Dragon Mother on Tour

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Dragon Mother with Princeton University Orchestra, Amsterdam

Dragon Mother with Princeton University Orchestra, Amsterdam

I have spent the past week mostly in bed, recovering from the stomach flu. Little did I know when I sat with Kendra on the bus ride from Cologne to Amsterdam and told her the story of my trip to Mongolia, (see Diva in the Desert on the writing page) complete with food poisoning and a memorably revolting bathroom at the last concert venue, that there would be a repeat performance on this trip. Why did I think it would be fun to sing Dragon Mother on tour with the PU orchestra? Was it because it has been many years since I came along on one of these and I forgot that it is work and not play – that Michael is in a continuous state of stress and worry, being ultimately responsible for 100 college students, travel arrangements, venue arrangements, having to rehearse and then perform after herding cats and setting up chairs and stands….? I knew that as one of four adults on the tour, I would have to help the low energy and disjointed members of the tour committee keep things organized and flowing – keep track of stragglers in airports or getting on and of the buses, speak German to the two Turkish bus drivers in moments of transport confusion, help find bathrooms and storage spaces at the various concert halls. This was not new to me, but it was new and exciting to most of the students who, in the end, behaved very well and had a fantastic time traveling and bonding musically and socially.
Jack Hill had booked very nice hotel rooms for the adults: Michael and me, Bob Peterson, another bass player, and Greg Rewold, bassoon player, physicist, and longtime member of PUO. Once we arrived in Frankfurt and dropped the students off at their hostel right on the river Main, we actually had several days of delicious food, great beer, and some relaxing tourist time (even though Michael was constantly checking his phone for disasters small and large).We heard the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra playing Bartok Violin Concerto #1 (which had been on the concert with Dragon Mother in December) and Mahler 1 with Maris Jansons at the Alte Oper. I went with Jack and Bob to an interesting exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, and thanks to Greg’s research, we all had a memorable meal at the Michelin 2 starred Villa Merton. Michael and I also spent a lovely day with David Fisher and his wife, the Princeton Alum who arranged most of the details for the concert in Wiesbaden.
On Tuesday afternoon, we reassembled with the students, some of whom we had bumped into at the concert or the museums. They had had a great time on their own, and were all safe , sound and accounted for. We bussed to Wiesbaden for the first concert in a lovely, but too small church. There was barely room for everyone to perform, let alone store their instrument cases or coats. There wasn’t really time to have much of a dinner break after setting up and wrestling with the balance problems, including David’s garage band sound system for Dragon Mother. The students hadn’t really practiced for several days, and the too live acoustics made for a difficult first performance. But David had done a great job getting the word out, and the audience in the fully packed church seemed to love the concert. David and his wife were thrilled, and the students seemed energized and excited. My voice had recovered from the transatlantic flight and I guess I sang OK despite the less than ideal sound situation. Michael thought it was a fine first performance, or rehearsal really, a reminder of what playing this repertoire, including El Salon Mexico, and Shostakovich 5, was about. Wednesday morning, after successfully communicating with the Turkish bus drivers to pick us up at our hotel, we set off for Cologne. The weather was cold, grey and drizzling, as it had been the whole time in Frankfurt. Getting off the highway, we stopped in a line of traffic, and stayed there for what turned into more than an hour. We could see the spires of the Cathedral piercing the sky a few kilometers in the distance. Eventually we learned that there was an “unfall” or accident on the bridge we had to go over to get from here to there, and we were stuck on the ramp with no way to turn around. Finally with piecemeal communication between the bus drivers and two students whose German was better than mine, we decided that everyone would walk to the Cathedral and meet out in front in several hours for the trip to Amsterdam. Michael was not happy as 100 students melted away into the streets of Cologne. It had started to rain hard by now and everyone got separated waiting to cross streets. Michael and I eventually sought shelter in a restaurant and had beer and burgers as we tried to dry out and warm up. By 3 pm, it was sunny and clear. Michael greeted students in the plaza in front of the Cathedral while I poked my head inside the immense and freezing interior.
