Onstage at Symphony, January 14, 2017 (All photos courtesy Boston Symphony Orchestra, unless otherwise noted).
The minute I saw the email, way back in July, I knew I wanted to participate. Onstage at Symphony Hall would be a dream come true for any amateur musician. Those selected would be part of an orchestra that would perform at Symphony Hall. There were no auditions. Musicians would be selected by lottery.
That was crucial for me. I took up the cello late in life—at the age of 52. Now, at 69, I am a very enthusiastic, mostly competent, orchestra performer, but hardly a virtuoso. I was pretty sure most people would be more accomplished than I, but I knew this was something I wanted to do.
The whole experience was exhilarating. Not just the January 14 performance at Boston’s Symphony Hall—a magnificent structure whose acoustics are considered among the finest in the world and where so many extraordinarily talented people have performed—but the whole process: that first email notifying me of my acceptance into the orchestra and subsequent communication from the BSO’s Emilio Gonzalez; my receipt of the sheet music—actual BSO sheet music, not some dumbed-down version for nonprofessional musicians; practicing and learning about the music—which was challenging; the inspiring rehearsals with our wise and good-natured conductor, Maestro Thomas Wilkins, Germeshausen Youth and Family Concerts Conductor for the BSO; meeting BSO staff and other orchestra members; and the impacts it all has had on our practicing and playing.
The program is designed to offer adult musicians who love music but have pursued alternate careerthe opportunity to experience a “day-in-the-life” of a professional musician. This was the third time the program had been offered; earlier concerts were in 2015 and 2016. One hundred four of us came from 67 towns and numerous community orchestras across Massachusetts for the 2017 program.
Cape Community Orchestra contingent, with Maestro Wilkins:
back row, Salvatore Chines, Marilyn Rowland, Rosemary Uppvall, Robert Reynolds;
front row: Jeanne Reid, Wilkins, Louise Brady. (photo via an orchestra member)
Five other members of my orchestra, the Cape Community Orchestra, attended: Jeanne Reid and Louise Brady, violin; Rosemary Uppvall, cello; Robert Reynolds, clarinet; and Salvatore Chines, French horn. We all felt a little intimidated going in—the music was more demanding for most of us than the arrangements we generally play, but our enthusiasm and excitement outweighed our concerns.
Two other Cape Cod residents participated: Melanie Hayn, English horn, who plays oboe and English horn in the Falmouth Chamber Players Orchestra, Brockton Symphony Orchestra, Brockton Symphony Chamber Players, and several small chamber wind groups, and Amanda Kosloski, a music teacher who occasionally plays bassoon in the CCO.
We received our music in early September, just as the Cape Community Orchestra rehearsals were beginning. I took a quick look at it and decided—inappropriately, as it turned out—that the music would be relatively easy. I turned my attention to the fall CCO music and several weekend fiddling workshops I was attending—Abby Newton’s Celtic Cello Retreat in the Catskills in October and Fiddle Hell in Westford, MA. Here, the focus was on learning by ear, knowing a wide repertoire of common fiddle tunes, playing backup, and improvising, all somewhat different from traditional classical music performance skills.
When the CCO season ended in mid-November, I opted to work on Handel’s Messiah, which is performed every December as a sing-in/play-in in Falmouth, where I live. I love playing this music with members of the Falmouth Chamber Players Orchestra and the Falmouth Chorale, as well as other singers and musicians who, like me, join the orchestra for this event.
Finally, I found time to focus on the Onstage music: Tchaikovsky’s Waltz from “The Sleeping Beauty” ballet, Coleridge-Taylor’s “Danse Negre,” Mascagni’s “Intermezzo” from the opera “Cavalleria rusticana,” selections from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” and Saint-Saens’s “Bacchanale” from the opera “Sampson et Delila.”
The cello music had some tricky sections, but the main difficulty for me was the speed. A lot of it was very, very fast. Some sections required required careful attention to fingerings and bowings, and I spent hours working and reworking the fingerings, and then reworking them again. Jeanne, Louise, Rosemary, and Bob approached the music the same way I did, with lots of intensive practice, watching YouTube videos, trying to improve our performance speeds.
Sal, who plays first French horn in the CCO, was assigned the last of eight French horn places in the Onstage orchestra. The music was in a difficult range for him, and he said it was hard to make sense of it without the rest of the orchestra. “I enjoyed ‘Danse Negre’ most,” he said. “It’s a great piece and very playable on the horn.”
