Saturday, April 25, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “T” – THE TAMPA BAY SYMPHONY


When I first moved to Tampa from Detroit in 1994 for reasons almost too stupid to contemplate, but are rather amusing to relate, so I shall: I left my ex-husband violist who had become upset when I got a gig playing with the Moody Blues, and he didn't. Never mind that the money that came into the house all went into the same kitty, and never mind the fact that we met on a job where we both played viola (I really don't play anything else, although I've pretended to play the violin for money), he got his feelings hurt. I guess there was some expectation that the Flute or Zither Fairy would magically appear and voilà! this violist would become a flautist or a zitherist (whatever they're called); anything but a viola player, but sadly, none of that magic happened. What did happen, is that when I came in off of that tour at the end of the summer of 1992, I returned to school and picked a major that was completely different than music, viola, or anything artistic.


Back in 1967 and 1968, when I had the album, "Days of Future Passed" memorized, if anyone told me, I would one day play it with "The Moody Blues" I'd have called them a liar.

I went and majored in computer science, knowing full well that I was going to have some long, long nights wrangling with some mathematical-type concepts that I'm pretty sure I had either ignored, or never seen in the first place. I was not disappointed. This was a good way to keep my eye on the prize and off my rapidly-disintegrating marriage, as I played in various viola sections around Detroit and either entered the stage before, and left after my soon-to-be ex did, thus being relieved of the possibility of exchanging any words whatsoever with him. It was a crazy time, and intense, but in a way, a very good time, as I discovered within myself, an aptitude for numbers and logic that I had previously thought was non-existent. Up until that point, I had spent more time with my folks playing “Match Wits with Inspector Ford” as we guessed at what happened to Judge Crater, and dissected the meaning of “Message to Garcia”. My parents were kind of odd like that; they enjoyed conundrums, and what-ifs. I'm not entirely sure that either of them had both feet in this world, and I know for damn sure, that I have maybe one or two toes AT MOST in this world.


A typical Wallace photo -- taken by me. Notice that my mom's head is completely covered up by a giant-ass dog-head. Take special note of my father's (to the left) idea of "casual dress" which consisted of a ratty pair of his work dress-pants, cut off at the knees, the same shoes he wore to work and those lovely white, engineer's socks. You could not get that man in a pair of dress socks. My mom was dressed normally. I'm sure I had on jeans and a t-shirt. That gentleman lurking in the background is my godfather, Hank Birch. All of the Wallaces take pictures at LEAST this badly. Most are worse.

Anyway, I was in an accelerated program and ended up down in Hudson, Florida, at the completion of my two years, and was offered a job by IBM – I had divorced the viola player. I started working there, but was nervous, because I really wanted to play, and there were all of these little community orchestras up in Pasco-Hernando Counties and no one really knew who I was.

By chance, the third day I was in Hudson, I saw a man carrying a viola case in a local drugstore and I followed him and asked him if there were any orchestras around the area that I could participate in. He said there were, and he directed me to the H******* Symphony that was playing a concert within a couple of weeks. The conductor, a man named V****** B***, was putting together a concert, and welcomed me. There was only one viola player at the time. The orchestra is still in business and my good friend, Denise Isaacson is still playing up there. It is a nice little orchestra, but it is more dependent on the “snow birds” and is not very big. Anyway, a few rehearsals later, one of the clarinetists came to me and said, “Mary, how would you like to play in a 'real' orchestra?” I said, “What have you got?” Although I was enjoying myself, we were just kind of schlubbing our way through Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and that was rather dismal. Poor Mr. B*** seemed to not really have the concept of conducting in 6/8 and was just making circles in the air in Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen and the orchestra had taken on this sort of random, aleatory, twelve-tone quality. Thus, on the one hand, it sucked for Sarasate, but it was great for Arnold Schoenberg, I guess. My mother was in the audience, and of course, she loved it. She always loved a good train wreck and had lots of fun reliving it on the drive home.


But, I digress. My clarinetist friend introduced me to the Tampa Bay Symphony, which at the time was directed by Dr. Jack Heller, who I believe, founded the orchestra in 1986. When I joined, it was an orchestra that had many retired musicians from the Cleveland, St. Louis and Boston Symphonies, as well as students, doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals from different walks of life.

As I've been writing this, I've been wracking my brain, but I do not think that I had to audition at that time. I ended up sitting 3rd chair, and we played all kinds of great music, along with a lot of crowd-pleasing stuff. We had guest soloists and Young People's Artists and we still do now. The main difference lies in the approach of the two conductors. It was fun working with Dr. Heller; he's a good conductor, and we would always be able to pull off whatever it was, we were trying to play. We were a bit unruly. In particular, I remember when we had gone over one passage several times and it wasn't getting any better and he yelled out, “Violas! You're not a panzer division! Quiet!” This is no better or worse than the conductor in Detroit who hollered at the 2nd violins during Respighi's The Pines of Rome, “Second violins, when you run out of notes, STOP playing!”


THIS is a panzer division!


This is NOT a panzer division!

I played with the Tampa Bay Symphony the first time for a couple of seasons, but time and other commitments forced me to give it up; IBM and later Verizon, was perfectly happy to have me take a laptop on the road, when I was touring as a free-range violist with Anne Murray, Styx, Smokey Robinson, Bobby Vinton, Alan Parsons Project, or whoever, and work from a hotel room, wherever I was. It was a great life. But, like all great things, they pass.

I had a really, really bad marriage, that certainly didn't help the latent health issues I was harboring. I went blind, and developed congestive heart failure. After an acrimonious divorce, I lost a house I was trying to buy and spent two years fighting the bank. I ended up homeless and my essential tremor finally came to the fore. I was forced to stop playing in 2008. That was crushing. When I finally, finally, finally, got a diagnosis in 2013 and treatment to stop the tremors, I had to work up the courage to play again. I waited for a sign. Last August I got one. The Tampa Bay Symphony was going to be playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in the fall. They weren't listing any auditions for violas, but, hey. If you don't venture, nothing is gained.

I ventured, went and played probably the most spastic audition ever; I thought it was horrible. Mark said “This is why we have lots and lots of rehearsals!”, then asked me if I would join. Hell ya!



I'm so glad I took that leap; the musicianship has improved, the morale and the overall musical artistry of the orchestra has improved immensely. Mark is the glue that makes the whole thing cohere. The wonderful thing that I love is that he treats us as fully mature artists in this musical journey we're all taking together. If we are struggling as a group, he will find a way to bring us together, usually with a clever little exercise that involves counting – music is 80% rhythm, after all – and we will go through that process a few times, generally under tempo, and then bring it up to tempo. He deliberately tries to keep our performances as true to the composer's intentions regarding tempi and interpretation as much as possible and it really shows. This orchestra which, a few years back, may have seemed like a run-of-the-mill volunteer group, is really something to hear. I listened to the raw recording of our performance of Edward Elgar's Enigma Variations and was knocked out by what I heard. I will leave you with an excerpt of the 3rd movement of Brahms' Third Symphony. I was not in the orchestra at the time, but the musicianship and playing are superb!



Postscript: I am aware that I am exceedingly late for my "T" letter. We currently have hospice in our home, for end of life care of my partner. I will participate as much as possible until the end, but things are more disordered than previously, and I must beg you extend the courtesy of allowing my erratic posting. I will not "claim" that I win the challenge, but will consider myself a participant. It is a sad time, but it is also one with great purpose and clarity. I can do no greater thing for a fellow being than to ease his way from this life and I will be fine, and back here for more next year. You will see a few more posts from me this year, just not in the way, I had originally planned, as things are moment-to-moment. 
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