When Things Go Wrong
Sometimes, in spite of all of the careful preparation and planning, stuff just happens. Enjoy.
The Day the Basset Horn Died.
The score to Mozart’s La Clemenza Di Tito is well known to clarinetists for its many beautiful basset horn and clarinet solos written as duets with singers on stage. The basset horn solos are performed at Lyric by our wonderful clarinetist/bass clarinetist Linda Baker. During a performance several years ago Linda brandished her basset horn ready to perform the introductory cascading arpeggios of the solo only to find that no sound would emerge as she blew into the horn!
Sir Andrew looked over in desperation. Linda changed to a lighter reed thinking that might help but still nothing. Frantically she searched the instrument for the problem during a few bars of rest before the main melody began. She discovered a key at the very top was binding, creating a leak. A leak at the top of a wind instrument means nothing will sound below. The key may have been bent while Linda navigated through the pit to a wooden box near the conductor’s podium where she stood to perform the solo, or perhaps it was the 30 degree drop in temperature that wintry Chicago day. All she knew was that the darn thing was working just fine during her warm-up minutes before!
Meanwhile, the most important section of the solo was fast approaching. Linda needed a screwdriver to back off the screw and free the key. She had tucked her reed case into her pocket but her tools were back in her case across a crowded pit of stands and players. She quickly climbed down to bassoonist Lewis Kirk. “Screwdriver?“ she mouthed. Fortunately for Linda and Mozart a screwdriver was produced, the key was fixed, and she was ready to play in the nick of time. That’s what I call keeping cool in a crisis.
Pass the Cello.
This season we performed Wozzeck, an intense three - act opera played straight through with no intermission. It is full of fiendishly difficult passages with many solos and divided parts within sections. Not long into the performance assistant principal cellist Paul Dwyer’s A string broke. William Cernota and Walter Preucil were on the second stand, with everyone in very tight quarters.
When Bill saw that Paul’s string had broken he carefully handed his cello forward to Paul, taking Paul’s instrument. The whole section saw what was happening and tried to learn which string was needed so they could pass forward the correct string. Cellist Barbara Haffner sitting one stand behind had a set. “I felt a thud on my shoulder as Barbara passed her set of strings up to me,” said Bill. Walt quipped, “That was the first time in 24 years that Bill didn’t have all his strings in the pit.” Bill began to change the string. “It seemed like it took me forever to open the A-String envelope with its wax seal; then after I pulled the broken string off, I could not see the string hole in the dark and was worried the loose peg was going to clatter to the floor and be lost” said Bill. He also knew that in one page there would be a three-cello divisi, requiring him to play again. So Walt gave Bill his cello, taking Paul’s cello. Bill played the trio passage with Calum and Paul while Walt changed the string.
Within minutes of the string breaking and the cellos being swapped three-ways, Walt discreetly handed Paul’s restrung and tuned cello back to him through the cramped space around his right side, receiving Bill’s cello in return, all without interruption to the music. Then at the next few bars of rest Bill and Walt exchanged instruments, restoring them to their rightful owners. “This is a story of when things go wrong — and right — in the pit,” said Paul, who joined the orchestra in September 2015.
The Case of the Falling Flower Box.
It happened during Falstaff, with James Conlon conducting. “It was in the final one minute of the performance, during the big fugue,” remembers principal bass Mike Geller. In those days the bass section was along what was then the back wall of the pit, before it was hollowed out and extended under the stage. There were flower boxes lining the edge of the stage just above the heads of the bass section. Earlier in the day a recording engineer had moved one of the boxes to place a microphone, and on this night a singer’s dress caught on one of the flower boxes, sending it crashing into the pit. It fell into the narrow space just in front of Mike and behind flutist Marie Moulton, barely missing Mike’s bass. “It grazed my shoulder,” said Mike, “ my heart was pounding, but it didn’t hurt me.” Assistant principal bass Brian Ferguson remembers, “It dented my string but didn’t hurt my bass.”
The look on Maestro Conlon’s face has stayed etched in Mike’s memory. “As soon as the opera ended Conlon came back to ask if we were OK,” said Mike. Cellist Laura Deming recalls that then General Director Ardis Krainik was seated in her front row seat behind the conductor. When the box was falling “her hand flew up to her mouth, and her face had a look of sheer horror.”
Miraculously, no one — and no instrument — suffered any damage. Nor did Verdi; the musicians played on! “If someone had tried to throw the thing in that exact spot,” mused Mike, “it would have been impossible. Miss Krainik called Brian and me upstairs to make sure we were alright,” said Mike. “We were, but I’ll never forget it.” A scrim with a secure netting was installed along the front of the proscenium shortly thereafter, strong enough to catch a flower box and even a person should they tumble into the pit.
Look out Below.
Here is a story from Edward Poremba who was percussionist at Lyric from 1966-69 and principal timpanist from 1971-2000.
“It happened during one of the crowd scenes in Carmen. There was lots of action onstage with little ones causing all kinds of mayhem. Suddenly oranges came flying from the stage and into the pit - I wouldn't say it was raining oranges, but some landed on the timpani. No musician or other instrument was involved so everyone in the area, though at first startled, had a good laugh. I don't believe the conductor ever noticed. By the way, the oranges produced a nice round forte. A lot of people thought the whole episode should be included in future performances.”
Robert Johnson remembers a unique performance of Dialogues of the Carmelites.
"We were well into the run of the opera, but there was a very strong flu bug going around. We were using the five-person arrangement for the horn section: one person on each of the four horn parts and me playing assistant. The other part of my former job description is utility horn which means - be prepared! You might have to play any of the other horn parts of any opera at the drop of the hat.
So, one hat drops. The second horn (Jason) called in ahead of time to say he was too sick to play the performance. So, I got to work and did some preparations for the performance playing 2nd horn.
Unfortunately, the principal horn (Jon) was also quite sick but was trying to tough it out. So, the second hat drops. By the end of the 2nd act he was too sick to keep playing. Soooo…I moved up from 2nd horn to play 1st and Lisa moved up from 4th to read the 2nd part, although that is not in the description of her job! So, the 3rd horn (Ian) was left alone in the back row to keep on playing.
There was a passage coming up in the music for 4 horns. Lew was sitting there counting rests and looking at the 4th horn part, and figured he could cover it (on bassoon). He had to transpose on the fly to be in the same key as everyone else.
By the opening of the 3rd act, Mo. Davis arrived at the podium, looked over rather surprised, but, being the awesomely flexible and talented musicians ALL members of the Lyric Opera Orchestra are, we finished up the opera with nary a mishap. Nothing like this has happened since that evening many years ago."