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.
Due to weather, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s regular conductor for their main series Pops concert was unable to get to town. Erin filled in on a day’s notice, receiving positive reviews from the press and audience alike. Read the review here. For a detailed account of the events, visit Erin’s blog.
What began as a changed flight on Friday ended Saturday as a surprise engagement with the Buffalo Philharmonic.
Here’s how it went down.
Wednesday noon: I e-mail David Crane, General Manager of the Buffalo Philharmonic, letting him know I’d be in town for the weekend to rehearse the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus. Might he be able to get me a comp ticket to the Pops concert on Saturday night. I want to hear the hall and experience the Pops vibe in Buffalo before I make my BPO debut on March 9.
Thursday afternoon: Hearing news of the impending winter storm, I begin what I believe is the futile task of packing my bags for my Friday afternoon flight through LaGuardia. Just as I suspected, the dreaded “Cancelled Flight” notification pops up on my phone. I call, but to no avail. The lines are so jammed that it takes me over 45 minutes to even get the honor of being on hold for an hour! Through some miracle, I get through, and the Delta agent has a good sense of humor and routes me through Atlanta on a flight that leaves the next morning at 9.
Friday, 7am: Up and out early, I forgo some of the comforts, like contacts and dress shoes. I figure with all the snow, a slightly more casual rehearsal attire would be forgiven. Besides, I was sure that I would get to Atlanta and then come right back home when it was announced that Buffalo was under ten feet of snow.
Friday, 9:00am: The flight to Atlanta actually takes off. On the flight, I review the translation of the Latin text of Mozart Requiem, which I’m conducting next week.
Friday, 11:30am: Said flight miraculously (I always think it’s a miracle!) lands. I turn on my phone right away to let Drew (my husband) know that I am safe. The phone begins lighting up and making all sorts of noises. I have voice mails, emails, text messages, and text messages telling me to check my text messages. David Crane is trying to get in touch with me (this can’t be about the comp ticket!). It turns it that Ron Spiegelman, the conductor of the Pops show on Saturday night, has a flight scheduled to arrive in Buffalo at midnight, and, well, no one is convinced that’s actually going to happen. Would I be willing to cover, if I get into town and he doesn’t? Sure, I say, and then I excitedly share the potential news with my two nice, but slightly confused, row-mates.
Friday, noon: I find some lunch at the airport, and then it hits me-I’m totally not prepared. Not only do I not even know what’s on the program, I have no suit, shoes, or contacts. I have rehearsal with the chorus in the morning, and if I’m conducting the BPO, that would be in…25 hours! While my phone slowly drains of battery, I arrange for my contact prescription to be sent to a Lens Crafters in Buffalo, and then I sit and stare at my salmon, knowing there’s nothing else I can do until I arrive (if I arrive) in the great snowy north.
Friday, 3:15pm: I land (another miracle) IN BUFFALO. The landing is a bit scary – zero visibility, some sliding upon touch down, and much hard braking. But, we give the pilot the “thanks for not killing us” round of applause, and then in unison we all turn on our phones. I let the BPO know that I’m in Buffalo, and they let me know that they still don’t know if Ron’s going to make it.
Friday, 4:00pm: I have my luggage, and my wonderful new friend, Catherine Schweitzer, picks me up from the airport. If anyone embodies all that is great about Buffalo, it is Catherine. She knows the city, its history, and its resources. She is generous and funny, and, important for the next two hours, she knows where to find clothes. We go to the mall.
Friday, 4:15pm: I convince the sales woman at Banana Republic that I don’t need this season’s latest spring pastels or cropped pants. She jumps into action, finds me a suit, steams it, and then digs up a 30% off coupon for me to use. The pants are too long, but I’ll deal with that later. At DSW, another miracle happens. I find comfortable shoes in five minutes! And, the sales clerk finds me a $20 coupon. (While at DSW, my phone rings. It’s Dan Hart, BPO Executive Director. I’m definitely on. Scores are wrapped in plastic and waiting for me on the front porch at my apartment.)
