Away Game
26 May 2012
Inside the Classics

I’ve written often about the huge amount of preparation that Sarah and I put into every new Inside the Classics program, and even when we put on a repeat performance of an old show (as we do on these Common Chords trips,) we still spend a fair amount of time sweating the details, retooling the script, swapping out set pieces that didn’t land where we wanted them to the first time, etc.

But when it comes to actually performing the show, it’s a different story. When we first began the series, more than five years ago now, I used to get horribly nervous before every show, and spend most of the first half just trying to remember to breathe before talking. But at this point, each program we do follows a well-established formula, Sarah and I long ago found our comfort zone with each other on stage, and quite honestly, the performances just sort of happen with very little effort from either of us. The Minneapolis audience for the series knows us well, knows what to expect from us, and we from them. It’s just a comfortable situation for everyone.

But there’s a whole different dynamic when we take a program like ItC on the road, especially to a small outstate community. One of the things the musicians of the orchestra have talked about over and over during these Common Chords weeks is how incredibly gracious and welcoming the residents of the town (whether it be Grand Rapids or Willmar) are to us, as if we were visiting dignitaries rather than just working musicians. Maybe it’s the image most people have of orchestras as big, fancy things clad in tuxes and tails, but there seems sometimes to be a greater expectation of formality, pomp and circumstance from small-town audiences.

That expectation is a sign of respect for our craft, of course, but it doesn’t exactly fit with what we do on Inside the Classics concerts. Sarah and I declared war on stiff formality the moment we took the reins on this series, and I’m quite fond of making jokes at the music’s expense whenever possible, and that can be a big leap to ask an audience that was expecting a “normal” orchestra concert to make in an instant. Just as in Grand Rapids last fall, I saw the jolt of more than a few bodies the moment I started talking over Adam Kuenzel’s concert-opening flute solo last night. It’s easy to forget now that we’ve been doing this series for so many years, but most people aren’t expecting a flute solo to suddenly have lyrics.

In a nutshell, this is my Common Chords challenge, and I imagine it will remain so for as long as we continue taking ItC programs on the road. I know in advance that the first words I speak will be jarring and potentially unwelcome to at least some in the audience who were expecting something else, and it then becomes my job to softly reel those people back into a place where they can enjoy what we’re offering.

In Grand Rapids, I wasn’t too worried about this transition, since the program we did there was focused on Copland’s soothing Americana, and the script was full of warm, flowery language designed to make the audience comfortable. Here in Willmar, both the music (Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe and La Valse) and the script were far spikier and shot through with inside jokes and innuendo, which was perfect for the home audience that knows us well already, but was a bit of a risk for an outstate crowd getting its first taste of the Sam & Sarah show. Talking with concertmaster Erin Keefe before last night’s performance, I wondered aloud how long into the show it would take for me to get my first real belly laugh out of the unsuspecting audience.

Not long at all, as it turns out. There was a distinctly audible chuckle during my opening monologue at a point that I hadn’t even written as a laugh line, and by the time we got to the middle of page two of the script, where I basically stop the show to spend three minutes making fun of the plot to Daphnis & Chloe, the audience was clearly having a great time, and had fully bought in to what Sarah and the orchestra and I were selling. I was amazed – developing good chemistry between a performer and an audience is a tricky business, but this Willmar audience seemed utterly comfortable and game for whatever we had decided to put in front of them. It was a great feeling.

Tonight, we’ll wrap up the residency with a more traditional concert – a healthy dose of 20th century Americana (Barber, Copland, and Ginastera) on the first half, and then a good, old-fashioned German symphony (Brahms 2) after intermission. Then it’s back to Minneapolis for a week in the studio, recording our next couple of CDs for BIS Records. We won’t have accomplished anything particularly Earth-shaking here in Willmar, and it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that these residencies change lives or anything like that. But they do accomplish one very important thing for us as an orchestra: every time we spend a week in a community not our own, we make new friends. We establish personal connections with people who might otherwise never give our existence a second thought. We become relevant to some, and reinforce our relevance with others. And for an institution that depends on the generosity of people to survive and thrive, that’s a vitally important accomplishment.

So thanks, Willmar, for everything. See you again soon, I hope.

<January 2020>

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