For a complete change of pace, I decided to take most of the summer off, starting in June and going through mid-September. I agreed to participate in a couple isolated events, but they are not with the usual suspects. One of them occurred in early June.
I was sitting around, working on the two books—yes, I have almost finished one and started another—when an interesting proposal popped up on my computer screen. To comprehend what it really meant, you must understand that the cultural history of Missouri is quite complicated. We are only 300 miles south of Chicago, but Memphis is just down river. Are we considered part of the South or the North?
Probably both, and as St. Louis-born comedian Kathleen Madigan likes to point out, “I don’t even know if we were in the Civil War.” But most people in this now-conservative state—remember that Democrats Truman, Eagleton, Symington, and McCaskill represented the people of Missouri in past years—believe that we are connected more directly with our neighbors below.
So, it came as a surprise to learn that NASCAR, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, an extremely popular sport in the southern states, had never held a major event in the St. Louis region. That was about to be rectified, because the World Wide Technology Raceway, located just across the Mississippi River in Madison, Illinois, announced that it would host the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series. Over the course of three days, there would be an opportunity to showcase many talents from the region on five stages set up near the track.
The St. Louis Symphony was invited to participate, and since Music Director Stéphane Denève was out of town, they invited me to conduct. I suggested Bruckner Five as a lively piece to play for the crowd, but the powers that be only wanted us to back a singer for the national anthem. Having never seen an auto race, I thought that it was about time to attend one, and so I accepted.
We had a short rehearsal a few days before the event, but the singer, Kennedy Holmes, had come down with Covid and couldn’t make it. We played through the arrangement anyway. I joked to the orchestra that nothing in all our years of study had prepared us for this assignment. We spent all of five minutes on the “Banner” and felt that we could do it justice.
On the day of the race, the musicians gathered at Powell Hall at 9:30 in the morning. A bus transferred us to the venue because we were warned that traffic would be impossibly jammed. On the other hand, I figured that for getting home, there would be plenty of drivers around. The problem was that our sound check was not until 12:30, and we would not perform for two hours after that.
When we got to the parking lot, golf carts and SUVs shuttled us to the rehearsal space and lounge area. At one point, the vehicle I was in actually drove on the racetrack, which was very cool. For about 30 seconds, I felt like Kyle Petty, if he were a passenger rather than a driver. The facility was comfortable and overlooked what appeared to be a drag strip. For those of you unfamiliar with that term, it has nothing to do with gender identity or fashion.
After spending some quality time with the members of the orchestra, we were once again ensconced in various vehicles and taken to the stage where we would perform. I met Ms. Holmes, who is quite lovely and poised. Why shouldn’t she be? After all, four years earlier, she had placed fourth on The Voice and now, at the ripe age of 17, could have a truly blockbuster career.
From our vantage point onstage, we had a great view of the grandstand and track. But our attempts at rehearsing were somewhat mitigated by the rock band on the platform next to us. When they finally finished, we went through the anthem twice. Everyone seem satisfied, and all we had to do was wait two hours before the actual performance.
This was being nationally televised with potential to garner some attention for the orchestra. I am in favor of these different showcases, as it puts a more human touch on what we do. It does not matter if anyone attending the race has ever stepped foot in Powell. At least they, as well as several million people watching at home, can see and hear the musicians.
Just as we were about to start, I was informed that two things would occur during our presentation. First was the now-obligatory fireworks at the lines, “And the rocket’s red glare / The bombs bursting in air.” Nothing like celebrating a war to add a festive touch on this occasion. And there would also be a fly-over at the very end by four fighter jets. Neither of these took place during the rehearsal, so none of us knew what it would sound like. It certainly couldn’t be as loud as the cars that would start their engines after we played, or so I thought.
The bursting bombs were not overwhelming and only lasted a couple seconds. But those magnificent men in their flying machines created a whole new category of noise in my dictionary. Deafening, roaring, thunderous, ear-splitting, not to mention molto fortissimo, could not begin to describe the sound and fury that caused the stage to shake, rattle, and roll. I have never heard anything like it, and this is coming from a man who sat in front of Maynard Ferguson once.
What apparently happened is that we took the anthem a bit slower than anticipated, and the pilots could not slow their approach to the raceway. As a conductor, I should have been able to tell them that they came in too early, but they were long gone before it was possible for me to communicate with them. I did feel sorry for Ms. Holmes, as she did a beautiful job and the attention should have been on her.
We departed the stage, believing that we would simply return to our conveyances, get taken to the buses, and then return to Powell. But getting out of the facility while the race was on proved to be more difficult than expected. We drove around and around, sometimes paralleling the stock cars, which were speeding at around 160 mph. Finally, our driver found the tunnel that got us out, but the 30 minutes it took gave us all an opportunity to see some of the race. It was not nearly as loud as those military aircraft.
I am not sure if I will include this event in my biography for next season.
Also of note, it was announced that I will become the Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria beginning in September. I led them a few months ago and fell in love with the musicians and the island. After the performance, which took place in their stunning auditorium overlooking the ocean, it was clear that we had a special chemistry.
I began a steady stream of communication with Karel Chichon, the music director, and we seem to have hit it off, having many things in common. He has done a great job building the orchestra, and I look forward to seeing them in October.
Cindy and I will take a two-week holiday in July consisting of five days in Costa Rica and an eight-day cruise on the Amazon—not the warehouse. I wonder if piranha make tasty eating?
See you next month,