Amazingly, all the students and the busses managed to find each other by the agreed upon departure time. Everyone was cold and wet, and the mood on the busses for the rest of the day was sullen and quiet. We didn’t arrive in Amsterdam until after dark. There was much confusion about which students were staying at which of the two hostels they had booked, and which bus their luggage was on. Our driver stopped in the middle of a street and declared that he couldn’t get any closer because the streets were too narrow. “Your hostel is over there – 200 yards” – at least I think that’s what he said in his Turkish accented German. Once again students and their luggage melted away into the streets of a strange city as the busses drove off. Michael was not happy to see them wandering around in the dark, but they did all manage to find their accommodations. We hailed a cab to take us to our hotel.
We had the next three days to explore Amsterdam, with concerts in The Hague Friday night and at the Amsterdam Conservatory Saturday. It was still grey and drizzling, but not quite as cold, and the city was beautiful and atmospheric despite the weather. I had a hard time getting used to the unfamiliar arrangement of letters in the Dutch streets signs and sorting out the different maps I was trying to read – small hotel tourist map, larger, more detailed tour book, iphone app. I finally decided to stop looking down at a book or screen, and just see what was in front of me. By Saturday it was all seeming much more familiar.
Michael and I visited the Ann Frank House, the Van Gogh museum, a number of churches, and just enjoyed walking over the many bridges and canals. Sometimes Michael retreated to the hotel to sit in front of his computer or study his scores. I enjoyed exploring on my own. We also had some great meals of local fish and beer, and fun socializing with Jack and Bob. On Thursday, Michael and I met the contact at the Amsterdam Conservatory. He checked out the arrangements in the hall while I practiced in one of the most wonderful practice rooms I have ever been in! The new state of the art building, completed in 2008, with its panoramic views of the river and harbor, and light filled glass hallways, had 11 floors of rooms of all sizes and shapes for private practice, classes and small and large ensembles. Michael was pleased with the small but lovely hall, and my voice actually felt pretty good. We saw a bulletin board with flyers posted for alexander technique, feldenkreis, and even mindfulness classes for singers and instrumentalists. What a cool place!
Friday afternoon, after I saw the Amsterdam Historical Museum by myself in the morning, we set out for The Hague. Jack and Bob met the bus picking up students at the Jordaan hostel, and Michael and I met the bus picking up the students staying at the red light district hostel. 3pm, it was raining. Where were the students, where was the bus? How did we ever survive without cell phones? A stressful hour, and many phone calls later, we were all finally on board and heading out of the city. Michael put on a calm and cheerful face for the students, but I knew he was filled with anxiety and frustration. The advantage of this delay, however, was that Jack got to the hall first, and had everything all set up and ready to go by the time we arrived. Gilad had arrived as well, and it was great to see him and have his input as we actually got to have a real rehearsal before the evening concert.
The Arnold Schoenberg Saal in the Conservatorium Den Haag was a wonderful hall with great acoustics and a professional staff who took care of all our needs. A special sound engineer wired me with a head set mike and monitored the levels during the rehearsal and performance. Gilad sat next to her with a score and helped her anticipate the wild dynamic shifts in Dragon Mother. Michael was very pleased with the rehearsal, and we relaxed for a bit after in our green room with a picnic dinner of sandwiches and juice. The concert went very well, and we even had a decent size and appreciative audience. I actually felt a bit tired from walking around in the rain all day and singing a lot in the rehearsal. I should have had more water to drink. Even so, I was pretty pleased with the performance, though I noted that I didn’t feel the usual excitement before or high after it was over. Is this equanimity, or just tired? It was too late for carousing by the time we got back to the hotel.
