Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Traveling Through Europe with the Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony

If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Dortmund

It’s extremely weird to travel to eight cities in seventeen days: Birmingham, London, Paris (beloved Paris!), Geneva, Dortmund, Luxembourg, Prague (oh gorgeous Prague!) and Vienna.
The astronomical clock in Prague

Just back—and barely over my jetlag—the experience feels like a geographical cousin of channel-surfing: riveting and yet, in the end, leaving one more exhausted than enlightened or even entertained.

Before becoming a tag-along San Francisco Symphony wife, I always traveled with sustained intention, rarely to more than one place in a period of weeks or even months. More often than not engaged in research for a novel, I dug deep, doing my best to learn the language and the local ways. I made friends. I found keys that I never would have found if I’d been moving faster.

And so I couldn’t help but ask myself on this trip, How do they do it, year after year? How do these 100-plus musicians travel the earth in a well-organized pack, moving every couple of days—sometimes every day—to a new hotel in a different place, a new concert venue, a new audience desirous of emotional transport and a new phalanx of critics alert to any possible fault in their playing?

Some of the senior members of the orchestra have been touring now for going on forty years. They grew up on tour, many of them seeing the world for the first time. Twenty-something kids who may have had little or no experience of the high life found themselves suddenly confronted with the sophisticated ways taken for granted by people who stay in five-star hotels.

There’s a story about Doug Rioth, principal harp—a member of the Orchestra since 1981—who was astonished by the simultaneous delivery of seven room-service breakfasts on his first tour. In his attempt to write like a European, he turned his 1 on the order form into a 7 by putting a crossbar through it. (That’s seven room-service breakfasts that came out of his pocket.)

On her first Asian tour, in the 1980s, associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman— gracefully tall at five foot ten—walked into a restaurant with another member of the orchestra in Fukuoka, Japan. She wondered what everyone was laughing about and pointing at until she realized that they were laughing and pointing at her. The local people had simply never seen such a tall woman before (and certainly not one with a lamby cloud of long curly hair).

The brand-new symphony hall in Birmingham, U.K.
Orchestra members now have the luxury of Skyping with loved ones they’ve left at home (although the Internet connections aren’t always reliable, even at five-star hotels—and sometimes there’s a hefty charge for them, which can make a considerable dent in a player’s per diem). Violist Gina Feinauer—who says she could read music before she could read words—was so frustrated at the connection in Paris—and so desperately wanted to speak to her husband Chris—that she marched down to the elegant lobby of the Hotel du Collectionneur in her pyjamas, late at night, hoping to get some technical help. She arrived at the concierge desk just as Michael Tilson Thomas and his entourage walked in from their night on the town. (She thinks—she hopes!—they didn’t notice her.)

The best tour survival strategy I heard was offered to me by a sub, I believe, in the brass section—someone very funny and kind whose name I’ve failed to remember. While riding in an elevator with him, I admitted that I was having trouble memorizing each room number in each different place. “Here’s my trick,” he told me, taking out his i-Phone and showing me a photograph of numbers next to a door. “I take a new one at each hotel—and then, no matter how wild a night I’ve had, I know I’ll always find my way back to my room!”

Bass player Charles Chandler and Assistant Principal Cello Amos Yang made a pact to stay fit together on this tour. Running 4 to 7 miles at a time, they had already logged 50 miles as we were leaving Dortmund for Luxembourg in a cold, drizzling rain. Yang, who has a 7- and a 9-year-old at home, joked that this was where he got all his exercise for the year. “Jogging on tour is almost like cheating, because everything is so fresh and new and interesting to look at.”

Not everyone left their families behind. Violinist Polina Sedukh traveled with her husband Shundo Ishi and their two-year-old daughter Saya. Sarn Oliver and Mariko Smiley, both in the first violin section, brought their 13-year-old son, Sean, along for the musical ride. True to his family’s mold, Sean was traveling with a practice cello that broke down into a viola-size carrying case that he carried with him everywhere.

In the days before 9/11, the players and supporting staff didn’t have to deal with schlepping their suitcases from place to place. The night before a departure, they simply put the valise outside their room and it was magically whisked away, just as magically reappearing in their room at the next hotel. On one of these tours, Ginny Lenz, a frequent sub in the viola section, had carefully packed her bag for pickup only to discover, the next morning, that she’d set out underwear and a top but no pants. In desperation she phoned the room of a fellow tall person in the section—Gina of the pyjama story—and told her sad tale. Gina went running out into whatever city it was to lickety-split buy a pair of pants for Ginny. At that time of the morning, she could only find sweatpants.

But my very favorite tour story involves a former personnel manager who stepped out of his room in his underwear to put his packed suitcase outside—and heard the sickening sound of the door locking shut behind him. Without his card key—without his pants—he started knocking on other doors down the hallway without any idea who was rooming where, whether he was going to be lucky enough to rouse a colleague or if his scantily clad appearance was apt to be grossly misinterpreted.

And so it was onward to the next train, bus or plane. The next country, the next elegant hotel—sweatpants or no pants!

The Konzerthaus in Vienna

It’s back to real life now for me.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dispatch from the SF Symphony's 2014 European Tour

Thanks to the good sense I showed in 2011, marrying violist Wayne Roden, I’m currently tagging along on a 17-day, 7-city tour of Europe with the San Francisco Symphony.

Of course, as a novelist—and, more specifically, as a novelist who has written about musicians—I relish the insights my inside-outsider status confers on me.

Want a glimpse of what it’s like to make classical music for a living—to dedicate one’s life and body to the rigors required by each instrument of the orchestra?

Picture a group of jet-lagged men and women ranged around the entryway of a hotel in Birmingham, England—first stop on the tour—waiting for the buses chartered to carry them and their suitcases to London. Mark Inouye, principal trumpet, takes his instrument out of its case, puts a heavy-duty mute in the bell and starts playing—practicing—without a sound.

 This is the physical side of making music: the equivalent of the dancer doing warm-up exercises at the ballet barre. Every muscle in the face is involved in playing the trumpet, Mark told me—and every one of those muscles has to be kept toned to produce the sounds that make Mark’s trumpet solos in Mahler’s Third Symphony so heart-breakingly beautiful.

That night in London, after the performance, when Wayne and I were walking through the lobby of our hotel, we heard the sounds of live jazz—a female singer, a bass and a trumpet—wafting out from the bar. 

The sound of the trumpet belonged unmistakably to Mark Inouye. There he was, on one side of the singer, blowing his horn, while SF Symphony principal bass, Scott Pingel, sat in for a set for the guy who was scheduled to play in the bar that night.

I asked Mark the next day why he chose to play some more after the Mahler concert was over. Wasn’t he tired?

Turns out that those same muscles that need warming up also need cooling down. And what better way to cool down than playing jazz?

Brushing off the remarkable aspect of playing more music, late at night, after a two-hour-long concert, Mark told me, "I love jazz! It's just a fun thing to do." 

It’s all in a day’s work for members of the orchestra, whose artistry and dedication I’m coming to respect more and more every day.

Tune in for further dispatches from the tour!

Barbara Quick, Vivaldi's Virgins Book Signing

Barbara Quick, Vivaldi's Virgins Book Signing
Barbara Quick

My Garden

My Garden
My flower and strawberry garden (bathtub view)