MUSICIANS BRAVE THE ELEMENTS
The winter storms that ravaged the Northeastern US in mid-February caused enormous damage in several realms. Financially, emotionally, and physically, much was affected by the natural disaster, which, on the face of it, was pretty and perhaps even romantic. But, as the powder-like flakes fell relentlessly from the sky, thousands of people, including musicians, were stuck in airports, train stations or their own homes.
Under such circumstances, what happens to scheduled concerts? Rehearsals? Musicians unable to go to work? Audiences with their pre-paid tickets who cannot get out of their driveways? Or, in reverse, musicians who cannot get home?
When an emergency, such as a blizzard, strikes, a quick assessment of the situation is necessary, followed by an action plan. In our modern society, we move at a faster pace than we sometimes realize and our lives can get complicated when disrupted by unusual events. Most performers travel by airplane and a closed airport can be the recipe for a missed rehearsal or performance. On the other hand, events such as the recent blizzard offer some artists the opportunity to take a deep breath and contemplate whether we have all become too reliant on air travel.
Sarah Chang was stuck in Kansas City, where she had played a concert the night before the storm. She spent the following day practicing in her hotel room, instead of running errands at her home in Pennsylvania. Mariss Jansons was preparing to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. The Pittsburgh Symphony had set up a birthday event in which colleagues including Emanuel Ax, Yefim Bronfman, and Gil Shaham would perform in Jansons’s honor. Everyone spent the day wondering how they would get to Pittsburgh. In the end, a corporate angel saved the day by giving all three artists a lift in his company jet, and they flew from Newark, arriving just in time for the concert. It was not such a happy ending for the EOS Orchestra, a group of about twenty musicians who were detained in Ann Arbor and had to cancel that night’s scheduled performance in Athens, Ohio. Fortunately, they were able to make it to their next concert in Oxford, the following day.
Carnegie Hall stayed open on the night of the blizzard and a few determined souls (fewer than fifty percent of the sold out house) trekked through the snow to hear a recital with baritone Thomas Hampson and Daniel Barenboim on piano. Kimo Gerald, celebrated house manager of the hall, told me he had never seen Carnegie closed in the nearly two decades of his tenure. A performance might be canceled if the artist could not arrive or if the Mayor declared the City to be in a state of emergency, but the hall would not close because of weather conditions. In fact, New York City was in a state of emergency that Monday but Carnegie’s Executive Office decided that the show would go on as planned.
As for me, I was in the midst of concerts with the Boston Symphony, with two free days in between, so I was at home in New York City at the beginning of the storm. As the softness of the snow muted street noises, the only sounds I could hear were the whistling wind and the pianissimo thump-thump of falling white particles. Evening set in, and my beloved view of the Hudson River disappeared. The outside seemed wrapped in pink-lavender chiffon, with a touch of satin gloss from the street lights below.
On Monday, February 17th, with the city – and most of the Northeast – declared a state of emergency, I listened to the radio news in bed while my two dogs, Willa and Franzie, enjoyed a rare morning of slumber with me. It was clear that those of us planning to work on this national holiday (President’s Day) would have to seriously reconsider. I decided, partly because I had recently recovered from a cold and laryngitis, that it would be best for me to stay inside.
I was delighted to have an unplanned quiet day at home. It was such a rare occasion that, at first, I was at a loss for what to do. I chose to practice a bit, starting with etudes and other basic violin exercises. I ended up doing every exercise that each of my students at Manhattan School of Music is “supposed” to do: Open Strings on All Four, scales in 3 keys-C Major, a minor, D Major, spiccato, vibrato, pizziccato, detaché, martélé, sautillé. It took forever to do them all!
In the afternoon, I was interviewed by a brilliant 7th-grader for her school project. She came by subway all the way from Brooklyn with her father to ask me several very well-prepared questions. I was deeply touched by her determination – and by her dedication to her studies. After she and her father had gone, I decided to bake some cocoa cookies, which were obviously late for Valentine’s Day but in time, nonetheless, for my rehearsal with Bob McDonald.
The telephone rang as the cookies went into the oven. Well, I thought, it’s snowing and the call can’t be more important than the cookies so I let the machine pick it up. With the cookies on the rack, cooling, there was another telephone call. Probably a wrong number, I thought. I checked the machine to learn that one call had been from Alexander at the Boston Symphony, wondering how I was planning to get to Boston the next day. His voice did not conceal his slight panic as the storm had hit Boston also. Another call was from the conductor, Alan Gilbert, who was also in New York. His message said the BSO was definitely not canceling the next-night’s performance. The Orchestra wanted us to be in Boston early. I returned Alan’s call, and we decided to take the 9:02 Acela Express train the following morning, which would bring us into Boston by 1:00pm.
With that decided, Bob arrived, having forged through the four and five-foot snow drifts, and we rehearsed. Along the way we were entertained by the cocoa cookies. Afterwards I did administrative work and gave my younger brother some unsolicited (and unappreciated) violin advice!
Needless to say, Monday had been a quiet day-an event in its un-eventfulness.
Tuesday morning Alan Gilbert and I took the early train. When we were settled in our seats, my cell phone rang-“Byron here”-Byron is my manager-to let me know that Christoph Eschenbach, the conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra, which was to be my next engagement, could not get out of Chicago. Therefore, the Philadelphia Orchestra had to cancel that day’s scheduled rehearsal, and could not re-schedule it. They would now have only three rehearsals with Eschenbach instead of four; not easy, with a program of Rihm, Schoenberg’s Pelleas et Melisande plus the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Another consequence was that I would have only one rehearsal, instead of the usual two, and was offered a choice of the Wednesday or Thursday rehearsal. I chose the one for Wednesday morning, to be safe.
We arrived in Boston as expected. That evening, immediately after the eight o’clock performance, I had to board a train for the next-morning’s rehearsal in Philadelphia.
Contemplating air travel in the early morning would have been too great a risk for the one rehearsal I would have with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Catching the 9:15 p.m. train out of Boston would require perfect, precise, split-second timing, both in leaving Symphony Hall and in driving to the train station. Peppino Natale, who looks after guest artists with the BSO, and whom I have known since my early Tanglewood days, came to my dressing room to make sure I had packed prior to the performance. We left the hall at 9:00, within minutes of the last note of the concerto.
The train was nice and warm, pleasantly quiet and un-crowded, the other passengers dozing. There is no sound as hypnotic as that of the wheels on the tracks. As I snuggled into my coat, my mind became calm and tranquil, and I found my thoughts going to Japan and to times spent in the Kotatsu. I became nostalgic. What do I hear? Is it the second movement of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto? Borodin Second Quartet? Gelsomina’s song from the film La Strada? I was already in dreamland.
“Three minutes to Philadelphia 30th Street Station, Philadelphia in 3 Minutes…” With these words, the conductor gently woke me. It was just past 3:30 am and we were right on time. Security at the Philadelphia hall had been forewarned about my odd arrival time; they showed me into the dressing room and politely asked if I would require a wake-up call later that morning. Thereupon I immediately fell asleep on the pale gray chaise longue, relieved to be safely at my destination.
So, in the throes of the blizzard of 2003, I had been very lucky to find my way between New York and Boston and then Boston and Philadelphia, three cities virtually crippled by the snow, without too much discomfort or inconvenience to anyone. Of course, I had to get there, because in our field there is no such thing as ‘better late than never’ – late is never, and performers cannot be late. Shows cannot be postponed and re-scheduling is prohibitive. The show must go on, and on time. That is the only way.