Tag Archives: Symphony

the Symphony

I work at Davies Symphony Hall and ‘hear’ the San Francisco Symphony a lot. I put ‘hear’ in quotes because I usually ‘hear’ them from inside the lighting booth through one microphone hanging above the stage and some inexpensive speakers.

Today I went into the hall for some minor maintenance reason while the rehearsal was going on. OMG, what a sound!

I’ll tell you, live music on real instruments. There’s nothing like it!

BTW, MTT was conducting Mahler in what’s called the antiphonal setup. That is when the first and second violins are on opposite sides of the stage. No surround sound system can duplicate this!

quote

Our last SoundBox for the season opened last night. Someone said to me, ‘Last of the year.’ and of course I had to correct her. Unlike this time last year, we do have a SoundBox scheduled for next December. This is an improvement.

For myself, I’m not sure if I will continue working SoundBox. I enjoy it tremendously but the thrill I’ve had for 45 years working in live theatre is diminishing and I have begun thinking seriously about my next chapter.

Sarah had been scheduled to play for the movie in the main hall but someone dropped out of the SoundBox orchestra and she got moved over. It was her first time playing in SoundBox. The music was difficult and there are only a few players so everyone’s playing is exposed. She handled it with grace and aplomb. Perhaps she was churning inside but I didn’t see it.

Aside from the fact of her continuing to get hired by the Symphony, the best thing about seeing her with this orchestra is seeing her interact with her fellow musicians in a friendly and relaxed way. They like her!

Now for my quote. This was posted about a friend of a friend of a friend on FaceBook but it caught my eye just before I deleted it. Credited to Daisaku Ikeda:

In the Buddhist view, the bonds that link people are not a matter of this lifetime alone. And because those who have died in a sense live on within us, our happiness is naturally shared with those who have passed away. So, the most important thing is for those of us who are alive at this moment to live with hope and strive to become happy. By becoming happy ourselves, we can send invisible ‘waves’ of happiness to those who have passed away.

update

Lots to say, but little of it organized. I got my monthly email from The Compassionate Friends today. Their monthly meeting is tomorrow night. This week is SoundBox so it is not practical to fight rush hour traffic to go down to Santa Clara then come back to work the next morning. I went and looked back at what I’ve written about The Compassionate Friends before and I think it’s pretty good. While my need for grief support has lessened in the last year, I haven’t yet achieved the strength to attend with the rationale of supporting others.

I have a phone consultation this morning with a person from TIAA. Mom and Dad’s retirement funds are with TIAA and I’ve been trying to understand how they all work. With my own retirement looming, I’ve been more motivated to do this.

I spent some time last week looking over my own funds. My broker says they should be balanced in a certain way, different from how they’re balanced now. Should I make changes? Precisely how and when get very confusing very quickly. Is the stock market a bubble that will pop soon? Aiee!

Speaking of SoundBox and retirement, I’ve found myself thinking in the last couple of weeks about giving up SoundBox. I never thought I’d feel that way. Being involved in the SoundBox shows in the last 3+ years has been a thrilling experience. I’ve been stretched physically and intellectually in ways that are really good for a man in his 60s, but I find that my interest is turning to other things. My friend Denise has – at my request – taken on the lead position for this months’ show and has shown that SoundBox audio is in good hands.

Having said all that, I’m not walking away. Denise and I will talk later in the week about who will do what for the April set. Funding for SoundBox is rather precarious so no one knows if there will be shows again starting in December. (Remember that the space is in use by the Opera from May through November so there is only the five month window every year anyway.) Symphony management has a lot on their plate, not least of which is the upcoming retirement of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. Planning for SoundBox is a bit further down the list.

Sarah’s quartet had a concert last Saturday night. The Symphony generously allowed me to borrow a few items from their sound inventory to support their performance of Steve Reich’s Different Trains. I found myself worrying about technical things during the performance so I couldn’t relax into the music. The first half of the program, though, I found very moving, with narration about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s visit to Dresden after World War II.

The venue was The Hillside Club in Berkeley. I had been there before but hadn’t had the reason to work with the staff. Bruce and Araceli turned out to be very nice folks. I’m going to try to go back for some different concerts.

