My suitcase was packed. My two laptops, drumpad, and other electronic gear were zipped up and ready for air travel. I’d been practicing the electronic part of Alternative Energy for the past week, looking forward to touring the piece with the Chicago Symphony to Michigan and New York.
All I needed was an orchestra.
The call came in late on Saturday night : despite frantic negotiations running right up to that night’s concert, the orchestra and management were deadlocked. After playing several concerts without an agreement, the musicians looked at the last-minute contract asking for higher healthcare expenses and couldn’t sign on the dotted line. With an hour until the concert.
So a few thousand people showed up at Symphony Center to encounter a locked hall and picket lines. Not a happy situation all around, and certainly not for me back in California. I didn’t want to see this astonishing band, which was making some of the world’s best music under Riccardo Muti, fall into the abyss of a protracted strike. And I definitely didn’t want to miss the opportunity to tour Alternative Energy, which both the orchestra and the maestro knew so well from all the performances last season. Time to light candles, cross fingers, and pray.
When I boarded the plane on Monday, I had no idea if our rehearsal the next day would happen. Four hours later, as we touched down in Chicago, I booted up my iPhone and hoped the music gods were smiling. Either we would stumble into the abyss, or we would keep the band together and start a wonderful tour.
Ecstatic messages buzzed in: We have an agreement!!!
A very close call. Everyone knew it: when I walked into Symphony Center the next morning, a palpable sense of relief hung in the building. Everyone was smiling, giving hugs in the hallways and such. Rehearsal started on my time-traveling ‘energy symphony,’ and immediately I felt the glow. Concertmaster Robert Chen fiddled with extra ebullience during his bluegrass solos; principle percussionist Cynthia Yeh pounded her homemade junkyard scraps a little harder; the brass section added some fireworks to their jazzy hits; and everyone seemed to bob their heads in the dark techno climax. The breakup took everyone to the edge, but the makeup was swift and heartfelt.
So the music played on, beginning with a visit to University of Michigan’s beautiful Hill Auditorium. The Michigan setting was quite fitting to Alternative Energy, which conjures Henry Ford’s farm outside of Detroit in its opening movement. More than one audience member pulled me aside afterwards to say how much they appreciated that.
More than anything, this experience reminded me how special and, yes, complicated an orchestra is. A symphonic tour involves Mack trucks filled with instruments, a charter plane to carry everyone from stagehands to staff, and eighty musicians adjusting to the acoustics of each new space. No other artistic enterprise requires the same real-time collaboration of so many people. Organized labor has been the guardian of musicians’ needs for decades, moving orchestras far from the old-school tyrannies of the 1950’s, and now it’s adjusting to the realities of the New Austerity. Classical musicians were hardly surprised by the recent Chicago teachers union strike, for example, because within our own field we’ve watched many great institutions brought to the brink: Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia, etc. Even with the Chicago Symphony’s strong financial health, it too has to navigate these troubled waters. Keeping the music playing is no simple task, and I’m so thankful that musicians and management could come together at a happy compromise. In this new age, everyone has to meet in the middle.
So in a few days, one perennial question will be answered: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Keep playing!