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Driving the Conductor Crazy
This is a story about an unfortunate concert experience that one of the former members of The Louisville Orchestra told me a few years back. I’ve witnessed a lot of bass section antics in my time, but few were as public and as funny as this one.
Several years ago, The Louisville Orchestra was playing Mahler’s second symphony for a set of concerts. Now, this piece opens with a very prominent melodic line for the cellos and basses. We low string players are often asked to play this line at orchestral auditions.
The piece begins with a pensive tremolo in the upper strings. The cellos and basses wait for a few tense seconds, then enter with an aggressive passage of fast notes.
On the aforementioned particular evening, The Louisville Orchestra bass section was poised and ready to go. The uppers strings started their tremolo, and the lower strings got their bows on the string.
All of a sudden, one of the bass players (an elderly bassist that I’ll refer to as Bill here) jumped in early with the low string line. Blat!
While jumping the gun on a major solo passage isn’t pleasant for either audience or performer, it does happen from time to time. I’ve seen Chicago Symphony musicians do the same thing during concerts (I even remember the late Sir Georg Solti trying to bring the orchestra in during the middle of a pianist’s cadenza in a Mozart Concert), and just chalked it up to a random brain freeze.
Things got worse for poor Bill, however. After blatting in early, he dropped his bow. The metal end of the bow hit the stage first, and the whole bow then fell flat on the floor.
Cursing under his breath (but loud enough for his fellow bass players to hear), Bill reached down for his bow. Maybe he had eaten too many beans for dinner that night, but as he bent over on his stool to pick up his bow he broke wind.
The one-two-three punch of jumping in early, dropping the bow, and breaking wind was enough to send the entire bass section into hysterical laughter. Trying to cover it and preserve some sense of concert etiquette only made it worse, and soon the whole bass section was red-faced, shoulders shaking from suppressed giggles, eyes tearing up, lips clamped shut to avoid guffawing, all during what was supposed to be a section solo.
Many times we orchestral musicians get away with goofing around without the audience or conductor catching on, but the sight of the entire bass section laughing and shaking and not really playing during their big moment was officially obvious.
The moral? Don’t come in early, don’t drop your gear, and don’t eat beans before a concert.