A Day in the Life, Part II

Began a sunny October day in a charming, hospitable southern city not far from my Atlanta home. I’m in town subbing with their orchestra, actually subbing for a sub who got called to play with another charming, hospitable southern city, so technically I’m a sub once-removed, or a sub-in-law, or a step-sub, or something like that. Yes, I’m a freelancer this week, one of those itinerant members of the so-called “Freeway Philharmonic” who aren’t residentially woven into the fabric of the orchestra, but rather must weave their roles anew with each visit; I’m trying to “sit in and fit in” and offer my sonic contributions without making any waves. More on this process later…

First things first, though: breakfast. Can’t skip it, love when hotels offer it, never pass it up. Sometimes, if the buffet is good and included, I’ll have an early breakfast as soon as the buffet opens, and come back for an early brunch before they close up shop. This particular experience did not merit a second visit. Eggs apparently extruded from some sadist’s Inedible Round-ish Food-esque Punishment Machine. Pancakes assembled by robots in an ingenious, yet ultimately unsuccessful, conveyor-belt device, and plopped unceremoniously upon my waiting paper plate. Shared this advice with a lovely British family seen waiting for their pancakes a few minutes later: “Y’all might wanna butter the plate first, if you want any hope of peeling the pancake off it.” They expressed gratitude, if warily, now convinced of southern hospitality and eccentricity in equal measure.

Now, several hours devoted to concert planning before my 2 pm rehearsal. The program on the front burner is next week’s Mozart Requiem, with members of our beloved ASO Chorus, their identities now cleverly concealed under the moniker “Atlanta Mozart Choir.” But problems have arisen – seems the venue’s choral risers are too small to accommodate all the singers volunteering to perform with the ATL Symphony Musicians. Venue representatives are worried about stage capacity, fire codes, egress routes, shell placement, all things I figure I’d better learn about really soon, lest the whole project get nuked.

What to do? Uninvite singers? But these are talented, generous, and committed volunteers, who believe in the power of our shared art to effect change in this loathsome lockout. Include everyone already signed up? But that might risk the venue pulling the plug on the event. Hours on the phone with conductors, choral administrators, concert planning partners, relentlessly pacing the hotel room, trying to ameliorate a tense situation. Only possible with the invaluable help of wise, devoted, and ultimately disappointed colleagues willing to make difficult decisions. But we shall prevail, and we shall sing and play Mozart, and art shall be victorious. Bruised, but victorious.

Onward, to the gig! So, I’m sub-subbing with another city’s orchestra. Very talented and friendly people; some are locals, some travel hundreds of miles to play here. Most of them have worked together quite frequently, I gather, so I sit in the back of the bass section and try to lay low. (Bad bass pun.) Bass players are generally known to be easygoing and amicable, so my new section-mates allow me to slip effortlessly into the bass-centric conversations before rehearsal begins. Good humor abounds: “Try this new rosin. It’s made of candy. You can lick your bow when you’re done playing.” And, “Oh wow, you string your bass balls-out? Awesome.” (That’s not as bawdy as it might sound to non-bassists.)

But “sitting in and fitting in” isn’t just about camaraderie; it’s also about intense awareness of what’s going on all around you. Where are the trombones breathing? How much bow is the concertmaster using on the quarter note accents? Unfamiliar conductor: does she cue with her eyes, or her right hand, or her left hand, or her imagination?

I make a rookie mistake: carrying the traditions of my own orchestra to the gig, instead of being a proverbial blank slate. In one spot, I make a subtle portamento through a descending melodic tritone; that’s how we do it in Atlanta. Alas, that’s not how they do it here, which I discover after demonstrating my ignorance. My gaffe is greeted with good-natured glances. I quickly scribe the injunction against schmalzandos in my part, letting my pencil just-barely-audibly fall to rest on the stand as a gesture of respect: I’ve learned my lesson. Next time through the passage, however, the entire section slides the shift in jest, letting me know that they’re paying attention too.

