Sunday, February 20, 2005

Ch'ville and Albany


Ten minutes from landing at La Guardia. The engines are noisy on this commuter prop jet, but it was a fine sunset ride. I closed my eyes and thought about the weekend in Charlottesville, and the adventures to come, and a spontaneous little smile came over my face. First really good feeling I've had in weeks. I'm still not all the way better from the holiday-stress flu, and then at the after-party last night, I found myself wheezing uncomfortably and thought to inquire of the hostess whether she had a cat, and she sure did. That did set me back somewhat; I'm definitely fighting bronchitis now.

But my energy is getting better, in painstakingly small increments. I had to summon up massive quantities of inner reserves to do the Charlottesville weekend. Getting down there was a huge pain in the butt because of very nasty weather. After several hours at the airport and a postponed-then-cancelled flight, I wound up flying to D.C. on the shuttle, renting a car and driving to Ch'ville in rush hour traffic for three hours. I left my house at 10 a.m.; I got there at 6.

But such a reward awaitied me: Craig Barton's RIBS. And corn bread, and collards, and grilled asparagus. It was sublime, and the Bartons were all around me, plus Laura Thomas, the vivacious, indomitable conductor of the Charlottesville High School Orchestra, plus the Bartons' hilarious and very endearing friends Bruce and Roberta. We ate ourselves silly, then played 5-way scrabble while telling dirty jokes. Now THAT'S how to welcome an artist to your town.

I could have stayed with the Bartons, I suppose, but I got to have a room at the Omni. That was KEY. I needed down-time whenever I could catch it.

Saturday was intense: 10 a.m. rehearsal, 2 pm concert, 7 p.m. concert. It all went terrifically well. The high school orchestra had rehearsed fror six weeks, and with the help of some ringers in the winds, brass and percussion, they sounded FABULOUS. I couldn't get over those kids, hurling themselves into all that tricky LB music. I had to fight back tears several times: so moving. Daddy would have loved the whole thing. And there was 15-year-old Juliana Barton in the string section!! My little Juliana -- in the same gig with me!! Amazing. Her mom, Marty, had organized the entire thing: galvanized the town, got interviews lined up, filled the 1200-seat auditorium twice. She's a "macher," all right, and a wonderful friend. Best fee I never took.


Stuck in the train station in Albany a week later, waiting for a train, ANY train, to NYC. Everything's still messed up from last night's giant blizzard. Up here it was a mere 8" or so -- peanuts in these parts -- but along the coast, they got hammered, and I'm sorry to have missed the fun in the city with the kids; I LOVE a good snowstorm... and I'm even sorrier to be stuck indefinitely in this train station. I got a coffee and a bran muffin -- the muffin was days-old sawdust, and the coffee was lukewarm dregs. I made a nuisance of myself and asked for a new cup of fresher, hotter coffee -- which I promptly spilled all over the floor. Are we having fun in the Albany Depot yet??

On the bright side, my concert wasn't cancelled, YAY!!

The blizzard chased my train upstate on Saturday morning. The sky was heavily white when I went into the Egg for rehearsal, but it still wasn't snowing. The Empire State Youth Orchestra ( two youth orchestras in a row: gee!) was wonderful. I LOVE when it's kids.The conductor, Helen Cha-Pyo, was a revelation. She was great in the rehearsal. At one point she gave the zenlike instruction, "Play music in the rests!" She was funny and lively and pretty, and drew a terrific performance out of the kids. While rehearsing the Prologue from "West Side Story," I watched as the percussion player put the "Officer Krupke" police whistle in his mouth, took a deep breath prefatory to blowing mightily -- and at the crucial moment, spat the whistle right out of his mouth. There was a yawning hole of silence where an ear-piercing screech was supposed to be! Everyone was convulsed. (At the performance the next day, the percussion player kept his fingers fervently wrapped around his whistle.)

By the end of rehearsal a couple of hours later, the snow was coming down hard. They ended the rehearsal a little early so the kids could get home before the roads got really bad. They cancelled that night's screening of "West Side Story," at which I was to make some opening remarks. Board members were offering to take orchestra members in for the night if they lived too far away to get home safely. Everyone was very nervous; it would be heartbreaking if the concert had to be cancelled because of the snowstorm!

Because of the screening cancellation, I had a LOT of down time in my hotel room. For a little variety, I went down to the hotel restaurant to have dinner, but it was closed (blizzard? wedding?), and the bar & grill in the lobby was an unspeakably grim and desolate sports bar. So back up I went, ordered room service chicken marsala (hey, not too bad), and watched "Garden State" on TV. Good movie, with terrific music. And the snow kept coming down outside.

But by 10 the next morning, the sun was gleaming through the cloud cover, and by 11 the sky was well along toward clearing. By 3 p.m. those plucky Albanians had dug themselves out of their houses and filled the Egg to about 75% capacity, which under the circumstances was pretty fantastic. When we first came onstage and bowed, Helen Cha-Pyo surprised me by suddenly addressing the audience: "You must all wait a moment. I have to go back. Somewhere between the stage entrance and the podium, I seem to have lost my baton!" She'd tucked it under her arm to applaud the orchestra as we entered, and it had slipped out; she found it under the last row of violins. Funny beginning.

The crowd really seemed to enjoy itself. The kids who participated onstage were wonderful, as they always are -- and there was a tiny pipsqueak of a girl who stole the show, as pipsqueaks always do. We had a pipsqueak show-stealer in Ch'ville too, come to think of it.

Afterwards I signed programs in the strange rounded lobby of "The Egg," surely the most interestingly shaped performing arts center in America. It really is like an egg on a stick. You go up the stick in an elevator, and there are two auditoriums contained within the egg. All the walls are curved. It looks like a big 1960's spaceship. I thought it was cool -- in spite of the rather dry acoustics.

When I get back to NYC, I'll have just enough time to greet the kids, put them to bed, get them off to school in the morning, repack and take a car to Newark airport to catch the plane to Minneapolis. OY.


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