Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Princess Recalls Her First Adventure

Last night I had a new experience. Now that I've said that, the follow-up is probably going to disappoint you: I performed with a chamber music ensemble.

Nope, I don't have any instrumental talents I've been hiding from you. Trust me, I've told you all about my talents. For this concert, I was recruited by my current acting teacher to accompany "a piece for oboe, piano and soprano" called Songs for Young Lovers, a composition in three movements that incorporates poetry from Edna St. Vincent Millay. When I connected with the director of the music program, he asked me to give a dramatic reading of the poems between movements because the piece is atonal and he thought the audience might enjoy it more with a little help.

I never found out more than that, really. We had one rehearsal, at which I did not rehearse. I got to see the musicians perform, which was fun and lovely, and then I was graciously assured how much my reading was going to contribute to the overall performance. Then I started having nightmares about it--how exactly was I going to contribute? It didn't seem to me, having been totally wowed by the other three, that standing up there reading poems was all that important. But I was willing to give it a go. At the rehearsal, which was only a few days ago, the director also mentioned in an offhand way how valuable my interpretative introduction was going to be. Cue me frantically rushing to several libraries for a vast stack of books on Millay's life and work, and then even more frantically reading them and assembling something in the fashion of an "interpretative introduction."

Besides that, I read the poems over and over, and never felt like I was getting a handle on them. Two of them, "The Princess Recalls Her One Adventure," and "Huntsman, What Quarry?" are very stylized, not the naturalistic stuff I'm used to reading at weddings and bookstores. The other, "Armenonville," was hard to pronounce and sort of cool if melancholy, and contains a weird surprise in the middle that I wasn't sure was going to go over with the audience. But I figured I'd look really dramatic and sincere, and I certainly know how to enunciate. It's practically a marketable skill with me.

Last night's performance was actually the first of four. And by some strange coincidence, it was at our temple. The next one is at a college, and the last two at churches. So we're going to get around. I must say I'm rather looking forward to doing it again. People were very nice, and I'm seeing there's a whole CULTURE around music people to which I'm a total outsider. I do my best observing as an outsider.

First, there was the whole "concert black" thing. Everyone else seemed to know this was standard but me. I did my best, but I made a couple mistakes. First one was a biggie. I wore heels, and then was required to stand whisper-still on stage for the entire piece with no shifting around, and at one point my feet were completely numb. I'm seeing ballerina flats in my future. The next mistake was the flower pin covering my cleavage--it sproinged open and I might have been stabbed. The last mistake was the shortness of my dress. When I arrived, all the other musicians looked at me with amused interest. "Are you singing?" asked a lovely blond violinist with the string quartet. "No, I'm the narrator," I replied, and she said "Oh, you're fine then. I was going to say, if you're planning on straddling a cello, I'm thinking no."

I sat with the eight musicians in the green room for 30 minutes, marveling at how they talked. First, there was a great deal of mirth and giggling, though for the life of me I couldn't see that anyone had said anything funny. I suppose non-actors must feel this way when they have to sit there listening to me and my theater friends lovingly recalling for the 80th time how things went wrong on-stage. There were stories about cats leaping at bows, and "playing wrong," and things falling out of cases, and it was all rather fascinating. I found myself suddenly wistful that I had given up classical piano at 15--maybe I could have been part of this world. It also struck me that I was the only person in the room without an actual talent.

Backstage waiting for our cue, it also struck me how casual everyone was. I had no idea how we were supposed to enter, or exit, or bow, or stand, or sit, or if there were any cues for anything. I'm not sure if all that is intuitive with musicians, or if they just know it from years of practice and forgot to tell me. The director mentioned in an offhand way that I should "introduce the performers," and I yelped at his disappearing head "How, exactly, should I do that?" But he was gone. The musicians were the calmest seeming bunch I'd ever witnessed. The oboist asked me what I would be doing out there. I gazed at him coolly and said "I'll be performing the poems bluegrass style, accompanied by banjo" and they all liked that. Suddenly, there was applause, and someone said that was my cue, so I opened the door and began striding up the ramp while everyone stared at me. Luckily, I'm used to that. I could see Jarrah wildly waving to me from the back. Surprisingly, there were other small children, too, though the house was not full.

When I reached the mike, I could see instantly that it was positioned over my head. There also wasn't a lectern or music stand for my unwieldy notebook, so, two problems I could have worked out if I'd been on this stage before. I wrestled with the mike for a while, to no avail, and eventually everyone started laughing. The director came up and moved it for me (still a bit high) and I haltingly launched--a few times--eventually trailing off with "This thing on?" They all laughed again. This was a little bit like my nightmares, except in my nightmares I was wearing satin hotpants for my "concert black" and a janitor strode on from stage right when I was in the middle of a line to say "Alright, you're done here. Let's try again with the second act." I might have melted down, but I'm pretty used to being on stage so I hung in there. The director swore the mike was on, but later David told me he was almost certain it wasn't. Not that I needed the amplification.

I felt a little ridiculous, to tell you the truth. I launched into my introduction and I think I read it okay; I have no idea if people were interested or not. A lot of them were reading their programs or closing their eyes. Maybe people just act different at concerts than they do at plays. Although these days, people are just as likely to be texting at plays. Considering I had just finished that baby about 10 minutes before the performance, I was pleased I didn't make any mistakes. I didn't mess up on the poems, either. For what it's worth.

But oh, the agony between my cues. It wasn't just my feet, it was wondering what to do with my face. I ended up gazing into the middle distance with a bemused expression. I tried to look a bit sorrowful on the second one, since that one is sad. At one point, a little boy caught my eye and smiled. I tried not to smile back, since it seemed somehow wrong--focus-pulling, perhaps. Audra and the musicians were sounding gorgeous, but I wished I could have seen their faces to fully appreciate what was happening.

After our exit we snuck back around to watch the rest of the concert--a lively number by Shostakovich, a gorgeous lyrical piece by Paul Schwartz, and a really thrilling Schumann performed by the string quartet plus the faithful Katerina on piano--really, that girl has some stamina, playing as she did for nearly two hours. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it and was really able to listen--as a child, even with all my classical training, I would often pick my cuticles ragged during such trials. When it ended, there was a reception with "Passover-happy" snacks, as Audra put it--I'm really starting to like that girl. She and I scarfed down strawberries and flour-free sponge cake while a surprising number of patrons came by to pay their respects. The "surprising" part applies only to me--she deserves all the kudos and more, but she was really doing something out there. Lil ol' me, standing up there reading stuff that I didn't even write--well, let's just say it was nice that people acknowledged me at all.

So, I'm looking forward to our next show, on Thursday. I have unlimited comps, by the way--so if you like this sort of thing and want to check it out, hit me up. Next time, I might even understand some of the jokes.


DrSpouse said...

Ooh, something I know about!
Some ensembles are even fussier about concert black - long only, even if your tights are black, or v-neck only, or collars only. Thankfully these are usually amateur choir jobsworths.

If I'm playing and have a long gap, I usually look at my music or the conductor. If I'm singing, I tend to look at the orchestra or the soloists (that too can involve a lot of silent standing!)

Sam said...

So interesting, Katie! Thanks! What do you play?

Mary said...

That sounds really fun! Will you be doing it again so that I can come and see?