry, I'm going to see 'Sonato for Piano and Dog.' "
The audience at Carnegie Hall was psyched, no question. The crowd barked eagerly as the lights dimmed at the end of the intermission, and there was heard a low meow. Offstage came a bark.
The theater was hushed. Nurock, the avant-garde composer, took the stage. He sat at the piano playing a sweet melody, plaintive and yearning. A few bars into the piece he began to croon, the croon changing to a howl.
Soon, on a short leash, Emily came on stage, and the audience broke into applause. There were cheers and flashbulbs popping. It was the dog's big moment. The audience stared at the dog. The dog stared at the audience. There was no howling. There was no music.
Some star quality--the dog was a dog, the dog was a no-talent mutt. Given a shot at one of the most famous concert halls in America, the dog blew it, and everybody knew it. At the end of the first movement, the composer stopped the show. He stepped forward to address the audience.
"You may or may not believe this," he said, "but that's the first time that ever happened. Emily's come through under enormous amounts of pressure and TV crews. I think she's just stage shy.
"We're gonna run through the beginning of that piece all over again."
So they took it from the top. Emily's owner crooned in her ear. Emily began to howl, softly at first, then with growing confidence.
The audience seemed mesmerized, There were screams of bravo, the huskie came out and joined Emily in a duet. The third dog came on. And in the last movement they joined together: composer, owners, dogs.
When it was all over there were flowers for Emily and two curtain calls. Some in the audience jumped to their feet applauding and others turned their noses to the ceiling and howled.
"It's spring in New York after all," Pat Mulligan said.
How do dogs get to Carnegie Hall?
Why did a classically trained pianist get involved with doggie sonatas?
Because his Bach was worse than his bite.
Technically it's not even a first. Nurock, with something called the Natural Sound Performance Group, did a piece with 20 people and five dogs as one of several acts at a benefit at Carnegie Hall last year; in addition, the folks at Carnegie say, they've had on stage a wolverine and an eagle (Paul Winter Consort), as well as another canine chorale. They do not discriminate at Carnegie: The only thing they required, they said, was a letter of permission from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Nurock, who has served as a conductor and orchestrator for a number of Broadway shows, has arranged music for Bette Midler and Barry Manilow and has written an unproduced musical based on Kipling's "Jungle Books," does not discriminate either.
His Natural Sound group started with the premise that anyone could be musical, making just about any sound; a whisper, a shout, a moan; and it was only a short jump from that to the concept that the animals could make music, too. To that end, he performed a work last year, commissioned by the Bronx Zoo, which included owls, birds, a leopard, a sea lion and a bat. He also performed last July in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo with orangutans and guinea pigs.
"The Bronx Zoo contacted me after hearing about the work for five dogs and 20 voices," he says. "At the time they were planning to have a festival for their monkeys. I was delighted and, even before we spoke figures, said yes. As the discussion ensued, there were difficulties with the monkeys because they were behind panes of glass, so we couldn't hear their sounds. So I spoke with various keepers for various animals and chose which species I wanted to work with. It had a lot to do with the keepers, as well as how musical they could be in combination with the animals singing . . ."
Alas, as so many creative types will tell you, to write the piece and to find the artist who can execute the piece are two different things.
"I auditioned about 32 dogs," said Nurock at his lower Manhattan studio. "Most didn't bark--I call it singing, actually--or didn't do it consistently. The three we chose are more sensitive to and sympathetic to the piano. And, of course, now I understand what they're most sensitive to . . . if I play a fast trill in the middle of the register louder and louder, Emily will just come in . . ."
Emily is the star of the show?
"I wouldn't want to call her the star," says Nurock. "It's not fair to the other dogs . . . she wins a lot of people's hearts, let's put it that way. She's good with Sasha--he's a white husky--too. We do have a little problem with Sasha and Tara . . . he feels attracted to her, so we have to keep them at opposite ends of the stage, though of course, for the music, that attraction is good . . ."
Does he give her a little poke now and then to get her to emote?
A dark look from the composer.
"I do not believe in teasing or manhandling an animal," he says.
Nor do his animals sight-read. They are brought out, during the 35-minute piece, and coaxed into performance by their owners. The beautiful Emily, a fox terrier, yowls when her owner kneels beside her and howls sotto voce in her ear; the amorous Sasha howls when he hears Emily; the high-strung Tara, half collie, half golden retriever, takes her cue when her owner plays the harmonica. The sonata itself, says Nurock, was conceptualized as rather a traditionalist piece.
He moves to the videotape machine: The sonata opens, sure enough, with Nurock sitting at the piano, playing a lovely, romantic piece. A few minutes into the piece, he begins crooning to the music, his singing slowly evolving into a full-blown howl. Shortly, on a short leash, Emily takes the stage. They blend their instruments; he bent over his, which is dark and rectangular; she throwing back hers, which is white and covered with hair. The minutes pass; Sasha comes on stage, then Tara; they lift their voices in canine chorale; 15 minutes pass, 20. The piece draws to a close. In a grand finale, the four humans bark. The dogs bark.
Afterward, the composer shares a confidence. "I've never told anyone this," he says, "but I've modeled it after Beethoven."