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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, LUDWIG
16 December 2021
Today would have been Beethoven's 251st birthday.
In the years when I was working with The Lamplighters Music Theater in San Francisco, my best friend, Gilbert Russak, was the musical director. Though he had studied music all of his life, he had never conducted an orchestra until he took over conducting the new Lamplighters orchestra. At one point in the last couple of years of his life he was also the assistant conductor for the San Francisco children's chorus or orchestra or something like that. And he liked conducting, but he had this dream to conduct something other than Gilbert & Sullivan and the light operetta fare that the Lamplighters performed. He wanted to conduct the Beethoven symphonies.
The Lamplighters has a loyal orchestra, many of whom have been with the company for decades and are professional musicians. But the thing about being a musician is that you only get to play the music that your orchestra decides to play. It's all well and good to love Mahler, for example, but unless somebody hires you to play in an orchestra that is doing one of the Mahler symphonies, you don't get the chance to play that music.
So Gilbert and the orchestra decided they were going to do the Beethoven symphonies, just for fun.
The company then performed at the wonderful Presentation theatre an ~400 seat theatre in a Catholic girls high school (which my sister had attended). Though it was a high school theatre, it was one of the best theatres in the city, for its size. It was beautiful and had great acoustics and the Lamplighters pretty much had the run of the place when school was not in session, so they could pop in on a Sunday and play a Beethoven symphony to a more or less empty house just for the fun of it.
The "concerts" were great. A handful of us knew about them and could come and listen, but they didn't publicize what they were doing because then they'd have to pay the orchestra a salary, and this was just a for fun thing.
I even was able to request a symphony. Beethoven's 8th has always been my favorite, ever since I took a class on the 9 symphonies and listened to Maestro Josef Krips, the then-conductor of the San Francisco symphony, give a lecture on that symphony and how it was "Beethoven's joke," playing sections of it and pointing out in what a light-hearted mood Beethoven had been when he wrote it and the little funny things he included in it. I never hear that symphony without thinking of Maestro Krips and when I asked Gilbert if the orchestra could pay that symphony at their next concert, they did. It's one thing to call a radio DJ and ask him to play a tune for you, but to be able to request a symphony was really special.
The last symphony they did for fun was the magnificent 9th symphony. This one took a bit more preparation, and they invited lots of company members, professional singers most of them, to come and sing along with the 4th movement, the well-known Ode to Joy.
There were others in the house, not professional singers, but people who had come for the fun of hearing the orchestra play this magnificent work. As they got to the 4th movement, Gilbert invited anybody who wanted to sing to come up on stage and join them.
Now, I'm not a singer. I had sung choruses in public all my life, singing with various church choirs. I had even sung in a choir or two that did some pretty complicated stuff and I was once even a quasi-soloist. They couldn't find an alto, but my voice wasn't strong enough to d the solo by myself, so the conductor chose two of us. We were the "Benedictus girls" and got to sing that part of the Mass as a solo duet (the Benedictus is the shortest part of the Mass, so he figured we couldn't screw it up too badly). So I decided to join the Ode to Joy group. How bad could it be? I knew I couldn't really keep up, but I would have someone who knew what she was doing at my elbow, and I'm generally good at following. I knew the tune and it would be fun.
Now, the first problem was that I had never seen the sheet music to this work before and should have realized how complicated it was. Duhhh!
Second, I do not sight read. I can pick out a tune on the piano from a piece of music, but to sit down and play something with lots of chords, I'm totally lost.
Third, I am an alto, so though I know the tune to Ode to Joy, I had never sung or heard the alto part and would have to be reading it off of the music that was being held by the person standing to my left (since of course I didn't own my own copy of the music).
I already knew I was in over my head the minute the music came out and I looked at it, but I was too embarrassed to slink down off the stage and back to my seat.
And then came the coup de grace. Gilbert looked at all of us assembled there and said "do you want to sing this in English or in German." With one voice they all said "German." Gleep. I barely knew it in English and though I could speak French and had sung in Latin, German was a language I did not know.
So there I am with this marvelous orchestra and this glorious chorus and I'm trying to sight read the alto line of a piece of music that I'd never seen before but everyone else knew practically by heart, and at the same time trying to figure out the German words everyone was singing. And I'm standing next to Jean Ziaja, one of the leading contraltos of the Lamplighters.
I did the only thing I could possibly do. I opened my mouth and made singing-looking movements, and didn't sing a note.
I have to admit that standing in the middle of this
wonderful chorus and a professional orchestra for the performance of this
magnificent work was, in itself, a thrilling experience, but I was glad that at
the end of the movement, Jean had the good grace not to mention my "performance"
PHOTO OF THE DAY
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This is entry #7935