Saturday morning the weather had cleared and it was bright and sunny. The room at this hotel was a bit small and hot for sleeping, but the breakfast buffet was amazing. After a leisurely start, we set out to enjoy the city which was even more beautiful and charming in the sun. We were just thinking of looking for a place for some lunch when a blizzard materialized from nowhere. We ducked into a tapas place we happened to be passing and had a wonderful meal of small bites of this and that. By the time we payed the bill it was sunny again! We made our way back to the hotel and actually got to rest and prepare for the concert that night. After walking and walking the past few days, we decided to splurge on a cab to take us over to the conservatory. After last night’s concert, Michael didn’t need to rehearse much, just sound check each piece. Once again the hall staff was very helpful. The students were buying dinner at the cafeteria, and the adults were hanging back to let them go through the line first. I suddenly didn’t feel like eating, well, maybe just a banana would be good. Fifteen minutes later as I made my way to the green room, which was two flights of stairs and four locked doors from the stage, I felt a wave a nausea materialize as quickly as that snow squall earlier in the day. “No, no, no, I will not throw up 30 minutes before I have to perform!!!!” In Budapest, on another PUO tour many years ago, I had thrown up several hours before I climbed into my make up and sequin dress, and that had not been a fun performance with stomach acid still in my throat. “No, I will just put this aside for now and put on my make-up and rhinestone earrings.” Michael went down to start the concert with the Copland. “If I come off stage and you are not waiting in the hallway, I’ll know that you can’t go on, and I’ll just make an announcement” he said. We’ll see. The nausea passed, and I sang along with El Salon Mexico from back stage. Michael was happy to see me ready to go on as he came off stage. The performance of Dragon Mother was actually really, really good. I have said this before – I sing better when I am not worrying about singing. I did everything I wanted to do with the piece, and used the hand held mike to control the balance myself. At one point, a hint of nausea tried to poke its head up, but I dove down into the drama of the text and left it behind as I soared and roared. The orchestra nailed all the hard rhythms they had struggled with in the Princeton performances, and settled into the revisions Gilad had made for the tour. This is why the tour is important, because when you get to perform a program a number of times in a row, you can relax into it and let it play itself. Then you can really make music!  I was thrilled to have gotten through in one piece and considered sitting with Gilad for the Shostakovich, but decided against it. I didn’t want to give him what I had if it was contagious, and I wanted to be near a bathroom, just in case. Back up in our attic green room, I changed back into street clothes and felt freezing and woozy. I lay down on the couch and piled both my coat and Michael’s coat on top of me, and put the coded swipe card for the door in a pocket – just in case. Sure enough, minutes later I was kneeling on the floor of the bathroom in the hallway, throwing up into a very clean and modern stainless steel toilet. Memories of Budapest and Mongolia swirled through my head. “Wow, this sure beats either of those experiences, especially Mongolia!” I was very mindful of the physical sensations and the “unpleasant” feeling tone, though it really was about as “pleasant” a way to throw up as could be hoped for. I washed my hands and rinsed my mouth and was happy I had the key to get back into the green room. I lay back down, covered back up and dozed as occasional violent strains of Shostakovich mixed with the occasional violent flopping of my stomach. Michael came in after the concert and told me to stay here while he went to the reception. I don’t know how much later he returned, but everything was packed up and we could walk back to the hotel.
It actually felt good to be out in the cold air, though I was a little unsteady on my feet and Michael held onto me tightly. The smells wafting out of the touristy restaurants and coffee shops near our hotel were trouble. Oh, I had thought we would celebrate after the concert by eating, drinking and maybe getting stoned until our bus departed at 4am for the Brussels airport. That was certainly not going to happen now. I might have slept a bit back in our room, I think Michael did, but mostly I tried to be present with the physical sensations of feeling awful without hating it too much. That was pretty much the the deal for the next 24 hours – the bus to the airport, unpleasant, the lines for check in and security, unpleasant, not to mention the hassles with the cello and bass cases and the carnet nightmare. That was Michael’s unpleasant. I had written to my ISPP Google group from the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies about a teaching from the Burmese master U Tejaniya: during the tour I would try, as he advised, to be interested in knowing and understanding whatever arrises without preference for the outcome. That is an extremely skillful strategy for all traveling, especially traveling with a large group of students, or any situation really. During the flight I sipped on a bottle of coke, dozed, watched parts of several movies and eventually chewed on a plain roll. Thankfully I didn’t throw up again, and by the time we finally arrived in Princeton, late Sunday afternoon, I was feeling closer to normal.
Overall, I would say it was an extremely successful tour: no major problems – no lost passports, lost instruments or lost bodies – two wonderful performances and lots of happy students. Michael didn’t have a stroke and we learned that we would love to return to Amsterdam some day. Did I learn that I don’t need to sing a new piece on tour with the orchestra again? We’ll see.

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