There are some folk who don't see the gem inside my rough exterior who might consider me a hot head. To which I say a hearty "bite me". But let this opinion be a caution that within this blog may lurk items of a venting nature or perhaps those which might be considered a rant. So be it. Proceed with caution. You have been warned.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Midwest Mediocrities

This week's exasperations revolve around the orchestra I play in. It's a major crapfest and a lengthy explanation. Proceed at your own risk.

As you may recall this is a "community" orchestra meaning there's no pay - there's not enough money in Insurance City to support more than one paying orchestra so the surplus musicians band together to thumb their noses at midwest mediocrity by giving free concerts. This year a somewhat misguided decision was made to provide live music for the city ballet corps. Whether a semi-professional ballet company can survive here is problematical, but some new blood has been brought in to try to pump life into the previously hit and miss amateur group. The result of this collaboration has been a series of bumbling mishaps as the current production lumbers like Karloff in Frankenstein toward the performances.

The first near disaster for the orchestra involved obtaining the music. The selected ballet was choreographed to a hodge podge of twentieth century European compositions. In a classic cart before the horse maneuver, the orchestra committed to the performance having no knowledge of what it would take to obtain the music and how much it would cost. (It seems that the previously performances used recorded music and to hell with rights and royalties.) Music that is still in copyright and is used for ballet requires the acquisition of "grand rights", a "gotcha" section of the copyright law that allows music rental companies and copyright holders to deliver a huge kick in the gonads to the bank accounts of the performing organization. The cost of obtaining the music for this performance thus ends up costing five times what our regular concert music rentals cost. Yeah - we'll just ask our wealthy patrons to cough up more cash - you know, the people who attend our concerts because they can't afford tickets to the pro group in town.

Problem two with the music rental is obtaining music from Russia. Combine a fog dwelling rental agent in New York with recalcitrant heirs of the Shostakovich estate in Russia and we wind up getting most of the music for Act III one week before the final rehearsals with the ballet. Can you say "fake it and hope for the best"? I knew that you could.

The music itself is dauntingly difficult. The music is unfamiliar enough that some of it was only known to our conductor from listening to a CD. Estimating the difficulty of music without the score in front of you is risky to say the least. In an organization like ours we have a wildly divergent array of abilities and most of the top quality string players in town have been absorbed into the pro group. While there are moments of adequacy within the slings and arrows of the scores, for much of the time the rendition of the faster string passages is - to be kind - chaotic.

But enough about the music. Here we have a ballet corps trying to make a big impression as a newly vitalized group, they want big crowds, they want four nights of rehearsal with the orchestra and two performances on a Saturday. So when do they schedule the performances? The week of the high school state wrestling tournament with the performances on the day of the finals! Now in a civilized state located more toward the easterly part of the continent this might cause many to say "so what?" but in corn country high school tournaments attract crowds only rivaled by visits of the Pope to Central America. And in this state wrestling is HUGE. So all during rehearsals and particularly during the performances finding a place to park within walking distance of the Civic Center becomes challenging. Ballet vs. wrestling in this town? Ballet is going to take a beating.

So last night we enter the Civic Center for our first round of rehearsal with the dancers. Rehearsal scheduled 5:30 to 9:30. Are you KIDDING me? Volunteer orchestra you egotistical dance twerps. That means everyone has a day job. Sorry, I'm not taking time off from my job that I might use later in some leisure activity of my own choosing to accommodate this insane schedule. Yeah, and feel free to abuse volunteer musicians. If you were dealing with union musicians they would laugh at a four hour rehearsal with visions of dollar signs dancing in their wee little heads.

Conditions in the multi million dollar civic center are eye opening. Getting to the orchestra pit requires negotiating a formidable concrete staircase. For the young and fit no problem. For some of the elderly instrumentalists this is a major obstacle. No, there is no elevator. The pit itself lives up to its name. It looks like the janitor's room in my high school. Pipes and electrical conduit festoon the ceiling and walls. The black paint has not been renewed since the center opened in 1979. The web site for the center says the pit accommodates 50 musicians. The word "accommodate" seems to mean "will hold 50 musicians if arranged as in a Japanese subway car". Playing with someone's elbow in your ribs can offer a unique challenge.

Through the evening surprises abound. The center supplies a CD player for the playing of sound effects. No one in the building, including the crew demanded by the union, can figure out how to make it work. Constant tinkering finally makes it available for the last fifteen minutes of the rehearsal. One entire bank of stand lights in the pit flicker and fail completely from time to time leaving the players concerned either dropping out or improvising with varying degrees of success. Pleas to the house crew have no effect.

Professional ballet company? Sorry gang, but you are several reality checks short. Better luck in the future.

Professional venue? I've played in professional venues and Civic center - you are no professional venue.

Two more nights of rehearsal followed by two "anything can happen" performances. I can hardly wait.