I was thinking recently about a funny and masterful prank pulled by the principal bass of a very high-quality orchestra while performing Mahler’s First Symphony several years ago. Now, part of this piece utilizes offstage trumpets, and this particular prank revolved around these musicians. Mahler was a big fan of the offstage instrumental sound, as were many of his contemporaries. I suppose that offstage brass was the 19th century equivalent of special effects, and that what composers might envision doing with electronics or other methods these days had to be done with techniques like player positioning, muting, and the like.
The bass section was lined up against the stage right side of the acoustic shell in this particular venue, and the offstage trumpets were positioned on the other side of the shell directly behind us, with a video camera between the first and second stands of the basses like a honorary member of the section. This video camera was pointed at the conductor, allowing the offstage trumpets to see the conductor and come in at the correct moment.
I don’t know who thought this particular video camera placement up, but putting a video camera smack dab in the middle of a bass section is just asking for trouble. Although there was the dim possibility of us running into it (we are bass players after all, and tend to barrel through spaces like giant wooden tanks), the greater danger was tempting the insatiable prankster spirit found in most bass sections.
The dress rehearsal rolled around, and the trumpets filed backstage, ready to play their parts.
Now, most offstage brass parts are solos, and this one is no exception. The sound of the faraway brass is supposed to float hauntingly out underneath the orchestra and into the audience, creating a vivid musical atmospheric texture.
About five seconds before the cue for the offstage brass, the principal bass suddenly stood up from his stool, turned back, stuck his face in the camera, raised two middle fingers, and leered like a crazy man mere inches from the lens, his face and waggling middle fingers filling the monitors backstage just as the brass players were inhaling for their entrance.
He timed it…..perfectly. He suddenly pulled back from the camera, sat on his stool, and was the embodiment of attentive orchestral decorum by the time the conductor turned his head and cued the camera.
The brass came in:
"Bwwwa….. *HONK* waaaah…. *FRACK* aaaaaaaah…."
Not exactly the effect Mahler had in mind!
Puzzled, the conductor waved his hands, halting the rehearsal and quizzically calling back to the brass players.
"Everything OK back there?"
"Uh… yeah! We’re OK."
"Really? Well…..let’s just try that again."
The brass players whispered curses through the shell at the principal bass as he leaned back, his face filled with the satisfaction that can only come from a perfectly executed prank.
That particular prank bears the stamp of a true professional. Although I like being a goofball as much as the next bass player, only a real pro has the chutzpah to pull off a quite public camera-leering flip-off and get away with it with no one (outside of the bass and brass players) the wiser.