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February 2015

WHOA! The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Onstage at Symphony program

February 1, 2015 10:48


That’s what Maestro Wilkins asked us to write in the music.

It was one of the toughest passages in a challenging program. It was that part in the Liszt that gets your heart pumping and adrenaline flowing (“which part is that?” someone asked at lunch. “Just one part?”) And when you’re finished with it, you all come together in a chromatic scale, up and down, up and down. Breathe in, breathe out. You made it. Whoa.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Onstage at Symphony program was, as Maestro Wilkins pointed out, kind of like a blind date. A big blind date of over 100 people who didn’t know each other beforehand, and, in less than 24 hours, pulled together a concert in Symphony Hall that received a standing ovation.

The first rehearsal was supposed to be on Wednesday night, but got snowed out due to blizzard Juno. For Friday’s rehearsal I took public transportation to Symphony Hall: for me that means a bus and two subway lines. It brought back memories of my old commute when I worked in Kendall Square. I would listen to music on headphones while riding the T and follow along with my part. Once I left my sheet music on the T, and it was never seen again. The first violin part to Capriccio Italien, forever riding the Red Line.

I already wondered how this would all come together with such limited rehearsal time. It wasn’t a completely blind date: there were four of us in the group from my orchestra, the Arlington Philharmonic, two cellists, an oboist, and me. I had also met the other player from my hometown, Belmont, a PhD biologist and patent attorney who turned out to live around the corner from me. We got together one morning for coffee and banana bread. An accomplished flautist, she was playing the piccolo in this concert.

Still, when I followed an unknown cellist and violinist out of the subway and into the side stage door of Symphony Hall, I felt a little overwhelmed.

From blog

The administrators and organizers of the event were very helpful and efficient, directing us onstage to where place cards on the music stands told us where to sit. Seats were assigned by lottery. I was sitting 3rd stand outside in the viola section, which turned out to be about the best place to sit on the entire stage. Maestro Wilkins walked right next to me when he came onstage, and I also had a perfect view of him and his hands while he was conducting.

I was near my oboe and cello buddies, and right behind the principal violist to make following bowings easy. I felt that almost indescribable feeling of being in the center of everything, surrounded by all of the different musical parts in the score. You can hear everything from the middle of the orchestra. In a way, you lose yourself and become the orchestra, become the music itself.

And, I made the BSO’s Facebook page!

Working with Maestro Thomas Wilkins, the Germeshausen Youth and Family Concerts Conductor chair with the BSO, was a real treat. He has prestigious appointments in other parts of the country too, but here his sense of humor and approach seemed perfectly tailored to this slightly nerdy group of Massachusetts intellectuals. At one point, somebody’s cell phone rang during rehearsal, and he answered his shoe, like Inspector Gadget.
“Where are we starting, Maestro?”
“Same Bat Channel!”

He graciously agreed to be in my selfie:

From blog

The whole experience was over too soon. We fit two significant rehearsals and a concert into less than 24 hours. I’m certainly glad I practiced as much viola as I did. I felt well-prepared overall. My stand partner was a real violist who plays with the Seven Hills Symphony, but I know there was at least one other switch-hitter in the viola section. The one thing that still throws me sometimes, when switching, is rapid key changes. I’m used to certain keys meaning that I should play with particular fingers high or low on particular strings. I’m especially used to playing a low-1 on the lowest string in E-flat major. Unfortunately, on viola, a low-1 on the lowest string is a D-flat. Which they don’t have in E-flat major. Just have to keep on retraining that muscle memory.

At lunch we sat together and talked about our experiences in our home orchestras. Several articles about this program on the web have made the point that the Boston area has an extremely vibrant community of amateur musicians. People came from all over Massachusetts, and they play in many different community groups. Someone commented on the BSO’s Facebook page that wasn’t it nice that this program existed for people who would otherwise “hardly get a chance to play.” Really? It is indeed wonderful that this program exists, but virtually everyone in this orchestra already plays regularly somewhere—just in casual conversation I heard from people in the Boston Civic Symphony, Seven Hills Symphony, New England Philharmonic, Concord Orchestra, Reading Symphony Orchestra, Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, MIT Summer Philharmonic Orchestra, Wellesley Symphony Orchestra, and of course my own Arlington Philharmonic. I’m sure there are others that I just didn’t get a chance to meet.

At lunch, one player who, in his youth, had actually played under Arthur Fiedler at POPS said that his impression was that Fiedler was an unhappy man, struggling with inner demons. At that time in his life he had found himself at a crossroads, trying to decide what to pursue as a career. Fiedler had told him point blank not to become a musician. He became an economist. I commented that I thought we amateurs have the best of both worlds. We don’t have to depend on music to feed our families. We can use music as an ally and an outlet to fight against our own inner demons. And when it’s not helpful, we can put it aside, and take it out again when it is.

Thomas Wilkins made an interesting comment when he introduced us at the concert. He said that he believes that people like him, professionals who go on to make a career of music performance, are the by-products of music education, not the main goal. He said the goal was to make musicians like those of us onstage, people who love and serve the music as something larger than ourselves. This made me tear up a little bit. Thank you, Maestro. It was an honor to play with you, and with the other musicians.

It was a challenging program. And when you’re finished with it, you all come together. Breathe in, breathe out. You made it. Whoa.

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