Monday, May 19, 2014

Oh, the absurdity

The latest orchestra gig was oddly stressful. Going into it:

I didn't know the conductor.
I didn't know how big the group was or who else was in it.
The rehearsals were all in the far reaches of northern Virginia and required driving in rush hour traffic.
We were only going to have three of them.
The third rehearsal was going to be a recording session.
The music was really hard.
I was playing principal, so I had to put in bowings and generally be more prepared than usual.

In my old life, I certainly would not have taken this job at all. But now, I think I need the stimulation of interacting with other people, especially musicians. Plus, there was something appealing about it; maybe it was because in the initial email I got from the conductor, he said, "I know that you are great musician." Who could resist that?

There were two monster pieces on the program: The serenades for strings of Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Parts of these I simply could not play when I first tried them. I had to get out my metronome and slog through some tortured work, and it took a couple of weeks to get them more or less under my fingers. I didn't know if this would be a big group with a bunch of cellos, or just me, or something in between, or the group was going to be dreadful or good, but I had to prepare. I didn't want to look (or sound) like an idiot, just in case it mattered (though I thought it unlikely that it would be some astonishing but unknown local version of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra). As I was practicing the music for this, I reflected that I could consider this penance for all the many times I was unprepared and coasted on the preparation of others but still got paid.

Plus, the driving. I have structured my life so that I don't have to drive much. I kept my last car for 18 years and it only had about 75,000 miles on it when I traded it in on a new car (I would have kept it, except the exhaust system was a mess even after a new muffler, and the whole car was disintegrating a bit every day). But for this gig, I had to drive about 60 miles round trip for each date involved.

So before the first rehearsal, I was quite a bundle of nerves. I left the house around 5:45 for a 7:00 start time; I didn't get there until probably 7:15 because of just horrendous traffic (i.e., the kind where you sit there inching along for an hour to get about 5 miles down the road).

The orchestra turned out to be a group of 13 string players: seven violins, two violas, two cellos, two basses. They were all quite excellent players, but only a few had played together before or knew the conductor, who was a personable but rather intense guy who doesn't talk much -- perhaps because his English is a bit spotty.

This conductor had an interesting way of doing things. For example, he started with the slow movements of both the Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. Also, he tried out different tempos for everything. I could tell he was really listening to what was happening and was trying to figure out how to make it sound better. It was sort of refreshing, in contrast with most conductors I've worked with who put on the pretense that they are infallible. On the other hand, when people asked him questions, he kind of ignored us, I guess with an eye on the clock.

Anyway, what with the driving, the nerves, and the demanding music, I found the first rehearsal exhausting. But I felt like I fit in. In fact, I am still marveling at how this guy found so many good players and got them to do this job.

For the second rehearsal, he asked us all to stay an extra hour (until 11:30 p.m. -- that's four and a half hours, folks!) because we were going to start recording. The evening started out with all area drivers in a panic because of pending rainstorms, resulting in more bad traffic jams -- but I actually got there on time because I left even earlier and took some back roads. Somewhere around 11:00, my arms and wrists burning, I said, "I can't play anymore!" I felt like such a whiner because I was the only one who protested, but geez, I wasn't about to give myself carpal tunnel syndrome over someone else's emergency, you know? But with everyone staring down at their shoes, I was persuaded to do one one more short piece and then he let us all go. I drove home through a raging downpour and didn't get there until after midnight.

The third rehearsal was supposed to be shorter to compensate for the extra hour, but it was not. It was another four hours (at least this time in the afternoon). By this time, I had given up practicing between rehearsals to save my poor arms and hands as much as possible. I lost count of how many times we recorded the Tchaikovsky and Dvorak. As I was leaving that day, I asked the recording guy, who was sitting outside the practice room, how it sounded. He kind of made a face and said, "Oh, okay, I guess." I said, "Not ready for Deutsche Grammophon?" He said, "Not exactly."

The big finale of all this, the concert, took place on Saturday afternoon, outdoors at a park in Frederick as part of an Italian festival. It was a gorgeous day after all that rain. We got in the car (husband came with me) and headed out -- only to run into another huge traffic jam, so we took a detour and got there about a half hour later than planned. But the first hour was only supposed to be dinner (a little perk for the musicians), so that was not a problem. What was a problem was that the small stage we were to play on was set directly in front of the truck with the generator for the lights and sound system. This was probably why the band playing before us was playing so loud. When we finally got up there to play, we could hardly hear ourselves, let alone manage any nuances.

It was also rather chilly (though I suppose preferable to being hot) and breezy. I'd brought a handful of clothespins, which came in handy for holding the music on the stand. By the time we started, most of the crowd had left. Those remaining seemed to enjoy the music, though no one announced what we were playing so they probably had no idea what they were listening to -- except maybe for the waltz theme from "The Godfather." We went through the entire Tchaikovsky (four movements), then some of the shorter pieces, then the Dvorak (but skipped the slow movement), then a few more shorter pieces, then done. By the time we were finished, the crowd had thinned out even more. We all stood around waiting to get paid (the conductor handing each of us his checkbook and asking us to write our names for him to save time), then drifted off.

And so, after all that work, finis.

By way of celebration/consolation, my husband and I stopped at an excellent Turkish/Middle Eastern restaurant in downtown Frederick and had some food (and I had a beer) before getting back on the freeway and wending our way home.

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