Tonight is jazz band. The confusion that bothered me last semester has been resolved and I’m having fun again. I’m still sharing bass duties with Steve M. who is good people. It’s a completely different head space compared to playing guitar. Guitar can be looser in big band so that’s a little more fun, but bass drives the bus and there’s nothing else like it. I have to concentrate more but that’s ok.

Next week Mom and Dad will celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary. Mom was talking the other day about doing something special but I haven’t heard any details. I’m planning to be down there.

voices of my children

After posting twice already today with posts that were largely written my children, I found myself thinking tonight about my third child, my only daughter, Sarah.

Sarah is a writer too but her writing is hidden from me. At one time I handled some diaries from her youth. I promised I would not read them and I have kept that promise. I do not know if she still writes like that. She is a very busy person although I will go out on a limb to say that her life has simplified in the last year or so.

When she first returned to California after earning her doctorate in music, she took jobs playing music wherever they presented themselves. Orchestra musicians in the Sf Bay Area sometimes refer to these jobs as ‘The Freeway Philharmonic.’ They are rather widely spread. A friend of hers from college had started a music academy and Sarah got some students there. It was nothing like a regular job, though. Her pay was directly dependent on the number of student she had. In fact, she was more like a contractor in both cases.

One reason for coming back to the Bay Are was that she wanted to continue her study of body mechanics called the Alexander Method. There was a particularly good teacher in San Francisco.

So, for two years she juggled all these things while getting more and more discouraged that she could not make a decent living without spending hours in Bay Area traffic. She even talked to me about going back to school to get a degree in something that she could make a living at.

There are really only three orchestras in the Bay Area that pay well enough for members to live decently without taking other work: San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and San Francisco Ballet. Sarah took auditions with all three of these organizations but did not play well enough to be hired. She did play well enough, however, to get put on the substitute list for all of them. Who would call first?

It was the Symphony. In October of 2015 I had the great joy of seeing my daughter’s name on the list of string players for that morning’s rehearsal at Davies Symphony Hall. I don’t think it was that first morning, but not long after, my colleague Nancy Foreman snapped this picture of the two of us in the hallway just offstage right:

I told everyone in sight how proud I was of her, and how amazing it was that she was working for the Symphony, but she always told me to be quiet. She said, ‘I’m just one mistake from never being called again!’

While perhaps not literally true, it was true in one respect: if you didn’t continue to play well, the Symphony would call someone else to sub. Sarah knew – knows! – that there are many good violinists out there who would love to play in the Symphony.

So she kept her head down and practiced like a mad person, tried to predict when the Symphony would need another violin and adjust her schedule accordingly. I don’t remember exactly how the early days went. She got a week in October, then I think it was a while before she was called again, then it was more weeks with nothing.

But by a year ago she was working almost every week for the Symphony and she had shed most of the other activities.that were discouraging her so much. Unlike the early times, she now knew sometimes as much as three weeks before the first rehearsal what music she would be playing. (At the beginning, they would often call on the morning of a rehearsal. Come in in two hours and sight read difficult music under the eyes and ears of the best musicians in the world. No pressure!)

I tried my best to allow her space at Davies. When I was there I had my own work to do and I didn’t want to add to the pressure. We see each other when it is needful and most people there know of our relationship. I’ve had the experience of tenured orchestra musicians coming up to me when she isn’t there and asking me why she’s not there, where is she, if she’s all right.They like her!

Best of all, I get to see her step out onto that stage and take her seat with that great orchestra and take care of business.

Back to my original point . . . I caught her backstage Saturday night to give her a birthday present. It was early and few other musicians were around. We chatted and I asked her how she liked the show she was doing. It was Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide with MTT conducting. No pressure.

I was actually surprised when she said she was really enjoying it. She said she could see the singers and hear the dialog. I said, ‘Isn’t the music difficult?’ She said yes but she practiced it.

You can see her name here in the middle of the second violins for her first week in 2015 but most of the last year she’s been playing in the firsts.

musings

I see that it’s been a week since I went out of my norm and posted on a political theme. The hope I felt only a week ago has been dashed by the passage of the Republicans’ ‘tax reform’ bill. As a side not, I put ‘hope’ in my tag window for this post and saw that it’s the first time I’ve tagged that word. That’s pretty sad that I haven’t written about hope in 18 months of this blog.

