A Week in the Life is a brief series chronicling a quirky but nevertheless quite typical week in the life of a mid-tier freelance musician. Though the sort of wacky events I’ve described thus far undoubtedly happen in orchestras of all flavors, from the Berlin Philharmonic to the community orchestra down the block from me, but they are nevertheless things that most audience members probably don’t realize are occurring, and this behind-the-scenes glimpse may provide some insider insight into concert preparation and execution process, and perhaps a chuckle or two to boot.
Check out the previous installments here:
We had just wrapped up our dress rehearsal for this plucky little opera company, having cheerfully survived being locked out in the cold, rehearsing in all sorts of scattered venues across the city, enduring drills and nail guns during rehearsals, dodging overecaffeinated stage directors strutting and pecking backstage like giant roosters, and watched with fascination and confusion as our conductor attempted to lead the singers and ensemble backstage, with no monitors, headphones, or any sort of two-way line of communication whatsoever.
So how’d the concerts go?
Well, despite having our share of circumstantial struggles during the rehearsal process, we were seasoned pros, and as freelancers we’d all seen more than our share of the aforementioned wacky experiences. But the wackiness had not yet finished for the week, and we would soon have our biggest challenges thus far for the week.
Our first concert for the series happened on a Friday night, and I schlepped my gear down early, plopping down my $20 for parking (the same garage was $4.75 only a few years ago–jerks!) and hauling my gear down into the theater where our performances were happening. This was a great little theater (not that we could see much of it wedged backstage like we were), and I was excited to play these concerts. Working in the city, good money for fun performances–good times, good times. I got myself situated backstage, the first musician to show up (not a rare occurrence for me), tuned up my bass, and watched some video podcasts on my iPod as I waited for my colleagues to arrive.
People started streaming in, and by the half-hour mark the entire orchestra was assembled, brushing snow off their cases and tossing their coats up against the rear wall of the hall. As folks began tuning up and chatting with each other, I overheard a startling and alarming little tidbit:
Our concertmaster had, between the previous afternoon’s rehearsal and this evening’s opening night concert, caught a flight out of town, and he was now trapped in an airport one state over! And this performance had only one first violin, meaning that the primary orchestral melodic voice was…missing!
The freaked-out backstage scramble began.
One may wonder why a musician would fly out of town with such a tight time margin between rehearsal and performance, but such is the life of a freelance musician. Cobbling together a series of part-time jobs necessitates highly intricate scheduling, and this violinist did quite a bit of business out of town. For freelancers (and I’ve certainly done my fair share of this!), if it works, even just barely works, we do it. It’s part of the job, the piecemeal lifestyle of the at-large musician, and though I like to think that I wouldn’t fly out of town for just a few hours in the middle of winter and reasonably expect to make it back to Chicago (especially given today’s airline environment plagued with delays and cancellations), if someone had offered me a similar proposal, I may have rolled the scheduling dice and accepted the work.
Anyway, his original return flight had been canceled, and he was rescheduled for a later flight that was supposed to land at 6:30 pm at O’Hare International Airport. The downbeat for the opera was 7:30 pm. Land at 6:30 pm and make it into the hall, ready to go by 7:30 pm? On a Friday evening? Hmmm…this was probably not going to work.
In some towns, getting from the airport to the city center in an hour would be a breeze, but this is Chicago we’re talking about. Sprawl, traffic, congestion–yup, we’ve got it all. The actual stretch of road between airport and downtown was only eight miles, but those eight miles could crawl along at an excruciatingly slow speed, with a drive that would take five minutes in my native South Dakota easily taking over an hour.
And he didn’t have to just drive the distance. He also was facing:
- Getting from tarmac to parking garage (this step alone could take 20 minutes easily)
- Getting from parking garage to downtown (again, easily an hour)
- Finding parking downtown
- Getting from downtown parking to concert hall
He could have hopped the Chicago El Blue Line to get downtown, leaving his car stranded at the airport. But even that ride takes an hour (this train line is undergoing extensive renovation, making it even slower at present than usual–and it’s not all that fast normally!), making him automatically late if he boarded that train. His only hope was to get on the highway and pray for miraculously light rush hour congestion.
You could see the sweat start to break out on the contractor’s brow and the mental gears start to furiously whir. What was looking like a walk-in-the-park opening performance had suddenly turned into a frantic scramble for a last-minute replacement. Where on Earth could one find a quality violinist who knew the part (remember all the previously discussed adverse performance factors for this gig–not a great time for sightreading) and was available on a Friday night with less than an hour’s notice.
Much scurrying and frantic cell phone dialing commenced as we all looked around uneasily. As the contractor called down the list, we were getting cell phone updates from the stranded concertmaster:
"He’s landed! He’s on the highway. Uh, oh…traffic’s bad."
Miraculously, a violinist who knew the piece answered her phone, and she got in her car and dashed downtown to help with damage control. She came in with a few minutes to spare, out of breath and brushing snow off of her case as she was quickly informed of the situation. The second violinist agreed to play the first violin part, and the stop-gap violinist agreed to play the second violin part.
The conductor smiled at all of us (though she must have been knotted with stress inside from all this last-minute panic), and we began.
About 20 minutes into the performance, the stranded concertmaster arrived, and there was some speedy shuffling as the second violinist moved back to her chair, the original concertmaster took over his part, and the stop-gap violinist took off, her job finished for the evening. Talk about a pro! Anyone who can go from hanging out at home to donning concert dress and driving through snow in Friday traffic in a matter of minutes, walk in, play the part, and slip out the back after her job’s done is a real freelance pro. If it were me, I’d probably have had my phone off, so I’d never have gotten the call.
One would think that our ensemble misfortunes would be over for the evening, but this was unfortunately not the case. About ten minutes before the conclusion of the opera, we heard a strange sound above us.
A piece of the light fixture suddenly came whizzing down from the fly lines directly above us.
It slammed down in the middle of the orchestra, missing the flute player by less than a foot.
We all jumped as if someone had thrown a grenade into the orchestra, looking around, unable to believe what had just happened. Then as we continued to play we all began looking up at the fly lines uneasily, squirming around in our chairs, waiting for something else to fall and take one of us out.
The next performance, I looked up at the lights as soon as I got to the hall. There was now duct tape all over the place up there, having been apparently applied sometime between the previous night’s performance and this evening’s show. I frowned, wondering just how well tape secured hot metal lights. Well the stage crew must know what they’re doing, right?…..uh….well, I just hope I don’t die before this week is done!
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