Last night was the opening night of the Carthage Christmas Festival – and by and large it was a triumphant night which more than lived up to its title, “Joy!” There were some hiccups, mostly technical ones involving technology, plus a scary moment during the Gospel Messengers performance when a soloist seems to have fainted in mid-solo . . . all reminders that we’re all human and that in a performance as complex as this one, the number of things that can go wrong is nearly infinite. (The fact that so much goes right is cause for celebration and thanksgiving.)
The most serious glitch of the night as far as I’m concerned occurred towards the very top of the program, as I first found my place on the organ bench as the wind orchestra finished up its wonderful prelude (music from Bernstein’s Mass.) One thing they did this year is leave all lighting in the control of the technicians – right down to the stand lights for the band, piano and organ. Somebody else someplace else controls when those lights come on and off, which is a little bit disconcerting to the musician who needs the light and could potentially find themselves trying to read music in pitch darkness if someone screwed up. But by controlling the lights this way, they can be put on a dimmer and brought up and down more gracefully and artistically, which matters a lot in a program like this. So I grudgingly accept this- but it meant that when I first got to the organ last night during the band prelude, I had to pull my stops in basically complete darkness (feeling a bit like Helen Keller) hoping and praying that I had pulled the right ones. I had except for one – a little flute stop for the top manual that I needed in order to give the pitch for the choir’s first piece. So in what was supposed to be this ethereal, gentle moment, I had to frantically grope around the organ console (hidden from the audience, fortunately) until I figured out which stop I needed to pull in order to give the pitch. (It’s an incredibly quiet piece, so the pitch had to be given quietly. And it’s the very first singing of the night, so it feels like a moment calling for sheer perfection.) So as I’m finally giving the pitch, a few seconds late, I’m thinking to myself “at least we got tonight’s mistake out of the way early, so everything else can go smoothly from here on.”
But that was just a mini-glitch compared to what happened a few minutes late. The choir sang its first piece (Mark Siritt’s a cappella “Thou Shalt Know Him” – truly gorgeous – then stood by as the women’s ensemble sang a lovely Magnum Mysterium setting from the back balcony. Then it was back to us down front for Andrew Carter’s jubilant setting of “Hodie Christus Natus Est” – “Today Christ is Born” – with me playing the rather involved organ accompaniment. During the women’s ensemble’s piece, the front of the chapel – including the organ – was plunged into even more complete darkness – but as their piece finished, our lights slowly came up as they were supposed to. Whew. But on my little video screen, where I should have seen Maestro Garcia-Novelli, I only saw an empty podium. “Where the heck is he?” I thought to myself. Still nothing. It was seconds but it felt like minutes as I watched the screen, waiting for the conductor to appear so the piece could begin. (You have to understand that one of the hallmarks of the Carthage program is seamlessness – so when there is a halt in the proceedings like this, it feels as disastrous as if someone dropped their tuba on the grand piano during Silent Night. “Dead Air” is unacceptable in the Carthage Christmas Festival.)
The trouble, in fact, was not with Maestro Garcia-Novelli but rather with the screen itself – which was erroneously trained on the podium of Dr. Ripley, the wind orchestra conductor, rather than on the choral podium, on which Maestro Garcia- Novelli, unbeknownst to me, was in fact standing. (I should explain that when you’re playing the Carthage organ, you are facing directly away from everyone else, to the back wall. And because the choir itself was standing right behind me on the risers, I had absolutely no sight line of the conductor at all. When I’m playing the organ with the choir completely shielding me, I feel a little like a little old guy behind the curtain in “The Wizard of Oz.” ) So not once or twice but three times he dramatically raised his baton and conducted a down beat to start the piece, and got nothing but silence where there should have been an energetic 7/8 organ introduction. (I can only imagine his mounting panic over the course of those few seconds. It’s not just that I can’t see him- he can’t see me either and has to take it on faith that I’m on the bench, ready to play. He heard me give the pitch for the first piece, so he had to know that I hadn’t wandered off – but I’m sure he was starting to wonder if the organ had gotten accidentally turned off or if I had suffered a stroke – or both.)
About the time I finally whispered to the students directly behind me “I can’t see him – Is he there?” he was whispering to the singers “tell him to start” and as soon as I heard that, I realized I needed to begin – but I had to do so without being able to see the conductor or follow his beat…. and he had no way of knowing that this was the problem, so as I begin playing, he’s conducting as though I can see him and follow him. . . which I can’t. He in fact is forced to follow me, as he probably figured out pretty quickly. So that’s how we did this piece, with the organist flying blind and the conductor doing his best to follow and keep the choir and organ together. . . and then maybe six measures from the end the offstage technicians realized their error and switched inputs to the proper podium. Suddenly, there was Maestro Garcia-Novelli on my screen, a couple more gray hairs on his head. . . and we finished triumphantly. But for most of the piece it was a rather unsettling wild ride.
It only occurred to me much later that this is one of the best reasons to know your music incredibly well. If you only know it sort of well, then at the first sign of unexpected trouble things have a way of unraveling in spectacular fashion. But when you have been rehearsed as thoroughly as the Carthage Choir has, you own these pieces as though they were written for you and as though you have been singing them all your lives. And when you know a piece that well, then a few technical glitches and unexpected surprises will not derail you. And when all goes as planned, as I trust they will tonight and tomorrow afternoon, you can count on truly glorious things happening.
p.s. – The backstage technicians tripped over themselves apologizing for their error before I even had a chance to point it out to them. And I am quite confident that this particular error will not be repeated.
pictured above: a moment from the Christmas Festival dress rehearsal. This is the Carthage Choir, and you can see the pipe organ behind them.