Friday, 4:55pm: We arrive at the random Lens Crafters I called while staring at my salmon in Atlanta. They GIVE me the contacts. No charge! Luckily my earlier studying of Latin mass texts (“Inter oves locum praesta, et ab haedis me sequestra, statuens in parte dextra.”) helps me figure out which lens goes in which eye. OD is the right eye, of course!
Friday, 5:30pm: Catherine and I stop by Wegmans to get food, and I purchase the latte that will get me through the night.
Friday, 6:00pm: Finally, we arrive at the apartment. Scores are there, heat is on, Latte is ready for consumption. I shovel a bit of snow to release some nervous energy.
Friday, 6:30pm: I buckle down and get to work. First things first – organize. I go through the entire stack of scores and rank each one with a 0 (have conducted it), 1 (easy, could get away with sightreading if I had to), 2 (medium, should look at it), 3 (more difficult).
Friday, 7:10pm: I begin with the 3s, and try to knock them down to a 1. Then, I do the same with the 2s. It’s not pretty. I’m doing everything I have always prided myself in not doing. I’m marking cues and dynamics before analyzing their significance. I’m listening to recordings on YouTube. (Horrors!!!). You name it, I’m breaking the rules. But, it had to be done!
Saturday, 12:30am: Bed.
Saturday, 5:30am: Up and working on excerpts from Wicked, Gypsy, and more. It’s pretty surreal to be studying an orchestra version of Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” before daybreak.
Saturday, 8:30am: I leave for my BPChorus rehearsal. The singers are so supportive of my adventure, and they are willing to work! I push them hard, and they step up. I’m grateful that there is someone to take over at the end so I can get to Kleinhans in time to eat, drink another latte, and run on stage.
Saturday, 11:45: Catherine, wonderful Catherine, drives me to the hall. I meet with the singers (Katie Rose Clarke and Julie Reiber) and try to eat a few bites of lunch.
Saturday, 1pm: On the podium, ready to go. The musicians seem supportive of the situation, and I can sense they have my back. I feel good about starting the rehearsal with the overture to Gypsy. That was one of my “0”s, so I’m glad I get to begin with it. I look at the percussionists to cue the opening suspended cymbal lick. No one is at the drum set. No one is behind the other cymbal. Um, am I being tested?
—“Gentlemen, is there a cymbal part?”
—“A set part?”
—“Okay, let’s move on to the Bizet Carmen selections. We’ll figure this out and do Gypsy later.”
The rest of rehearsal goes pretty well. We make some impromptu cuts and breaks to work with the singers, and the library gets the publishers of Gypsy to fax a part – quick thinking by everyone! I love working in situations in which every single person is on task to make it work. That’s the beauty of our profession, I suppose!
Saturday, 3:30: Rehearsal is over. One rehearsal, and we are good to go! I go home, watch some bad tv for an hour, gather my thoughts and head back to the hall. I’m meeting the wardrobe person at 6:30 so she can hem my pants.
Saturday, 6:30: At the hall. The staff has set me up with a salmon dinner (much more pleasant than the one at the airport, culinarily and psychologically), and the wardrobe person is ready to pin, hem, and press. Dennis, the back stage volunteer, makes sure I have everything I need. I work on my concert chit chat, decide just how I’m going to involve the audience (dance moves in the Diana Ross medley are in order), and I take a breath.
Saturday, 8:00: We do it! The musicians of the orchestra are talented, focused, and supportive. The soloists are engaging, generous, and versatile. The staff, board, and volunteers of the BPO are a well oiled machine. I feel at ease, or as at ease as I possibly can feel.
Saturday, intermission: I walk off the stage, and Dennis hands me a glass of water – the perfect temperature. I know that seems like an insignificant detail, but for me at that moment, nothing could have been more perfect.
Saturday, second half: Not knowing the Buffalo audience yet, I take a chance that at the core it shares with the Richmond audience a common yearning to be involved. I teach them the “Stop! In the name of love!” dance moves, and they participate with zeal!
Saturday, after the show: I finally get a tour of Kleinhans. I speak with some of the fabulous musicians. I meet the sponsors and patrons. And, I have a much needed drink!
Then, I thank David Crane for the best comp ticket ever.