Many of us were not familiar with “Danse Negre,” a lively, light-hearted, and spirited piece composed in 1898 by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, but we loved playing it because of its vibrant energy. Coleridge-Taylor was the son of a West African physician and an English mother. An exceptionally talented violinist, he based his “African Suite” on African folk songs.
Jeanne said she never worked so hard on music in her life. “I was practicing two hours a day, sometimes four, during the last two weeks, which is unheard of for me,” she said. A first violinist for the CCO, she also played first violin at Onstage, as did Louise.
Louise, however, plays second in the CCO and has never played first in any orchestra. Worried, she called Emilio. “He assured me that I could do it,” she said, “but when I saw the music, I thought, ‘Yikes!’” Thanks to support from other musicians, hours and hours of practice, and joint practice sessions with Jeanne, Louise was soon feeling confident. “I was still nervous,” she said, “but more in an excited way, not so much in a deer-in-the-headlights way.”
Bob was probably the least intimidated by the music. He was principal clarinet for Onstage and has considerable experience playing solos for various bands and orchestras over the years. Nevertheless, he described the music as “intense.”
Rosemary was looking forward to playing Mascagni’s Intermezzo. “Both my Irish and Italian grandmothers loved it,” she said, and hearing it brought her to tears. Pietro Mascagni wrote “Cavalleria rusticana” in 1890. The Intermezzo is considered one of the most beautiful pieces in operatic music. Relaxed, gentle, soaring, and emotional, Intermezzo is wordless, representing the passage of time.
Melanie thought the musical selections were great and well-selected for length and for the audience. “They were a bit challenging, though not insurmountably difficult, but we had only three rehearsals and most of us had never played together before,” she said.
Finally, It’s Time for Rehearsals
Rehearsals were Wednesday evening, Friday evening and Saturday morning at Symphony Hall before our performance on Saturday afternoon, January 14. The CCO rehearses once a week for several months before a concert, so this seemed a very tight schedule to me. Yet, having the rehearsals so close together turned out to be helpful, each reinforcing what we had learned earlier.
Symphony Hall is only about an hour-and-twenty-minute drive from my home, but I opted to stay in Boston from Wednesday through Sunday, to avoid that commute and to give myself a couple of days of distraction-free practice time. It also gave me time to relax, to visit with my niece, and to do some sightseeing in Boston, where I once worked an environmental planner on the Big Dig project.
I arrived at my hotel just minutes before we were to check in for the first rehearsal and headed for Symphony Hall. There was a line of musicians waiting to go in through the musicians’ entrance. I was struck by how young many of them were. Many members of the CCO are in their 60s and 70s; the ages of Onstage participants ranged from 18 to 75.
We checked in, carefully guided by the friendly and efficient BSO staff, and walked onto the stage; it was awe-inspiring to finally be there. My seat seemed precariously close to the edge of the stage. Rosemary and I were seated together in third row. My seat was on the outside, and Rosemary’s was on the inside, the opposite of where we usually sit. I gave some thought to offering to switch, but given Louise’s experience, I decided to be brave and take the outside.
Once onstage, I had to deal with my A string. I had broken my A string just days earlier, trying to tune my cello after all the strings had loosened one day, due to the cold weather. I had grabbed another A string from my “old, but still usable in an emergency” collection of strings—and immediately broke it as well. Finally I found a string that worked and I ordered both an A and D string for the concert. It arrived the day before the first rehearsal and, by this time, I was too nervous to tighten it all the way. My A string was murmuring “G” when I packed the cello up and headed for Boston. It was now or never—and on the stage of Symphony Hall, I finally tuned the string to a proper A. Ahh, no breakage!
Meanwhile, Rosemary had also noticed problems with her A string. Wisely, she took her cello to a luthier who changed the string for her before the concert.
At the first rehearsal, the cellist in front of me pointed out the many little holes in the floor made by the endpins of the BSO cellists. We were delighted. This is something that maybe only a cellist would understand, but the little holes not only gave us secure support for our own endpins, they gave us a tangible connection to the professional cellists who usually sat there.
We were all moved, just by being on that fabled stage. Melanie described the feeling: “I’ve been in the audience for many concerts in Symphony Hall, and sitting on that stage and playing was a rewarding and humbling experience.”
Finally, Maestro Wilkins walked in. Symphony Hall is exquisite, but it was Wilkins who made Onstage such a special and unforgettable experience. “It was like a three-day masterclass in musicianship with a little preaching thrown in, little sermons on love and kindness,” said Jeanne. “We were treated with respect, almost as if they were honoring us.” Melanie agreed, saying, “Maestro Wilkins had a constructive blend of humor and guidance that helped us bring out our best playing.”