I’ve written about goals, which are kind of like hope, I think. One implies the other, although I’m not sure which would come first.

I’m going down to stay with Mom and Dad today. Just one night then home again tomorrow night. Work on Saturday then back down to Santa Clara on Monday, Christmas Day. I believe we’ll have 13 for dinner. That’ll be nice. Tim shared with his siblings the birthday card Mom and Dad sent him last week. Dad wrote on it, which is not common any more, but it was somewhat disjointed. He referred to his having ‘half a brain’. I told Tim that that was the worst of what is happening to him: he knows. It won’t get better so, to me, that means treasuring what we can when we can. Thus, I visit as often as possible.

At work, I’ve been trying to develop relationships with people outside my norm. I try to take time to have real honest talk with some of the Davies Hall ushers, with some of the Symphony staff. Everyone is at work, so we all recognize that is our priority but there are private moments. Working primarily in the front of the house, I hardly have any contact with the musicians any more. The last three or four shows I’ve done, Sarah was playing but I didn’t have time to get back stage at the right moment to talk to her. It’s been extremely hard for me to get out and do things not work or family related.

sea change?

I was up in the Loge talking to Hal last night, about 5 minutes into intermission for the Symphony’s Holiday Soul show, when a huge cheer went up on the main floor. The people I could see on the main floor were looking to the rear of the hall so I thought perhaps one of the stars of the show had come into the auditorium for some reason.

Holiday Soul is this years’ version of a show the Symphony has put on for many years to reach out to the black community. It used to be called Colors of Christmas, featuring Peabo Bryson. This year we have CeCe Winans and Edwin Hawkins. It’s more overtly religious than Colors used to be.

The point is that the audience was predominantly black. What they were cheering, it turned out, was the news that the Democrat, Doug Jones, had been declared the winner in the special election for the Alabama Senate seat.

Jones’ Republican opponent, Roy Moore, was a problematic candidate already. Among other things, he essentially advocated that Christianity should be the state religion. Then, a few weeks ago, he was accused by multiple women of inappropriate sexual behavior when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. Many Republican leaders said that Moore should quit the race, but some, including President Trump, continued to support him.

Polls up to last weekend showed Moore with a slim lead but the voters of Alabama evidently decided enough is enough.

Jones is the first Alabama Democrat to be elected to national office in a long time. I am hopeful that his election signals the awakening by the American people to the hijacking of their government by ultra-conservatives. The resignation after similar revelations of Minnesota Democrat Al Franken last week was disappointing to me but I thought last night that perhaps his taking the high road can spur Trump to come clean on his inappropriate sexual past.

A couple of weeks ago, when the Republicans in the Senate passed their tax ‘reform’ bill, I was struck by the difference between these Senators and the ones in John Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. Profiles in cowardice is more apt today.

OK, enough. Make sure you vote, people. It’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got. And it does make a difference.

SoundBox

Another SoundBox is in the history books. (Or what ever history is kept in nowadays.) We did our two shows Friday night and last night. The theme was family connections and we heard sons and daughters of Symphony musicians playing with each other in various short pieces. Despite – or perhaps because of – that theme, the selections were generally excerpts so musically it wasn’t as interesting as other shows have been.

The one exception was the only piece in the 2nd Act. It was called Sketches of Kazakhstan by Samuel Post. One of the members of the second violin section, Raushan Akhmedyarova, was born in Kazakhstan and her father was a famous musician and composer there. Mr Post took some of Raushan’s father’s themes and expanded them into a very nice piece about 20 minutes long for chamber orchestra.

In SoundBox, I have several responsibilities. One is to set the room acoustic for each piece with the Constellation system. I always try to involve the musicians and artistic staff in this but I also have my own ideas. I have found that it is tempting to put more ‘reverb’ into everything just because we can. In the case of Sketches, the original setting we tried was a preset designed for small string orchestra. As the piece was being rehearsed, though, I felt that a dryer sound would allow the individual instruments, and particularly Raushan’s solo violin, to be heard better. I was very pleased to carry the day on this. I thought it was the highlight of the program.

