Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Innovation Thrust Upon Us

Maestro David Robertson on kazoo - Photos by Konrad Fiedler for The New York Times

Sometimes innovation, like greatness, is thrust upon us. As last Friday's rains washed over LaGuardia, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra kept time through a series of ground delays at Detroit Metro. Months of preparation had gone into the annual trip to Carnegie Hall and hours of flight delays were threatening that evening's off-beat program, which was to pair Mozart's "A Musical Joke" with H K Gruber's "Frankenstein!!", with Gruber himself singing the lead. In Chicago Gruber was having travel problems of his own, word of which had already spread to staffs in New York, St. Louis, and Detroit.

By the time the SLSO's plane hit the tarmac in New York at 6:08 p.m., rehearsal had already been canceled, Gruber had been written out of the program and members of the orchestra had been granted dispensation to appear on stage in street clothes. Then, in the kind of brash and brilliant move we have come to expect from him, Maestro Robertson handed the baton to his assistant, Ward Stare, and took on Gruber's solo role himself. It is a showman's role, not a singer's, and Robertson (who had voiced a part in The Music Man earlier this season) was more than up to the task. As reported by Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times:

You do not need a proper singing voice to perform the part, but you do have to be uninhibited. Mr. Robertson's performance was a tour de force in uninhibition.

When necessity called, Robertson, Stare and the entire orchestra and staff rose to the occasion. Though physically separated, the team communicated throughout the day, developing a strategy (Robertson, already in New York, began rehearsing that afternoon), and adjusting the plan continuously. Orchestral musicians, masters of going with the flow, had shrugged off a day of travel delays, tight quarters, and nervous updates by the time the baton struck the first note. And the audience shared an experience that no recording could capture.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice.

See the account of events by Eddie Silva on the excellent SLSO blog here. For a previous article on innovation and the orchestra (same time, last year), see The Surprise of the New.

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