All this, leading up to breaktime, when I trade roles from humble bass section sub to bold, articulate Arts Advocate! It just so happens that Very Famous Cellist is soloing with This Orchestra, and, knowing this, colleagues from Back Home have encouraged me to solicit Very Famous Cellist’s support in our efforts to end the lockout. So, as soon as break is called, I stride right up to Very Famous Cellist, announcing, “The Atlanta Symphony sends its greetings!”

Very Famous Cellist’s brow furrows, and he exudes empathy and concern, and asks, “What the f*** is going on down there?” Suddenly nervous, I stammer a response about WAC Board leadership being hostile and trying to destroy a great artistic legacy, and Very Famous Cellist, widely respected as one of the most generous musicians alive, asks what he can do to help.

Score! Very Famous Cellist wants to help! I figure I should start with a modest plea: “Would you consider making a statement urging management to end the lockout? I could record a video on my phone. Your support would mean so much to us in Atlanta.”

Very Famous Cellist seems willing, but insists, “I don’t want to take sides.” Offers instead to make a less partisan statement about great art in general, about how music should not be held hostage by labor disputes.

As I nod in agreement, Personal Assistant of Very Famous Cellist intervenes, pointedly demanding more detail about who I am and what I want with her Very Famous Cellist. No offense, Personal Assistant is doing a damn fine job of protecting him from people like me, trying to take advantage of Very Famous Cellist’s generous nature. I introduce myself, and Personal Assistant says, “We’re aware of the situation in Atlanta, and we’re very concerned,” but her obvious primary concern is, “How quickly can I get rid of this person harassing my boss?”

As it turns out, Personal Assistant need not have worried, because Very Famous Cellist’s generous nature is presently endearing him to the orchestra. “Here, try my cello!” repeated to anyone nearby, and an adoring crowd gathers, preventing any further harassment.

Later, on stage waiting for the concert to begin, I warm up on the Bach I once played for Very Famous Cellist, years ago, when he generously (of course) consented to hear me and offer advice. As I play, still reminding myself of the “greater motivic awareness” he counseled, who but the Very Famous Cellist himself should appear in the stage left wings! Making goofy faces at the bass section! He’s making small talk with the guy beside me; is he avoiding eye contact with me, like a jury about to announce a defendant’s guilt, because he’s changed his mind about helping us? No, I’m reading way too much into this. I do not, however, resume warming up my Bach; I’ve been bounced off my game, and now I need to focus on the music on the stand in front of me. Ah, yes, the arpeggio in the fourth movement: a knuckle-cruncher. I do about thirty reps.

Reminding myself during intermission what was to be gained by venturing nothing, I pin a note to Very Famous Cellist’s dressing room door, reiterating my request. I’m rewarded later with a proffered business card: the Personal Assistant’s email address. In my mind, I’m already writing tomorrow morning’s email solicitation for help, trying to maintain a delicate balance between forlorn humility and self-assured righteousness. I allow myself optimism, of a sort; in the words of Virginia Hepner, CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, “I’m pretty optimistic. I have to be; I work in the arts.” True that, Virginia, true that.

Scorecard for the trip:
Expenses: gas; 1 night moderately cheap hotel; 2 meals at cheap restaurants (<$10/meal); 3 bottles of 5-hour energy drink so I don’t fall asleep at the wheel (or the bass); the hassle of rescheduling lessons because of an unexpected road trip; and putting 2 dogs in daycare for a day because my wife has to work late and we don’t want the chair chewed again (see previous blog post, “A Day in the Life of a Locked-Out Orchestra Musician“).
Income: enough to cover expenses.
Intangibles: The possibility of Very Famous Cellist offering a statement of support; the opportunity to give a demo CD to a talented young conductor (I am, after all, a composer); making new friends, connections, colleagues; and nurturing my soul with beautiful music, and sharing that joy with an appreciative audience.

Hope they call again. Working feels good.


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