Simply put, each preset is made up of 5 acoustic parameters. Constellation users can choose among a wide range of settings for each parameter. A relatively small number of presets were created when we first received the system for general, non-SoundBox, use. I am not against using a generic preset if it sounds good, but probably 90% of the pieces presented at SoundBox over the 3+ years we’ve been doing it have been customized for the exact music being played.

The last piece on this month’s program was a father and son affair. Steve Paulson is the Symphony’s principal bassoon. His son, Greg, is a guitarist in a ‘progressive death metal’ band called Arkaik. Greg’s piece was a six minute track of slammed guitars and drums which he and Steve played off of. It was all written out. there was no improvisation. Greg had a seven string guitar through a Marshall cabinet that, oddly, was hard to hear. Steve had a contact mic on his bassoon that I ran through the overhead speakers. Playing back the track was my responsibility, as was setting up the links between my system and the lighting and video systems so everything played in sync. Greg certainly has fast fingers!

After the last three years in which we had a SoundBox set every month from December to April, we are down to only three this season. Our next one is in February and the last will be in April. the room is in use by the Opera from May to November so putting on SoundBox during that time is not possible. Those of us on the Local 16 operating crew understand how expensive it is to put on but we enjoy doing it and look forward to participating in future sets.

Burt Bacharach

Yesterday we had what we call an outside event at Davies. Davies ‘Symphony Hall’ was of course built for the San Francisco Symphony but other entities use it when they can. It’s a beautiful hall and prestigious. In the last six weeks, we’ve had our usual spring spate of graduation ceremonies squeezed in amongst the symphony rehearsals and concerts.

Last night’s outside event was Burt Bacharach. We last had Burt a couple of years ago when he appeared with the Symphony accompanying him. This concert was promoted by SF Jazz and was Burt with his band only. Burt is particularly interesting because Hal toured with him for 12 years and talks often about the great education he got from it.

When I say squeezed in, I really mean it. Yesterday the orchestra was on stage rehearsing Rite of Spring until 12:30. Large orchestra with lots of percussion. As soon as they were released, the hands fell on the stage removing stands and chairs and rearranging risers while the sound crew unloaded their truck and began to install the PA. Actually, we have an in-house PA now that is good so there was no rolling in of large speaker boxes and tedious stacking and raising them on motors.That’s all permanent now. What Hal and his guys did have to do was bring in the mixing consoles, Front Of House and monitor, run the snakes, connect everything, build the mic stands and wire the stage: mics, monitors, keyboards. All in 2 hours.

Instead of being on the sound crew as I have many times in the past, I’ve recently moved up to Head Carpenter/Stage Manager for most of these outside events. I was wrestling risers, bringing in and setting up the backline. Besides the grand piano for Burt, the band had a drummer, a bass player, a violinist, a sax guy and a trumpet guy, three singers, and three keyboard players (five keyboards). The keyboards too the most time.

So I was busy too. A little later in the afternoon, after the sound check was underway, the production manager came to me and asked who was on the crew that could do stage moves. Well, that would be me. So, she says, one of the singers plays acoustic guitar for two of the numbers on the show. They didn’t want the guitar sitting on stage so I was the one to bring it on, along with a stool, at the proper time – twice.

That’s all really normal stuff. As they (the PM and the singer) were finishing up telling me all this, they said, can you tune the guitar? They had an electronic tuner so I said sure. They didn’t ask me if I was a musician or knew anything about guitars or anything, just, can you tune it. OK. When the sound check was done, I took the guitar offstage and tuned it up.

The first number was about a half hour into the show so we got started and I went over and checked the tuning but then I started thinking. The singer never said anything else to me after that initial orientation. As far as I know he never picked up the guitar to check the tuning before he went on stage. Wow! That seems really odd to me.

The handoffs went fine and the guitar was in tune. After the show I was working with one of the keyboard guys putting things away and I mentioned it to him. He said, ‘Yeah, last week we were in LA and the guitar came out all out of tune.’ He was kind of laughing about it but I was stunned. These guys are all really good musicians but evidently they have a blind spot on this. The numbers were basically solo pieces for the guitar. Pretty exposed.

