We sometimes think that the arts are somehow separated from real life, that when artists gather to live, eat and work that they resemble a musical Garden of Eden. A few weeks ago I spent a day with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and I can attest that a symphony concert more closely resembles Law and Order or Days of our Lives.
The plan: The annual children’s concert held at Mac’s Annie Merner Chapel. . . an 8:30 run through followed by two concerts at 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. I’d been asked to do a little narration and even though I don’t own a tuxedo I showed up anyway.
8:30. A handful of musicians have arrived. It’s a cold, windy day so the bass fiddles have the worst time of it as they trudge across the MacMurray campus. The piccolo player laughs at them.
8:35. Symphony manager John Steckle is an exacting sort of guy anyway, but this morning is an even greater strain on him as the roads are icy and some musicians are coming from as far away as Bloomington. His eyes are locked onto his cell phone watch. The conductor, Garrett Allman arrives a bit late but his hair looks great. That’s a requirement for symphony conductors. Mess with the tempi and tuning all you like, but get the hair right. I don’t know how he does it.
8:36. The rehearsal begins. This is going to be tough to crowd in a run-through before the first bunch of 435 kids arrive but Allman’s hair remains in place and manager Steckle takes a phone call then rushes out of the auditorium. Two musicians are missing.
9:30. The two ladies arrive. They were rear-ended just a block from Annie Merner. This excuse doesn’t elicit much sympathy that I could detect. You are not late to rehearsal, and the Jacksonville Symphony is an extremely serious bunch of folks. This is not a bar room band, Bubba. These folks mean business. They fall into two categories: regulars and loaners. The regulars live in the Jacksonville area and appear on every program, but the others are an on loan from other symphonies. We used to do this with hay crews when I was on the farm.
It’s 9:40 and we’ve just begun to rehearse Peter and the Wolf, meanwhile two busloads of school children have arrived and head down the aisle toward their seats. There’s been a mix-up in communication. You do not allow the audience into the rehearsal hall before the conductor gives the okay. The Kiwanis and Rotary volunteers are trying to hold the kids in Annie’s foyer, but somehow an errant steer broke out of the corral and the rest of the herd followed him in. The rehearsal is stopped. A glare from the podium. The stampede is momentarily quelled. Cowed, the steers back their way to the holding pen.
9:59. The rehearsal is done. Manager John had been squeezed from both directions. . .an orchestra that must rehearse and 400 kids who don’t like standing out in the cold.
10:04. The concert begins. Actually, this is the calmest part of the day.
11:00. The concert ends with the kids swaying along to the music from the movie Frozen, and hundreds of happy faces walk up to the aisle to their awaiting busses.
11:15. They let us in to the MacMurray dining hall for lunch. Note: brass players eat with more gusto than the strings. Percussionists pay no attention to diets. Woodwinds are especially fond of soft ice cream machines. The musicians chat with each for the first time today. There’s no chatting while onstage.
12:20. The Kiwanis and Rotary bus parking crews are going a bit crazy with the logistics. Mark Gillespie has become a master of traffic control. They unload the busses in one place but pick them up in another and Mark can’t figure out how the kids know how to find their proper bus. I tell him it’s a state-mandated surgical implant in their brains.
12:30. The second concert begins. All is well. Frozen is again the hit of the show. Manager John breathes a sigh of relief, the musicians pack up their instruments, and Allman’s hair hasn’t moved all day.
12:45. I stop for coffee at the Soap Company on the Square. It’s been an amazing experience to stand in front of an orchestra full of people who know what they’re doing while I . . . oh, never mind.