Friday, March 19, 2010

Conductor Blog

Since I’ve seen a few more conductors than usual the past couple of weeks, I thought I’d share a couple of conductor stories. The names, dates and orchestras will not be revealed because I don’t want to embarrass anybody. But you know who you are!

Conductors are like baseball managers, but backwards. If a ball team is doing poorly, it’s crappy managing. If they are doing well, it’s because they have great players. When an orchestra plays well, I hear, “Wow, that -insert name of conductor here- makes that orchestra sound great.” When the conductor screws up and CAUSES problems in the orchestra, I hear, “Man, the orchestra doesn’t sound very good. What’s wrong with those players?”

In defense of conductors, it is a very hard skill to master. But in the (paraphrased) words of my friend Danny Leeson, “A difficult task does not relieve the person of the responsibility of excellent performance.” Did I get that right, Dan? When a ball player doesn’t hit, he gets traded.

Story #1 – Years ago, I was playing a performance of “Daphnes & Cloe.” In the second suite, when the orchestra is blazing along in 5/4, there is a whirlwind of action; truly a great moment in impressionistic music. Well this conductor starts rushing and in short order, the piece starts unraveling. There are a couple of double forte trombone bursts that I can only describe here as “BOP-ba-da!” Thank God I didn’t play there. As I looked over to my trombone colleagues, I see the ‘deer in headlight eyes’ that we have all witnessed before in a spot like that. They all three had their horns up, ready to go, and out comes one little “boop.” I HAD to put my head down because I just started laughing out loud. “Boop.” I STILL laugh when I think of that.

Story #2 – The Turtle Island String Quartet was the guest for a Pops concert, I think, or maybe a Light Classics. These guys have GREAT time; you can calibrate your metronome to their rhythmic integrity. At the rehearsal, we are playing along and the conductor (not the same person) starts rushing. As you can imagine the piece starts coming apart. The conductor (I’m not saying gender here) stops and tells the Turtles, “You are rushing.” This person is telling The Turtle Island String Quartet they are rushing.

Story #2a, same concert – We are playing a suite of Duke Ellington tunes. The conductor never gets into a grove. The conductor tells Kent Reed, our great drummer, that he is rushing. KENT REED, MISTER time! The whole orchestra IN UNISON yells, “NOOOO!” The stick couldn’t have CUED it better. A GREAT moment in orchestra history. Kent is one of the TASTIEST drummers I know. He is set up right behind me. At the concert at that point of the music where Mister Stick “corrects” Kent, Kent lays into the bass drum, “BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!” on every beat. Like story #1, I’m STILL laughing.

Story #3 – New World Symphony, Second Movement starts with a trombone/tuba chorale. The Stick brings both arms up in the air and S-L-O-W-L-Y. Brings them down. No sound. “Trombones, why didn’t you play?” The stick asks incredulously. The Stick does it again. No Prep, no beat, 4 entrances, typical response in this situation. “Trombones, you must watch my beat.” Again, same result, same incredulous look from Doctor Beat. Finally, we decide to listen to Bob Szabo (Principal Trombone) breathe and go with him. Stick, UUUUp, Downnnn, here’s the breath, PERFECT entrance. Stick happy, tubist laughing … again.

Story #4 – Carmina Burana. There is this wonderful sound that tubists & trombonists can make. I’ll call it here, for this purpose a DOINT. You play a note, then raise your tongue slowly to the top of your mouth and touch the top teeth. The movement with the high bassoon solo has these short muted trombone notes on beats 2 & 3. The Conductor wasn’t happy with the way trombonists were playing these notes. In typical crappy conductor fashion, The Stick did not have the vocabulary to describe adequately what he/she wanted. In frustration one (or more) of the trombonists went “DOINT.” The Conductor’s eyes lit up, “THAT’S IT! THAT’S what I want.” Tubist laughing … again.

Story #5 – Piece long forgotten. Conductor, who was not very fond of brass, keeps asking for low brass to play softer & softer. I can honestly say that my colleagues can play pretty damned soft. It is an immense source of pride for me that I can play very softly. I practice some soft playing every day so I can maintain a clear, focused, warm sound in the most extreme, softest dynamic levels. We’re playing in the piano range (music marked MEZZO piano). “Trombones (which I have come to understand means “Tuba, you too!”) Play softer.” We do as we are told. “Softer.” Again, we comply. “MORE!” At which time, we lift our horns and are SILENT! Honest to God, we didn’t even play a note, but did our best Milli Vanilli impression. We got the thumbs up sign and when Dr. Stick stopped, the comment was, “Trombones, that balance was perfect.”

Story #6 – Guest conductor, who I found out later was the WRONG conductor hired because the name was the same as the conductor who was SUPPOSED to get hired. We’re playing Wagner, WAGNER for God’s sake. The part is marked FF! When Wagner marks FF in low brass parts, he wants it loud. Am I right here? The conductor says, “Tuba, play softer.” I comply. It is totally possible that I was a bit carried away and was playing too loudly. “Tuba, play softer.” Now, I’m in the mezzo range. “Tuba, play softer.” One of the ONLY times in my career I have mouthed off at a conductor. I said (yes, disrespectfully), “It’s marked double forte.” “It’s still too loud!” was the reply. Honestly, I WAS in the piano range by this time, honestly. I was playing so softly by this time that I could barely hear myself. The next time through, I just put my horn down; I left the part out. For the concert, I brought my smallest F tuba to play the part so I could play softer still. As I was warming up on stage before the concert, Maestro Dickhead comes up to me and tries to engage me in a discussion, asking me about my horn (EVERYONE know what a horn geek I am) and all I could get out was, “I hope THIS tuba is soft enough for you.” At the performance, the conductor looks my way to give me a cue (first time I was cued all week) at that part and I put my horn down. Next night, I brought the B.A.T., I was totally ignored and I blew my ass off. Prick.

Story #7 - We are rehearsing and I look over to the horn section. One of them is reading the paper. The paper is WIDE open, draped over the stand. It is hanging over the top of the stand and out both sides. The player is intently attending to the news, horn in lap. The conductor asks, “Second horn, are you reading the paper?” Second horn: “NO!” Tubist STILL laughing!!!

I am SURE you have a conductor story or two. Care to share?

4 comments:

  1. I remember the Turtle Island concert. Wowza!

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  2. Tony, I hope you are planning a book. These are so wonderful and, let's face it, the average audience member has no clue what goes into the performance they are enjoying. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Some time, one of us will tell the world about the Surfacing Walrus the Steam-powered conductor or Mr. Flappy arms. But not today.

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  4. Good stories, but too close to home. I was there for some of those incidents. Wish I had learned to laugh like tuba players. I just got bummed out. Thanks for the memories, Tony.

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