Well, they’re gone now and tonight we have somebody named Ben Gribbard. It’s a similar deal: the orchestra is on stage until 3:30, then we come in and put in the show again. 8 o’clock start, I don’t know when the sound check is. Maybe 5 or 5:30. Hal was able to leave the mixers in so that part doesn’t need to be done again. It’ll still be a panic.

By the way, Burt Bacharach was born in 1928. He’s older than my father. He’s little guy and bent over but still going out there on stage, playing the piano, talking to the audience. I didn’t think to ask how much they’re touring but there’s no end date. Rumor is that the Symphony is having him back next year. He did two hours last night on stage without a break. Amazing. He told the audience there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing.

band update

SoundBox Saturday. We opened last night and close tonight. I’ve got the day free until 7 to rest. The week was not without challenges but all in all was easier than most. The only night I worked late was last night for the show. Everyone involved is very proud of doing something special but there is no funding for beyond the next set in April. The Symphony has made huge investment in infrastructure but admission prices do not begin to cover the costs. The Constellation System will continue to be used for orchestra rehearsals and the odd special event but the lighting and projection stuff will go into boxes except for a few times a year in the big room.

Meanwhile, I’ve been faithfully going to jazz band rehearsals every Monday. A couple of the charts we’re doing have exposed guitar parts and solos which require a lot more practice than I’ve been getting away with previously. We have sort of a mid-term coming up. Zack has a deal with a local Daly City bar for us to play a set there on Monday the 27th. Last week he assigned which guitarist – there is myself and one other – will play which charts. One assigned to me is African Skies by Michael Brecker where the guitar plays the head with the tenor sax. I’m doing my best to channel Pat Metheney who played on the original track. At the end I trade twos in (more or less) F minor with the tenor. That’s fun.

We’re also doing a version of Bags’ Groove with both guitars playing the vibraphone part, then we each get a couple of solo choruses. It’s fun but there are some tricky rhythmic bits in it. Zack has been very patient with his guitar players who don’t read that well.

After the first rehearsal in January, I emailed Zack to say I was having trouble picking up the guitar away from rehearsal. He was gently encouraging and I’ve gotten better. I just spent a solid half hour working on African Skies. That’s more real practicing than I’ve done in a very long time.

My other band, Loose Gravel, is playing in Loomis a week from tomorrow. They’re not really my band, but I’ve been allowed to sit in with them whenever I want. This time I decided a couple of weeks ago that I really wanted to go so I arranged my work schedule to keep the Sunday free. When Tom was down here he said he was trying to sing less with them so I thought I would try to resurrect my singing. He’s given me Big Boss Man, which I used to do back in the days of April and Dry Creek, and Dizzy Miss Lizzy, which was always his to sing. We’re familiar with The Beatles version which features John Lennon on vocals. I dunno, I’m no John Lennon singing. We’ll see . . .

 

Sarah

Sarah’s birthday was the other day. I was at Davies for SoundBox and she was there for the program on the big stage. A little before the rehearsal at ten I went into the back hall looking for her but I didn’t see her. One of the other violinists came up to me and asked if I was her Dad and I said yes. She told me that she was so happy that Sarah was getting hired and that she played beautifully. About this time, Sarah came up and joined us so I gave her my birthday card but hesitated before saying anything in front of her friend.

It didn’t matter. She laughed and said she knew it was her birthday and she wished Sarah a happy birthday. I thought, what more could a father want than for his child to have the kind of success that Sarah is having.

Sarah, of course, is more in the weeds about it than I am. It can be a strain on her. She has to be able to practice enough to continue to play well while still keeping all her other jobs going. The Symphony pays well but as a sub, Sarah can’t depend on getting called on any particular week. She’s in a good run now but it could end at any time. The contract Symphony musicians are constantly polled about the quality of the subs’ playing. It’s hard to say how much one’s personality is a factor. Neither of us is kidding ourselves that it’s an emotionless rating system so she has to be friendly to everyone. (Not that she wouldn’t be but it ‘s just another thing to have to think about.)

So, I enjoy seeing her there when I do. I don’t take it for granted. I treasure the comments from her colleagues about her playing. I know every one of them has put in the thousands of hours of unbelievably tedious work to be able to make music at that level, as has she. They certainly don’t say those things just to make me feel good. But they do!