A star is born

November 25, 1995|By Brian Sullam

NOVEMBER 21, 1995 should be a notable date in the annals of American music. I made my debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

I have entertained Walter Mitty-type fantasies, but they never involved performing with a world-class orchestra before an audience of 2,000 serious music aficionados. I have no illusions about my music ability. I am musically-challenged. I have a tin ear and am severely rhythm-impaired. When I played the clarinet in the fifth-grade band, the bandmaster took me aside and whispered that the band sounded significantly better when I missed practice.

Despite these obvious deficiencies, last Tuesday night I was standing on Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall stage accompanying the BSO in performing Franz Josef Haydn's Toy Symphony in C Major. I was one of seven symphony donors selected to play with Baltimore's finest musicians.

I got into this fix because I had foolishly checked off the box volunteering to play one of the toy instruments Haydn had written into the composition. When Marcia Halstead of the BSO staff notified us that a member of the Sullam residence had been selected to perform, I attempted to conscript one of my two daughters. They both begged off, claiming the demands of school and sports were too great for them to engage in such silliness.

So the job fell to me.

When I arrived at the rehearsal in the Meyerhoff's basement recital hall, John Locke, one of the BSO's percussionists, greeted me with the news that I would be the quail player.

My fellow performers -- Ralph A. Brunn, Anne C. David, Ramon F. Getzov, Michael A. McCabe, Jeffrey V. Odom and Carlos E. Vasquez -- had already claimed their instruments, which included a toy drum, trumpet, maracas, cuckoo, triangle and nightingale.

The real quail makes a pleasant-sounding coo. My instrument was a double reed duck call made by Farrell's of Louisiana. The first time I blew on it, I thought I belonged in a duck blind rather than a concert hall.

Our initial practice was catastrophic. Mr. Locke and Daniel Hege, the BSO's new assistant conductor, showed incredible patience we butchered our parts by coming in at the wrong beats, missing notes and playing when the score called for silence.

We were then brought upstairs to the stage to rehearse with the full orchestra. BSO Music Director David Zinman saw us coming and quickly dashed out the nearest exist.

Break a leg

Our practice with the orchestra was dreadful. Not to worry, the always optimistic Mr. Hege assured us. We'll practice again on the night of the performance, a week away. At our final rehearsal, we were better but not ready for prime time. It was too late because within minutes we were on stage. We were introduced, and the performance began.

My part starts toward the end of the Menuetto movement. I waited for Mr. Hege's cue and came in on time, for once. The audience broke into gales of laughter. Initially, I was upset, thinking that I was filling the role of a second-rate Victor Borge. But I quickly accepted my role as the comic relief.

In all modesty, I must admit we sounded pretty good. The audience must have agreed because we got a standing ovation when we took our bows.

Afterward, in the Green Room, Mr. Hege congratulated us. Concertmaster Herbert Greenberg even dropped by to say how much we had improved.

I don't know about my fellow accompanists, but I am considering second career as a quail player with major orchestras.

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Brian Sullam writes editorials for The Sun.

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