During the summers of 2001 and 2002 I played double bass for the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina. Originally this organization was part of the Festival of Two Worlds that Gian Carlo Menotti started in conjunction with Spoleto, Italy, and the same orchestra was used for both the Charleston and Spoleto segments of the festival. Several years ago the two festivals split, and I ended up playing for the American festival.
This festival was really a lot of fun. Musicians played operatic, symphonic, and chamber music for a month, and I spent my free time either in the beautiful historic district of Charleston or on the nearby beach. The festival occurs in May, which is a great month for Charleston but an iffy month for Chicago, so I managed to escape jacket weather for shorts and sunglasses weather (which I love) for a couple of springs. The festival ends with a concert on the grounds of Middleton Place, an old plantation just outside of Charleston. This is what the grounds we played on look like:
Note that the grounds, while very pretty, are adjacent to a giant swamp. Playing a concert in a swamp is always a bad idea, for reasons which I shall describe later.
Many musicians figured out a way to weasel out of this concert, but I got stuck playing it both years. We played fairly standard lighter fare suitable for outdoor crowds–Bolero, American Salute, Bernstein medleys, and the like. This was a pretty standard outdoor summer concert…..until it started to get dark.
The problem with playing a concert in a swamp at night is that swamps have bugs. Lots of bugs. Small bugs, medium-sized bugs, flying bugs, crawling bugs, fuzzy bugs, shiny bugs, and big scary bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. And, when it gets dark outside and big bright lights are turned on over the orchestra and nowhere else for miles around, the bugs like to come and pay the orchestra a visit.
The first year I played the swamp concert we had most of the rehearsals in a gym on the campus of the College of Charleston (where we stayed for the festival). The dress rehearsal happened late afternoon/early evening the day before the concert in the swamp. As it started to get dark that night lots of small bugs started to fly around our music stands and the lights above us. I tried to wave them off with my bow and brush them off of the music stand, but it was a losing battle and pretty unpleasant to play with all of that distraction. We bass players agreed to buy some bug spray and citronella candles for the next evening’s performance.
I thought that the concert would be unpleasant with all of those bugs flying around. I didn’t realize that it hadn’t gotten REALLY dark that night, and there were far worse things to come.
The night of the concert dusk approached and the little bugs came out just like before, but we had our citronella candles and were appropriately doused in bug spray. Then it started to get darker and some bigger critters came out. I noticed little crawling bugs on the music, getting into my bow hair, and landing on my fingerboard. I tried to get them out of my bow hair so that I wouldn’t have bug guts mashed into my rosin, and tried to get them off of the music so they wouldn’t get smooshed on the pages.
Then it got truly dark and swarms of flying Junebugs came out of the swamp. Junebugs are big orange flying beetles always found flinging themselves against porch lights here in Illinois. The orchestra is underneath what is essentially the world’s biggest porch light, and the Junebugs began to come out of the swamp like a plague of locusts, fly into the hot lights above the orchestra, and fall, still writhing and sizzling, onto the orchestra! Being rained on by dying insects is not on my top ten list of favorite activities, and it was amazing to watch the orchestra start to deal with the horror show they were now a part of while still trying to keep playing. These bugs were everywhere–in my hair, on my jacket, flying around the stand lights–I looked up at my scroll at one point and saw a Junebug crawl into my pegbox! Most of us kept playing as best we could, but it was almost impossible to get through the concert. My stand partner at one point stopped playing and just started waving his arms around in the air, trying in vain to get these bugs off of him.
When I unpacked my bass the next day there were dozens of Junebug corpses on my case, in my pegbox, smooshed on my bass, and even INSIDE my instrument! I shook t and heard little Junebug bodies rattling around, and I had to flip it upside down and shake it to get them out.
There were worse things than Junebugs out there that night. At one point I felt something hit me hard (like someone throwing a tennis ball at me) on my left shoulder. I never figured out what it was, and I never want to know.
The real fun came the following year at Spoleto. I was stuck playing the swamp show yet again. This time the management decided to keep all of the rehearsals at the College of Charleston and only do the performance in the swamp. Most of the orchestra was new that year, and I smiled, knowing what was in store for them that night. We got to the swamp and pretty much the same scenario played out, only I just sat there, grinning, as the insects started to join us, watching the orchestra’s reaction change from mild discomfort with the first wave of little bugs, irritation at the second wave of medium-sized bugs, and panic during the third wave of Junebugs and other big nasty things.
My grin got considerably wider as one particularly annoying cellist got so freaked out that he started crying. Maybe I’m mean, but I’m sure that you would grin too if you had spent a summer around this guy. At the concert he kept stomping his feet, brushing at his legs, brushing at his hair–at one point he even stood up and started wiping all of the insects off of his body. He always had his air all gelled up, and I wonder if the Junebugs were attracted to his fancy hair gel.
You’ve got to wonder what the Spoleto Festival USA management thinks of its musicians. Anyone who would subject an orchestra year after year to playing under those conditions must not care much about their players. It is a non-union gig that hires mostly college students for the summer (and re-auditions the entire orchestra each year), so there is no sort of bargaining power at all that the musicians have. This swamp concert is the main reason why I quit auditioning for this festival after two summers. Everything else about the experience was great–great concerts, excellent Southern food, beautiful beaches, day trips to Fort Sumter, and the like were all fabulous fun. But the prospect of being attacked by swarms of insects while trying to give a good performance is enough to keep me away for the rest of my life.
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