“Maestro Wilkins was sending out love,” said Louise, “taking us to a different place. After the flutists played a passage well, he walked over and kissed them, as if he were blessing them.” Rosemary noted that he “told us that music was our gift to the world, to play from the heart, to share this love, beauty, and kindness, especially in difficult times.”
Bob appreciated the professional way the rehearsals were conducted. “When I played the first solo,” he said, “the conductor gave me a small hand signal, indicating that I should stretch it out. The next time, I stretched it, but the orchestra didn’t notice and kept going. He admonished them to ignore the bar lines and listen.”
This was a common theme throughout rehearsals: to pay attention to other musicians, to fit your music in with theirs, to feel the beauty of the music and play for the beauty, not the bar lines.
Louise found one of his instructions particularly helpful: “He asked us to inhale just before pulling the bow across the strings in a quiet part, and exhale as you pull the bow.”
During “Morning Mood” from “Peer Gynt,” Wilkins asked the strings to play the theme “as if you were hanging a color in the air with a brush stroke.” A vivid image.
Solveig falls for him and spends most of her life waiting for his return. Wilkens did not tell us that story, but his brief description was very apt and moving. “Solveig’s Song,” he told us, is the dance of an old woman, so old she can’t dance anymore, but sways gently.” Another tender, poetic image that will stay with me.
“The Sleeping Beauty” was written in 1890. The familiar waltz is big and bold with some nice cello passages. Wilkins told us to hold back slightly before beginning those passages, to take a breath.
The program ended with the Bacchanale, a lively tribute to Bacchus, the god of wine, music, and frenzied dance. It’s from “Samson and Delilah” and was first performed in 1890. Even Bob, one of our most seasoned musicians, did not expect it to be played at top speed. Rosemary thought it went even faster in the performance than the rehearsals—and thought she saw a glint in Wilkins’ eye as he established the tempo. Jeanne was able to bring the piece up to speed, in part because she was pulled along by other players.
It was sometimes difficult to hear all of Maestro Wilkins’s comments. Many were addressed specifically to the violins, but I would have like to have heard what he had to say anyway.
After Saturday’s rehearsal, we enjoyed a delightful lunch and had a chance to talk to other participants. Then we changed into concert black and headed for the stage, as the hall filled with family and friends and many others, including groups of children, who had come to hear this free concert. “It was Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in the city,” said Louise, “a very special weekend, not just another performance. Maestro Wilkins really made us feel that the quality of the concert mattered, and I think we all felt that.”
The concert was spectacular. Wilkins introduced the orchestra and the music to the audience, touching on the familiar themes of love, beauty, and kindness. I felt my own playing improved significantly over the past several days, and others felt the same. The audience responded with deafening applause and a standing ovation. Our friends said we sounded fabulous! To our ears, the music was beautiful—powerful, emotional, and full of energy, kindness, and love.
We were all ecstatic. The intensive, focused practice and the rigorous rehearsals will improve our playing well beyond this concert. “The experience made me feel that I could move off the plateau I’m on now and really improve my playing,” said Jeanne. Bob felt he could do even more to improve his dynamics and expression, “to play beauty and not just notes.” Rosemary said she would “go for the heart.”
“The best part was meeting so many musicians from all over the area who are dedicated to making great music. And we got to meet one of the BSO players, who sat in on the second rehearsal and gave us performance pointers,” said Melanie. We all agreed. Many of us found we had much in common with the other musicians–we both knew the same people, we had attended the same music camp, or we had played in the same orchestra at different times.
Weeks after the concert, Louise said she was “still floating.” Sal felt “exhilarated, inspired, and honored” to have participated.
We all felt we owed a lot to Maestro Wilkins and his low-key, good-humored approach that demanded the best of us. Several of us wanted to give back. Rosemary wrote him a note. Louise presented him with a heart-shaped stone she had found on Nauset Beach between rehearsals, and Bob, a professional woodturner (who also spent 35 years with the CIA), made Wilkins one of his signature wooden bowls.
We loved Onstage at Symphony. We would all do it again in a heartbeat.
For more information on Onstage at Symphony and to listen to an interview with Thomas Wilkins and to our concert, go to: http://www.bso.org/brands/bso/education-community/community/onstage-at-symphony.aspx Click on Listen and then on the interview or the concert listing.