I took my seat in the sponsor’s private box with more than my usual excitement on that evening. This was not my typical debut. This was the night when the world would hear for the first time a piece that was either to make or break my career as a composer. Tonight would be the debut of my masterpiece, my greatest, most controversial work yet, my Concerto No. 1 for Chicken and Orchestra.
The well-dressed woman beside me was a stranger, someone who had paid a great deal of money to sit in the sponsor’s box with the composer himself. I gave her a faint smile. She glanced at me, then down at the printed program in her lap, then raised an eyebrow. She squared her shoulders and sat high in her seat, as if steeling herself for the performance to come.
It was my first indication of the disaster that was to follow, but yet at that time I still had no premonition of the full impact of this night’s performance on my future.
The orchestra filed out onto the stage and took their places. The chatter of the audience became hushed. I tapped my fingers on the cushioned arm-rest of my chair.
The conductor strode out at last, to a hesitant applause. Beneath his elbow he carried a fat red hen. As soon as he reached the podium he dropped her to the stage with great ceremony, then haughtily scattered a handful of corn around her. A wry smile curled my lips. The conductor had protested vehemently against performing this work, but the sponsor had loved the idea, and so I had prevailed.
The audience waited, breathless, for the first downstroke. Everyone’s attention focused on that humble chicken at the conductor’s heels. She strutted about and pecked, oblivious to the thousands of eyes upon her.
The music began soaring through the auditorium. A simple, pastoral piece, it was to evoke the pleasure of a country afternoon, of sitting on the farmhouse porch and watching a chicken go about her careless business of gathering food into her crop. A deep poetic statement about a way of life that had long been lost to the over-stuffed, satin-coated snobbery that filled this concert hall.
All would have gone well, had not the second cello’s shoelace been untied.
The chicken must have taken it for a worm, something she preferred to mere grain, and began to peck at it. Irritated, the cellist nudged her away, but she was undeterred. He gave her a swift kick that sent her flapping into the air, only to land on top of the harp. The harpist could not reach her well and continue to play the arpeggios that this section of the piece commanded, so instead the harpist began trying to dislodge her by throwing sheets of music that had been played already. At last rebuffed, the chicken took flight again, only to land inside the grand piano.
By now the audience was roaring with laughter. The piano lid slammed shut, and the most horrific noises were coming from inside, of squawks and clangs. The conductor turned and glared at the audience with a warning look. They tried to quell their laughter, the woman next to me stuffed her pearls in her mouth in an attempt to stop laughing, but they could not. In disgust, the conductor cut off the music and stalked from the stage.
The pianist timidly opened the lid of the piano, and the chicken shot forth. Battered and ragged, she landed on the nearest available perch, the top of the conductor’s podium. She had a hard time keeping her balance and had to beat her wings, which the bassoonist took as a signal to begin the piece again. As she struggled there to stay on her slippery perch, the orchestra lurched forward at each slow beat of her wings, and continued to play with the chicken conducting!
I quite wished to sink into a great hole in the ground and never come forth again.
Laughter drowned the sound of the final chords, and the applause was only sporadic. Some kind soul quickly dropped the curtain as the chicken fluttered at last from the podium and back to the stage, ostensibly taking a bow, which brought another hoot from the audience, before the red velvet at last obscured the greatest disaster of my career.
Before the house lights came up I climbed over the silk and satin laps of my boxmates and made for the back door.