Sunday, November 20, 2011

Surging Seas, Rabbits Out of Hats & the Rhapsody in Blue

You can go to concerts for years and never have any idea what’s going on “back stage.”

Then something happens and… well, like Saturday night with the Harrisburg Symphony’s “Masterworks Concert” Surging Sea when there’s a change – or two – in the program.

If you missed the opportunity to hear Saturday night's concert, there's still Sunday afternoon's concert at 3pm, if you're reading this in time (and don't forget Assistant Conductor Tara Simoncic's pre-concert talk at 2:00).

So what's this all about?

Well, the original soloist, Lisa Daltirus, was scheduled to sing Samuel Barber’s nostalgic Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and the three songs of Shéhérazade by Maurice Ravel and it’s unlikely both pieces would be in any given soprano’s repertoire.

Much less one who would just happen to be free the next day…

Singers being singers and the voice being what it can be, Ms. Daltirus turned out to be indisposed but unfortunately this was not determined until Friday night’s rehearsal, leaving only the dress rehearsal the next morning to find a solution for a concert taking place in less than 24 hours!

So, thanks to three little miracles, the concert went on not quite as planned but without any great inconvenience to concert-goers.

#1. Janice Chandler-Eteme (see photo, left) has Barber’s Knoxville in her repertoire – she lives in Baltimore – and she was available this weekend to come on short notice (to put it mildly) for the dress rehearsal. One other fortunate detail: she’d sung in Harrisburg for the Mahler “Resurrection” Symphony back in March 2006, so she and Stuart Malina had worked together before.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have the Ravel in her repertoire so the next challenge was to find a Plan B, if not a second singer.

So, Stuart, as he told us at the beginning of the concert, pulled out his “rainy day piece” which just happens to be George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” However, this is a “rental only” piece, in the music biz, so it wasn’t something the orchestra just has lying around in its library or that you can order on-line and have it delivered in a few hours…

#2. It turned out the West Chester Orchestra had just played the piece and still had the music, not yet returned to the publisher. So before they sent it back, the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra Manager, Sue Klick, another hero deserving of a medal, drove down to West Chester Saturday morning to pick up the parts and drive back to Harrisburg in time for the 11am Dress Rehearsal.

#3. The Harrisburg Symphony has a conductor who can play the “Rhapsody in Blue” at the drop of a hat AND conduct it all at the same time – from memory!

And Little Miracle #4 – did I say there were four miracles? – is that this orchestra has this kind of symbiotic relationship with its conductor where playing and conducting a concerto at the same time turns a full orchestra into one big chamber music ensemble which requires individual players to listen more intently to each other and anticipate what other musicians are going to do musically.


This is where you truly realize what Stuart means when he says he's the luckiest guy in the world. Not every conductor and orchestra could get away with this.

So the Barber went ahead as scheduled but with a different singer. And Gershwin’s cross-over masterpiece opened the second half.

Meaning Stuart had to deal with playing the Gershwin and then, a few minutes later, turn around and head back out on stage to conduct Debussy’s La Mer which is no easy piece and which could have benefited from more rehearsal time, considering what had been spent on the Ravel songs in the first place and then the emergency preparation for the Gershwin.

So, how did it all turn out?

Was it flawless? No, not really, but under the circumstances, to notice is to nit-pick. (There were lots of people in the audience who wouldn't even notice.)

Was it exciting? YOU BETCHA!!!

Talk about the difference between a live performance and a recording...

There are so many variables in getting from the planning stage for a concert a year ago to walking off the stage after it’s over.

Ironically, Stuart said he felt amazingly calm backstage during intermission – not even the usual sweaty hands that need to be dried off before you end up slipping around on the ivories.

And he said, with La Mer, the orchestra seemed so relaxed it was a bit of “who cares: what else can go wrong?” combined with a healthy dose of “we’ve gotten through other things that seemed unrealistic,” so this should be like (pardon the pun) a stroll on the beach.

What other things have the orchestra dealt with this season so far?

Well, they lost most of their rehearsal-time for the September 11th Anniversary Concert because Harrisburg was closed down due to the worst flooding since 1972.

Then the first rehearsal for the opening Masterworks Concert was cancelled because some bricks came loose backstage at the Forum and there was belated concern the building might be “unsafe” following the August earthquake that had rattled the area. And doing Prokofiev’s 5th on less rehearsal time is not how you want to open your season.

Most recently, there was the Halloween Snowstorm the day before the pops concert, “Scary Scores.” Nothing like dealing with falling trees and power-lines on your way to a concert of scary music (for the record, friends of mine in Connecticut had their Halloween concert cancelled and it still took some of them over a week to get their power back…).

Yes, it helped that Janice sang Barber’s Knoxville with the Baltimore Symphony and Marin Alsop a few seasons ago but it’s not an easy piece and isn’t something that just rolls out automatically once you sing the opening note. She listened to Leontyne Price’s recording on YouTube to get it into her head again while working at it before she drove up to Harrisburg, arriving at noon-time for the only rehearsal which concluded at 1:30 for a concert beginning at 8pm.

And yes, it helped that Stuart had played the Gershwin earlier this year and was planning on dusting it off after Thanksgiving for a December pops concert in Tampa.

And yes, it helps that the Harrisburg Symphony has the kind of confidence in itself and its conductor that something like just rolls off them like (no pun intended) water off a duck’s back.

So, yes, sometimes a lot of little miracles come together to keep alive that old familiar slogan, “The Show Must Go On.”

Now… what could possibly go wrong for the next concert???

Don’t… even… think… about it!

- Dick Strawser

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The photographs were taken by Harrisburg Symphony Marketing Director Kim Isenhour: the top photo was taken at the children's concert on Friday morning with Stuart Malina conducting the Harrisburg Symphony in, among other pieces, La Mer. The other two photographs were taken at the talk-back session following Saturday night's performance with Ms. Chandler and Maestro Malina.

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