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Sunday, August 4, 2013

#Tchaikovsky's Revenge by John von Daler

              The piano player, a man much older than I was, looked up at me with eyes pink and wet around the edges, heavy with nervousness and anger.

                It was my first season as conductor for the little, seventeen man orchestra in #Tivoli in Copenhagen.
Preparations had cost me many hours. Not only was I to conduct the orchestra, but also to play my violin simultaneously: many pieces had to be learned by heart. I had spent the winter months preparing for the summer season. What I could not prepare for was the daily ups and downs and decision-making on the job.

                I had been concertmaster of the same orchestra, so I knew some of the things I would have to do. One was to be flexible. Tivoli had a large number of tourists; they often came in droves of one nationality or another. The conductor had to be able to change the printed program at a moment's notice if, say, one hundred Italians strolled past the little outdoor stage. Then the orchestra would have to quickly put away the music to, say, a galop by Strauss and play "Funiculli, Funiculla" or some other Italian favorite instead.

                I made up the programs a week at a time and had them printed and handed out to the orchestra and also hung in the little glass-faced cabinet where our audience could check them out. Sometimes, if I had selected a difficult piece from Tivoli's incredible archive, the orchestra members would want to practice.

                One balmy night in August we were getting well into our last concert at 11 p.m. The next scheduled number was Tchaikovsky's "Waltz of the Flowers".

                Most people think that playing in a little, outdoor orchestra must be easier than being part of a great symphony orchestra. Perhaps. But the members of a chamber orchestra with a repertoire of a thousand pieces or so have to be ready to play anything. If you are playing The New World Symphony and the orchestra does not own an English horn, then a cello or a viola probably has to take over Dvorak's famous melody.

                In the case of Tchaikovsky's waltz, it starts with a huge harp solo. When an orchestra only has seventeen members, there just is not room for a harp. So the piano player has to take over, reading the solo from the finely printed cue notes in his music.

                Just as we were about to play this waltz, including the difficult solo for the pianist, a group of Americans had wandered by and I, trying to be the good and flexible leader, whispered to the orchestra that we would play Sousa's "Stars and Stripes" instead of "Waltz of the Flowers".

                I had not taken the piano player into account. When the Americans had gone happily on to a night of carousing, their nationality recognized and complimented (though I do wish that playing Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" could have had the same effect!), and the orchestra had left the stage I was confronted by a very, very mad pianist. I might as well just have stopped Federer from winning Wimbledon for the sixth time by spiriting away the last tennis ball in England.

                "I stayed up all night practicing! You can't do this to me! It's the worst solo in our repertoire. I was sooo prepared!"

                I stood looking at the irate and wounded man thinking, This job is going to be harder than I thought. But then I reasoned, leading other people is hard. There will be other, dreadful compromises. You are just going to have to learn to do it.

                My punishment came shortly afterwords. The melody to Tchaikovsky's waltz got stuck in my brain, dum dum dee dummm dee dum, and I could not help singing it under my breath for the next week, especially whenever I passed by the piano player. 

My book, Pieces: A Life in Eight Movements and a Prelude (WiDo Publishing) is now available. Order through, the publisher or your local bookstore. Click to buy Pieces at the top of the blog. Please feel free to write a short review of the book in your own language at or GoodReads. Thanks for your support!


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