30 January 2011

The People's Orchestra

Have you bought my book yet, damnit?  Well, here's another little taster, but the book is way better!

I played for a short time in a regional orchestra in my state.  We would meet once a month for four rehearsals and the concert and collect our paychecks.  Really, it was more than that; the people were extremely nice to work with, the conductor was one of the best I have ever had the pleasure of playing under, and the music he programmed was generally superb, if not always precisely played.  It fit into my schedule most of the time and satisfied my occasional desire to play some of the orchestral classics, and I did it for four years.  Since we were the only such group for at least 200 miles in any direction, and since we had the name of the state in our group’s title, we were expected to play for events all around the state.  We were the people's orchestra, in a sense; if your town had a big event happening, one that might be enhanced by orchestral music, you called us.  I liked this notion, that we served our state and that there was a need for classical music in these very modern times.  This afforded me the opportunity to get to know some beautiful places I might otherwise never have visited and also introduced me to some very sweet people...sweet people who were not accustomed to organizing large-scale events.  (You knew a punch line was coming, right?)

The last drive-out I did with the symphony was to a small town just off the interstate, about an hour's drive from our town.  They were celebrating their centennial and wanted us to give a concert in the city park as part of their weekend festivities.  Although the drive was relatively short, we all took the bus.  There was no scenery, no cute historical stop between here and there, and the symphony didn't reimburse you for mileage if you opted out of the free transportation to an event.  In fact, after the disaster with the flat tire my first year, neither Joel, Meredith, nor I ever drove ourselves again.  Plus, it was 102 degrees outside (I know it's a dry heat, but that's still a lot of heat), and my nine-year-old car wasn't too powerful in the air conditioning department anymore.  Remember that temperature, by the way, because it's a key element to this story.

We headed first to the local high school to rehearse. The building was not air conditioned, but there were a couple of doors in the back that had been propped open for some ventilation.  Considering that the air was a dry 102 degrees, it might not have been the best idea--really, it just felt like we were in a blast furnace every time a "breeze" came through.  We managed a two hour rehearsal with several breaks (much more than the one break we would normally get for this amount of work time) so people could splash water on their faces, get drinks, and generally try not to die.  I should have gotten up more often to drink--the locals in charge of the event had kindly brought flat upon flat of bottled water for us--but the heat was just making me so tired, it was all I could do to stay awake.  I would hunch down like I was melting in my seat whenever I wasn't playing, the energy it took to sit up straight was so great, and at one point I realized that the conductor had been trying to get my attention for a while in the middle of rehearsal.  Apparently I had missed an entrance while concentrating on winter scenes and trying to remember what ice felt like.  The second clarinetist kept helpfully pointing out how red my face was getting, foiling my attempt to pretend I was not hot.

Eventually the rehearsal ended and no one had passed out.  We were herded into the front lobby of the high school where the event organizers had brought many very long, party tray-style sub sandwiches cut into little pieces.  There were several different fillings to choose from, bags of salty potato chips, and more bottled water for our lunch.   As is generally my tendency when I feel overheated, I wasn't particularly hungry, but I thought the veggies in the sub might add a little moisture to my system, and the tiled floor was so very cold and inviting.  Tables and chairs had been set up, enough to accommodate our entire group, but most people had chosen to stay close to the floor where it was cooler and one would have less distance to fall if they started feeling any worse.  These organizer people sure were perky, though--they were dressed in red and white striped vests with bright blue shirts with the town's logo underneath, several of them also wearing American flag-inspired visors.  They handed out little hat pins with the centennial logo and kept pushing the ham sandwich, apparently not a big hit with my cohorts.  They were so thrilled about the centennial, and so grateful that we were there to add "a touch of class", as ham-pusher Barb put it, to the celebration.  I wanted to like these people.  It's not that I disliked them; actually, I had just lost the will to experience emotion at all, except perhaps for a slight feeling of dread every time we were herded to the next location.

Mercifully, the personnel manager left us on the cool linoleum floor of the high school until just before the show, so we didn't have to stand around very long in the heat when we weren't earning our paychecks.  We loaded up the buses and drove the four blocks to the park where we would give our concert.  It was to be an hour of patriotic music with no intermission, which I thought was absolutely brilliant.  Don't leave us out there any longer than necessary.  We had been briefed that we would be in a band shell, but because the conductor didn't know what direction it was facing, he advised us to bring our sunglasses.  He shouldn't have been as worried about that as about what the organizers called a 'band shell".  As it turns out, it is a "picnic shelter" to the rest of the world.  So, as we arrived, elderly men were hurriedly (for them) moving the metal folding chairs from the picnic shelter, where they had crammed things in around picnic tables and a grill that were cemented into place, to the only open, level plot of land large enough to hold us--in full sun.  I could see the local bank's lighted sign from where I sat, obnoxiously flashing the current temperature: still 102.  The string players were in an uproar, worried that the thin, delicate, and ancient walls of their precious (really!) instruments would be irreparably damaged.  Woodwind players alternately whimpered, sighed loudly, and mumbled about wanting a pay raise.  The brass and percussion players stared stoically ahead, arranging their music on their stands as best they could with clothespins to foil the sporadic, sudden breezes that were too few and far between.  I thought briefly about crying at the hopelessness of the situation, but I didn't have the moisture left in my body to form tears.

I don't really know how the concert went, to tell you the truth.  I wasn't concentrating on the music much at all, but rather on just sitting upright, thinking about cold things, and not playing during any silences or after pieces had ended.  The crowd seemed very happy.  I don't think anyone was younger than 50, but there were a good number of them, and they clapped and smiled heartily, whooping it up when we played the state song.  At one point I saw some movement in my peripheral vision and was curious enough to look: the second trombonist, with a poker face that would make 'em proud in Vegas, calmly got up, walked over to the nearest park garbage can, and unloaded all of the contents of his stomach.  He then composed himself, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, and returned to his seat to finish the concert. I remember thinking, slowly and deliberately to myself, "I will never do an outdoor gig again".  And to this day, I haven't.