Friday, February 22, 2008

Day 32 "In the trenches" (Tally-ho the weekend edition)

Quick hit today: another VMC concert weekend coming up, though this time the guest artist is presenting a couple of masterclasses, rather than a concert. Which makes for equally long hours but a much lower stress level. The only clientele/audience who have to "get their money's worth" are the students in the Celtic Ensemble. Bringing in a dance expert from Houston who comes highly recommended, and who is offering the workshops at a reduction of his usual rate--in exchange for an opportunity to spend a chunk of Sunday birding.

Seriously: hard-core birders move here, or retire here, from around the country, because of the quality of the avian wildlife. When we contacted him, and he quoted us a price, we took the stance that we often take as we try to build something-out-of-nothing, spit-and-bailing-wire way up here in the Great Wide Open: "well, look, X completely reasonable price and we completely understand if you can't help us--but X minus Y per cent is what we can actually afford to pay. If you can't do it, we understand, but if you can, we'll really appreciate it and we'll make sure you have a pleasant time." That's how, over the past seven years, we've built an Irish music scene that now has the reputation for being the best combination of friendly and high-calibre in the whole frickin' state.

And then when they do get here, we try to treat them as well as we possibly can: transport, accommodations, meals, support materials, timetables, levels and types of input, student attentiveness, you name it. As a colleague on staff says "up here, we learn how to make our own fun." And, equivalently, we try to make damned sure that our guests providing us a cut-rate have at least as much fun.

The first time Dharmonia's early music presenting organization brought a great theorbo duo here, from New York, we made them feel like rock stars. The theorbo looks roughly like a cross between a lute and a clipper ship's mainmast and rigging: the body is lute-sized and -shaped, but the neck is about 5 feet long, and has a vast collection of outrigger strings. If you stand at the right angle to the breeze with this thing, you'll hear it singing like an Aeolian harp; and if you look at it wrong, the neck gets hurt.

Anyway, these New York guys came into town, and Dharmonia's crew made sure to treat them like royalty: chauffeur them around, house them gently, surprise them with the quality of the restaurants (and the lack of wait for a table), provide faculty colleagues who'll walk in and nail the Caccini arias for the continuo demonstration (and then treat them like respected colleagues rather than kitchen help), get them featured prominently on local radio and local TV, sell a bucket of their CDs at a very well-attended conference, and then deliver them to a small regional airport at which they get ticketed and clear security in about 12 minutes. For guys used to 3 hours wait at La Guardia, and NYC early music audiences 1/4 the size and 1/8 as friendly as our local audience, this was all a shockingly pleasant surprise.

And then, when they were going security with the "Hi, how are y'all?" TSA folks at the airport, one of the staff came up with the ultimate, coincidental motivator: she looked at the guys, and their instruments, and said "Hey, we seen you on the TV!" The guys were so gassed by this that Dan turned around, from behind the security rope, and, just as went through the X-ray scanner, and yelled "Hey, how soon can we come back?!?"

That's the kind of friendly and kind vibe and experience we try to create for our visitors. It's facilitated by the fact that we are, most of us, generally friendly and kind people--I leave Dr Coyote, a notorious Prince of Darkness, out of that equation--and so it's not hard to create that atmosphere. It's also facilitated by the fact that we are, most of us, touring performers ourselves, and so we have some sense of what you want, and don't want, when you're on the road playing music: the biggest peril in touring with niche musics is that you'll be housed, chauffeured, or otherwise "assisted" by volunteers who mean well, but have no such clue. I still remember the time that Dharmonia and I, with our medieval music quartet, arrived at the Houston airport on a day with probably 85 degrees of heat and 90 per cent humidity, with all our instruments, to be greeted by a volunteer with a compact car, who then, when we had laboriously and uncomfortably packed ourselves into her car, insisted that "what [we'd] really enjoy would be a tour of my alma mater", and then drove us around and around the campus of fuckin' Rice University for almost two hours before finally delivering us to our host's home, where we then had to sit and make-nice for two hours more before we could even unpack, shower, or take a nap.

We're a lot more on-the-ball than that, anyway--and if the visiting dance teacher wants to go off Sunday morning, the day after 4 hours of workshops, and drive the back farm-to-market routes looking for these little guys, we're happy to oblige:

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