Saturday, July 7, 2007

Tour-ent of praise

Jeff and I down-sized out of the backwoods of Benson a couple of years agoto the relative suburban town of Leicester, just north of Brandon. We now enjoy a paved driveway connected to a paved town road on which we have a modest amount of actual traffic, and the occasional appearance of a State Police car driving by - very comforting. We aren't quite sure why we have seen more wildlife in our backyard this past year than ever before in our 25 years together in Vermont. Cellist Billy Dollard would tell you it's because a nearby area named (for reasons lost to history) "Satan's Kingdom" appears in the Vermont Atlas. (Well, when it comes to local taxes, it does seem as though there is the devil to pay.)
Since late winter we have seen turkeys and an enormous variety of birds at our feeders, as well as a Canadian geese family that is annually renewed in a pond across the street and occasionally stops in for a day at the beach in our backyard pond. This is the perfect arrangement - all the Disney charm of growing goslings without the heavy deposit of calling cards. In contrast to the military precision with which the line of geese walk and swim, we enjoyed one brief visit from a Wood duck and her seven tiny ducklings, which tore around the pond with no apparent regard to direction or personal safety.
The bird feeders also attracted a beautiful black bear, which proceeded to make off into the woods with some very expensive Duncraft items. To thwart that habit, I put feeders on the little outdoor porch of the upstairs guest bedroom. Enter the raccoon. Now those feeders come in every night, but after dark our skunk makes sure to clean up the fallen seed below. If you have the luxury of living in a place with a wide variety of birds, you can understand why keeping their gorgeous plumage and lovely song close at hand is worth all the fuss. Our latest visitor is a gorgeous gray fox, with a luxuriantly bushy silver tail that accounts for at least one-third of its graceful presence. We're not quite sure why we are blessed with all this wildlife less than two miles from Route 7, but it's a lovely thing. In this environment I climb the stairs to that guest bedroom to practice violin. The one thing that all professional musicians share is the finely-honed skill of self-criticism. We've all spent so many hours alone in a room critiquing our abilities and progress or lack thereof with a clinical eye, and the best at that end up being some of our most able musicians or at worst are driven to quit. The reward for all this solitary angst is playing with other musicians who have paid the same dues and have shared experiences unique to our field. It's rather like the camaraderie of a somewhat elite military unit which has been put in harm's way and come out all in one piece with battle stories to tell - but survival is usually guaranteed and physical conditioning is not part of the requirements (unless you count the ability of arms making countless bow strokes without tiring or lips and facial muscles doing some very unnatural things for extended periods - musical things, I mean.)
The greatest reward, though, is to come together under the baton of a conductor who not only knows what his job is but has all the many skills the job requires. Once we've practiced our individual parts, it's up to the conductor to put them all together in a way that makes the sum of the parts greater than the whole. Under the right baton, there is a synergy that develops as each individual gives up part of his or her personal control to the conductor, trusting that one person to apply just the right kind and amount of musicianship, skill, and finesse to make each performance alive, beautiful, and unique. This is what it means to make music. It doesn't always happen, and in a professional setting, that is largely up to the nature and talents of the conductor.
The absolute icing on the cake is finding a conductor who is, beyond all that talent part, fully appreciative of the key ingredient in any joyous and successful undertaking: fun. I think it's fair to say that Andrew Massey has made this summer pops tour more fun and musically satisfying than it has felt in a long, long time, and the performances reflect exactly that. This is the one time I can remember a series of performances where the musicians are probably having a better time than anyone else, except perhaps Maestro Massey. This summer we've had such a great time getting to know one another better - when all is right on the podium, the talk amongst musicians isn't tense or negative; instead of grousing (which can be a second language for orchestral musicians) we are spending time on the important things ­fellowship, shared creation of beauty, and having a really good time. Thanks, Andrew, and thanks to all the musicians of the VSO - it's been a great time.

Hilary Hatch, violin