Throughout the years that I have been fortunate enough to have the best seat in the house (either as a performer or a conductor), I have amassed some pretty remarkable (and plenty of mundane) stories. These range from discussing chili recipes with the principal timpanist of the Atlanta Symphony to being dropped from 15 feet in the air right before curtain calls; from having the police convinced that someone broke into my house to steal my dissertation on Missa Solemnis (really?) to having all the stars aligned years later allowing me to make that larceny-worthy work come to life. I’ve often been asked to write these down. Okay, to be completely honest, my mother has suggested I write them down, just so I don’t forget them. But, because they make some folks chuckle and give others something to think about, I’ll share them here every once in a while.
Last week’s collaboration with former student Joseph Conyers reminded me of this story – a concert with the Savannah Symphony over 13 years ago.
Imagine my excitement. After a year or so of conducting outreach concerts for the Savannah Symphony, I had finally been invited to lead a performance on the main stage – the Johnny Mercer Theatre in Savannah’s cavernous Civic Center! It was a holiday concert for families – a Lollipops concert, and it involved a collaboration with the students of a local ballet company (doing Nutcracker excerpts, of course), a side by side with the youth orchestra (“Trepak” and “Jingle Bells”), an interview with Louie the Lightening Bug (the mascot for the sponsoring power company), a visit from Santa (on a train!), and an audience filled with children – well over 1,000 of them. My now husband served as Director of Operations for the Savannah Symphony at the time, so I knew I was in good hands as I planned the whole symphonic circus.
First things first: the train. I had it in my head that Santa would make an unusual entrance, made possible only through enthusiastic audience participation. Brilliant! The kids in attendance would be the ones responsible for Santa’s arrival! I chose Nick Demos’ charming “The Little Engine that Could,” a musical retelling of the story that inspires so many kids to keep chugging away, even when the task seems impossible. The piece requires train noises, provided by the audience and conducted by a second conductor. I roped bass player and youth orchestra conductor Dave Warshauer into the task. Before the show, my then boyfriend Drew and the sound engineer repurposed the same old santa sled into a santa train. The idea was to plant Santa on the pit, and when the kids in the audience achieved maximum enthusiasm-levels of “Chug, Chug, Chug,” the pit would rise, revealing Old Saint Nick himself. The kids would go wild! Then Santa and I would step OFF of the pit for a short interview with Louie the Lightening Bug (that’s an interesting combination) so that the operations staff (Drew and the sound guy) could lower the pit, remove the sled, and get the first student dancer ready for her debut with a professional orchestra. Then, I would hop on the podium, start conducing Nutcracker, and the magic of the orchestra pit would be revealed.
Well, IT WORKED! Dave brilliantly whipped the kids into a holiday frenzy, Santa arrived on his adorable boyfriend-made train, and the interview was as charming as Louie the Lightening Bug himself.
Except, I forgot to get off the pit. So, as I carefully merged the worlds of a holiday hero and an odd green marketing tool, Drew began whisper-yelling at me from the wings. GET OFF THE PIT. GET OFF THE PIT. WE NEED TO MOVE THE TRAIN AND SET THE FIRST DANCER.
Okay, okay. I finally stepped stage left of the pit, added a few impromptu questions to the interview, and watched Santa gleefully distribute candy to the audience.
Drew and the crew were fast. The pit was down, the train removed, and the dancer was poised and ready to go before Santa even exited the Johnny Mercer. I hopped on the podium, thankful to have gotten away with my pit-standing mistake, and gave a reassuring look to the 9-year old dancer. She smiled at me from her solid fourth position, and we were ready to go. As soon as the pit rose, we would begin.
As soon as the pit rose, we would begin.
I said: As soon as the pit rose…
Me: “Boys and girls – we are so excited to have a dancer, ready and waiting to go. But, the pit won’t come up! On my cue, let’s ask the wonderful stage crew to bring the pit up.”
Audience: “Bring the pit up.”
Nothing, except a brave 9-year-old ballerina smiling up at me.
Me: “Oh no – where are our manners. We didn’t say please!”
Audience: “Bring the pit up, PLEASE.”
Nothing (dancer still smiling).(Drew always adds this aside from his vantage point backstage: the stage manager, who was also playing double bass, jumped off the stage in a panic and started unplugging things. Probably not the right solution, but nice to know everyone was on the task!)
Me: “I know. We should probably do the same thing we did to get Santa here. So, on my cue, make your train noises!”
Audience: Impressive and enthusiastic train noises.
Nothing (still smiling, still in fourth).
At this point, the end seemed impossible. I felt defeated. All that planning and all that creativity was going out the emergency exit door. I felt like the concert would just have to end right then, right there.
And then, I saw Joseph. Joseph Conyers, now Assistant Principal Double Bass of the Philadelphia Orchestra and former student at my first teaching job, was home for Christmas break. He embodied determination. Through hard work and sheer will power (and a hint of laughter), he had gotten into one of the top conservatories in the country. If he could do that, I could get through this concert, but only with his help. So (poor Joseph), I called him up on stage for an impromptu interview. We talked about the bass, the weather, the Savannah Symphony, college, and his inspiration, and then we ran out of things to say. With much hope, I glanced at the pit.
Nothing (I never knew anyone could smile for that long, but there she was).
Me: “Thank you, Joseph. Let’s give it up for Joseph Conyers, boys and girls.”
Audience: Wild applause. (Did they know that I was making all of this up?)I walked to the podium, hoping that my new found determination would will the gentle whir of the pit mechanism to begin, but alas, all I heard was an oddly violent and somewhat muffled whacking from down below.
Me (to the concertmaster): “What should I do?”
Concertmaster: “Let’s just play something.”
(Thump, thump, thump from the bowels of the pit.)
Me: “Boys and Girls, how would you like to hear Jingle Bells?”
Audience: Wild shouts of joy! (Or at least that’s how I remember it).We began Jingle Bells. It was originally supposed to be our grand finale, with the youth orchestra playing along, but I assured myself we could do it twice.
(Drew would like to add another back stage perspective here: While he was down in the basement, kicking the escape door to the pit so it would firmly close, thus shutting off the safety latch and allowing the pit to rise, the youth orchestra, hearing Jingle Bells, feared they had missed their entrance and began to run towards the stage in a group panic.)
(Drew ran upstairs, stopped the kids from storming the stage, and sent the bass player/stage manager back to the orchestra).
The rest of the concert was an easy down hill ride: Nutcracker selections with the dancers and “Trepak”, “Jingle Bells”, and “Sleigh Ride” with the youth orchestra.
Audience: Wild applause (I remember it that way).
Finally, with much determination, positive reinforcement from friends old and new, patience unmatched by any dancer since, and some inelegant chugging on my part, my first main stage concert had made it over the mountain.
I hope the dancer is still smiling.