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Long, Strange Trip

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

Somehow, I expected the first concert back to feel more . . . different.

Like my first rehearsal with the Pittsburgh Symphony in 1996, preparing Strauss’s Sinfonia Domestica for an upcoming tour with Andre Previn. I had basically just fallen off the turnip truck, having grown up, gone to school and worked exclusively out West, and while I’d played in some fine orchestras, they weren’t old growth like Pittsburgh, they were the kind of orchestras whose best players left to go to orchestras like Pittsburgh. The PSO in 1996 was just after Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons just arriving. Maazel had spent the preceding decade stropping the orchestra to a razor’s edge, and the precision, energy and sheer commitment of the ensemble was at LEAST the equal of any in the world. That first rehearsal blew my mind. The only comparison I can make is to things that I have never experienced but imagine must be similar: going full afterburners in a fighter jet, dicing through a chicane in an F1 car, launching in the space shuttle. This orchestra isn’t a job; it’s a musical Iron Man suit that has given me one peak experience after another. Mahler at the Proms, Shostakovich at Suntory Hall, anything we’ve played at Musikverein.

Fifteen months and three weeks with no PSO — that’s a long time, or at least I remember it feeling long. It's over, though, and, kind of like sending my last daughter off to college (which I’m doing this Fall), the time somehow just vanished. Indeed, the days are long, the years are short. I’m not going to whine about my COVID experience; it was a difficult year for most of us, although I did talk to an estate planning attorney who said that business had never been better and he didn’t miss going to the office.

Anyway, this past weekend’s July 4th outdoor concerts marked the first time the PSO has played together, including winds and brass and an AUDIENCE, since early March, 2020. The strings have been working for months, recording in an empty hall for digital release, because they can play while wearing masks. The problem with winds and brass, virally speaking, was aerosols. Evidently we emit a lot of them, and if you could experience just how loud it is where I sit you wouldn’t find that odd. But with vaccination and an outdoor venue, we’re back.

The audience is back, too. The 4th of July concerts are free, and it’s not uncommon to have big crowds, but this seemed different; several of my colleagues remarked that they’d never seen audiences this large. It seems worth hoping that when we return to the hall in September the audience will, too. A few months ago it seemed possible (if pessimistic) that as the pandemic forced people apart and inside that they might lose their taste for the arts and live performance, that they would find their LCD screens a suitable replacement — one step closer to H.G. Wells’s The Machine. Granted, this past weekend is a small sample, but it seems that people have, if anything, an even keener appetite for real life, for shared experiences like concerts.

This return to work had been on the calendar for a while, so I’d been practicing. However, practicing at home never truly simulates the demands of an orchestra, of lining up tone, volume, and pitch where they must converge in real time. In the past I’ve come back from breaks of a few weeks where I had practiced every day and I still spent the first rehearsal feeling like a complete fraud. Wimpy sound, out of tune, out of sync. Over the past year and a half, I haven’t exactly practiced every day, and, after my longest stretch without playing in an ensemble since third grade, I expected to feel miserably out of shape

But I did’t. Granted, we weren’t in Heinz Hall, playing a subscription program with a demanding conductor, but it all seemed familiar. That space-shuttle-launching feeling I had in 1996 has never gone away, and being in concert was as great a ride as ever. I didn’t hear any rust in my colleagues’ playing, and most of my own parts were about where I’d left them.

I also expected a surge of emotion. I’ve done lots of things over the years in order to pay the bills, but playing in an orchestra is really all I’ve ever wanted to do for a living. Getting the PSO back after such a long absence seemed like it should be a big deal.

It felt normal. Like coming home after a long trip.

Some of you may be wondering where this leaves pipe making. Diminished, certainly, from the depths of the pandemic, when rehearsals and concerts were far in the indefinite future and I was, frankly, scared and willing to push my body harder than I ever would have when Strauss or Copland was coming up in a week or two. Already I’ve slowed down, partly because these concerts were drawing near, partly because I’ve realized that I need to limit my pipe making if I want to be able to sign my name in the future, never mind play the clarinet. I don’t know how many of you remember seeing Jim Cooke walking around the Chicago show wearing his hand braces. I also don’t know where you think pipe making lies on the physically easy-difficult spectrum. It’s probably harder than you think, but then, some makers are better built for it than others, as anyone who has ever shaken hands with Jim Boswell could tell you. Thin-wristed ectomorphs like me certainly CAN be pipe makers or blacksmiths, but leverage is not on our side.

So, my output going forward will be less than it has been over the past year, but more than it was in the previous five, when I basically only made commissions for people who knew what to expect (i.e. not much). In order not to vanish, I need to keep posting spec pipes on Wednesdays and keep commissions flowing. While I had my reasons, it was a mistake to abandon the craft and the community as completely as I did between 2014 and 2020, and I’m going to try to keep this rabbit hole open going forward.

That being said, I am a musician first. It’s good work if you can get it. The concert stage is where I’ve always wanted to be. It’s where I feel . . . right. And sitting there this past weekend, with music to play and 50,000 watts of French horns behind me, it almost seemed that the past year and a half might have been a dream.

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