Colla Voce
26 Jan 2011
Inside the Classics

In addition to it being an Inside the Classics concert week (yes, as usual, I’m still working on the script,) the orchestra is playing a series of children’s concerts over the next few days, and the centerpiece of those shows is a live performance of that old classic, Tubby the Tuba, featuring our own Steve Campbell in the title role.

You remember Tubby the Tuba, right? Danny Kaye narrated it on the album I literally wore out as a kid, and it even got made into a movie in the 1970s. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but it’s a fun romp that manages to both accurately depict the personalities of various sections of the orchestra (violins = mean but popular kids, piccolo = friendly & chipper true friend, etc.) and tell a classic Underdog Finds His Voice story.

Telling that story from the narrator’s chair for us this weekend will be our friendly and chipper piccolo specialist, Roma Kansara, who you ItC fans might remember from some of our past shows. (Her explanation of double and triple tonguing in our 2009 Mendelssohn concert was especially memorable. You had to be there.) It’s a bold role for Roma to take on – not because of the speaking part, but because the narrator in this story also has to sing. Several times. In tune with the orchestra.

This is a more stressful thing than you might imagine. I’m totally comfortable on stage in front of the orchestra with a microphone, and I’ve done no small amount of singing in my life, and I would never in a million years agree to do what Roma’s doing. Even with simple children’s songs, the possibility of utter humiliation in front of one’s colleagues is just too high.

But there was Roma in rehearsal today, singing away like it was nothing (and she has a lovely voice as it turns out, no doubt honed by years of singing to her two beautiful daughters.) It was so unexpectedly charming that the whole orchestra gave her a round of stomping – that’s how we applaud when our hands are busy – in the middle of our first run-through.

But here’s the thing – Roma’s not our only narrator this week. She’ll be handling our Free Family Concerts on Sunday, but for the next two days, when we’ll be playing the show for thousands of kids on school field trips, the narrator’s chair will be occupied by none other than the Superintendent of the Minneapolis School District. Which just sounds like a bad idea, doesn’t it? When I think “superintendent of schools,” I do not think “friendly and chipper.” I do not think “lovely singing voice.” I think of this guy:

Figure Chalmers: Dour. Extremely dour.

But there, sauntering onto the stage and being sure to high-five Roma following her run-through of Tubby, was the Supe herself, Bernadeia Johnson, only a few months into her tenure at the head of a deeply troubled and fractious district. And almost immediately (right around the moment she flipped open the full score on her stand, pointed to a specific spot in the music and asked conductor Courtney Lewis a question about it,) I realized that we were going to be just fine in her hands. This is clearly one confident woman (and judging by what I’ve read about her in the local press, someone who runs in the direction of new challenges on a regular basis,) and she launched into her run-through with as much personality as Roma had.

Figure Bernadeia: SO not dour.

We only had to stop for her once – the same number of times that we had to stop because of a screw-up in the orchestra, by the way – and she instantly knew what her mistake had been, and wrote a reminder in her score like a pro. Her singing voice was confident, and she was obviously enjoying herself. More than that, she had clearly thought her delivery of the story through, and was having no trouble following the music on the page in front of her, which is no small accomplishment. (When I had to narrate Casey at the Bat from a full score a couple of years back, I was stunned by how alert I had to be.)

After the rehearsal, I happened to brush by Ms. Johnson in the hall, so I gave her a smile and a “great job.” The “Why, thank you!” I got in return was in a tone of voice that suggested that, while she was genuinely grateful for the compliment, she wasn’t in the least surprised that she had exceeded our expectations. She’s obviously used to exceeding a lot of those at this point. I really can’t wait to see her in front of a house full of her kids tomorrow morning.

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