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Of cannons, Tchaikovsky, and a pregnant cheetah

My history with Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture goes back to the Hobbs (NM) High School Varsity Band. It was the last piece we played in our last concert in my senior year, 1966. Whenever I heard this piece, I think fondly of those great years in band and the inspired leadership of our director, Bob Lane.

Tuba player Bobby Beauvais was foiled in his attempt to disrupt the crowning of the Band King and Queen that was to occur just before we played the 1812. Our queen was Judy Badger, beloved by all (as of 2010, I hear that Judy followed her parents into medicine and is still working as part of the UNM hospital; her mother Demarius was my pediatrician and the natatorium at Hobbs High is named for her). The king was Gary Hudgens, who was also the drum-major, and not universally popular. Bobby envisioned the ceremonial kiss after the crowning and couldn't let it come off without an incident, so he hid a water pistol full of ice water on his person. Judy was wearing a white strapless formal, and Bobby's plan was to hit her square in the back with ice water at the moment of the kiss. Fortunately his pistol was confiscated in time.

In 1995 I was keen to get back into choral singing after moving back from the Bay Area. I passed the auditions for the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus and also for Quodlibet (a madrigal group) and Quintessence (an excellent small chorus), but Quodlibet's director Marilyn Alletzhauser and Quintessence's director Michael Cooke both told me that my large voice would be better suited for the NMSO Chorus.

When I heard that the repertoire for the 1995—96 NMSOC season included Mahler's Second Symphony, that made the decision easy. That piece was and is my favorite in the entire classical repertoire, but back in my college days I would never have dreamed that I could be a participant in its performance.

Around the time that I was performing the 1812 in Hobbs, an American choral arranger named Igor Buketoff was researching the history of this piece. Finding that several of the principal themes of the piece were from choral sources, he came up with a new arrangement that gave the chorus back these themes. There is a Russian Orthodox hymn, Troparion of the Holy Cross; a folk dance, At the gate, at my gate; and Tsarist anthems God preserve thy people and God save the Tsar.

This arrangement was the first piece I sang with the NMSOC. Once I started working with this chorus, I was pretty much scared out of my wits: NMSOC conductor Roger Melone works very quickly and expects not to have to say anything twice. We had only a handful of rehearsals before our first concert. Just to keep life even more exciting, we had to sing it in Slavonic (Russian)—and perform at the Albuquerque Zoo bandshell. A departing chorus member named David, who spoke Slavonic natively, coached us in the language.

The staging was problematic. We were to come out only at the end of the concert and stand on risers across the front of the stage, with a gap in the middle where our conductor David Lockington's podium stood (this was Lockington's first concert with us).

Unfortunately, this means that only the chorus members who where standing next to the gap could see the conductor. This turned out not to be a problem in practice, because there are no difficult choral cues in the piece; we were able to stay on the beat by listening to the orchestra.

We were supposed to have one rehearsal, but we were robbed of this opportunity by an overly cool September evening. The master agreement between the players and the orchestra stipulates a narrow temperature range, and even with some radiant heaters onstage, it was too cold. This restriction might seem silly, but it's actually very important. Bassoons and other instruments can literally explode if their temperature changes too fast, and a symphony-class bassoon can cost more than a nicely furnished Mercedes.

There was one other staging problem. The score calls for cannons. The percussion section wanted to use carbide cannons, which make plenty of noise. The zoo staff, however, vetoed this: they were concerned that a pregnant cheetah might miscarry. So we used a big bass drum.

I was pretty nervous taking the stage that night. We had no sense of the acoustics and no view of the conductor. I was really expecting a train wreck.

As it happened, though, everything came off perfectly. We got through the piece in fine style.

I am delighted to report that the cheetah bore twins and they thrived.

Next: Kree-kree!, or the hazards of live music
See also: New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Chorus stories
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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2010/06/16 16:28:31