Performance with the Cincinnati Pops
February 2008


 

 

This past February, I played the theremin part in Miklós Rózsa's score for the 1945 Hitchcock suspense film Spellbound with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra : three live performances (to a full house each night) and a recording session for Telarc. It all went very well and everyone was happy with my work, including Maestro Erich Kunzel, the Orchestra director.

However, the first part of the trip was not without a major snafu. When I got to the airport to check in, the ticket counter agent informed me that I would have to pay excess baggage charges since I was checking four pieces of luggage -- $50 each for two of them. I expected that, and said so.

She came around with a measuring tape and informed me that one of them was over-size - another $50.

She had me hoist them up on the scale. She said that any article over 50 lbs. would incur an over-weight charge of $50. I told her I understood that as well. Then, she said any bag from 70-100 lbs. would incur an over-weight charge of $100. That was not stated on their web site and I said so. Her response was, basically, "Like it or lump it."

One of my road cases was 63 lbs., so that was another $50. Then another one was 117 lbs and the last one was 123 lbs. She told me that because of the weight, they could not accept the two heaviest cases as luggage. The maximum allowable weight was 100 lbs.

I really put on an act for her, water-works and all, saying I was due to perform with a major orchestra and that if I did not get my road cases on the plane I would be unable to fulfill my commitment to them. I told her I had checked beforehand with both the airline (Delta) and TSA, carefully explaining what I was bringing and asking if there would be any issues, including security. Delta said they had no issues with the items being checked as baggage as long as I was willing to pay the overages, and TSA said there were no security issues involved, that people checked musical instruments as baggage all the time.

Anyway, after explaining all that, she said she would go talk to the "Baggage Supervisor" or whatever the title was, to see what she could do. She walked away. I waited, and waited, and waited. Some 20 minutes later she returned and said she "could not find" the supervisor. She gave me a look of real pity and said, "I am going to do what I can for you." She typed in a bunch of stuff on her computer terminal, then attached yellow "HEAVY" stickers to the three cases. She wrote weights of 64, 99 and 97 lbs on them. She said, "That will be $450 for your overages. Whew. That was a bit more than I expected to pay, but what could I do.

She then called a porter over and asked him to take the bags directly to x-ray. I thanked her, fully aware of the "sleight of hand" she had pulled for me, and followed him to x-ray.

There were no further hassles at x-ray. The TSA representative running the machine looked at the two large cases and asked me what they contained. I told her, "Musical instruments." She just waved them through. The only thing she scanned was my suitcase and the smaller road case.

THAT was a close call, "too close for comfort."

(I went into all this detail as a word of caution to other people who may be planning to travel with excess luggage, especially big heavy road cases. You'll be much smarter to send them ahead of time. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.)

I had arrived two hours early in case there was any difficulty, so I had plenty of time on my hands. I wandered around the airport for a while, got am early lunch, and then got on the plane. The flight was smooth and uneventful - but I am glad I ate first, as Delta no longer offers meal service on this flight. All they handed out were puny packs of snacks and sodas.

When I had first started checking weather forecasts in Cincinnati, it actually was warmer out there than it was in Los Angeles! One day it was 63 degrees out there and 51 here! However, the warm spell did not last. When I exited the airport to take the shuttle to the car rental place, a blast of incomprehensibly cold air blew over me. I had had the foresight to bring a leather jacket, hat, gloves and scarf, so I was prepared. But it was f-r-r-r-r-r-r-e-e-e-e-e-zing COLD nonetheless! I asked the shuttle driver what the temperature was: "21 degrees, and they're forecasting snow and sleet for tomorrow." Great.

I got my rental car, a really nice Chevrolet Uplander mini-van, drove to the hotel and checked in. My accommodations were very grand, roomy and comfortable -- a 15th-floor suite at the Garfield Suites Hotel almost walking distance from Music Hall. It was actually a small apartment - entryway, kitchenette with full appliances including dishwasher, hall closet, bathroom, large walk-in closet, bedroom, dining room and living room; and all with high ceilings. Large windows offered a stunning panoramic view of downtown Cincinnati.


The view from my hotel bedroom window.

 
I had a good night's rest, working my jet lag off right away - a hot bubble bath went a long way toward that effort! The next morning I got up, had a light breakfast, and drove over to Music Hall.

 
I met the Orchestra Personnel Manager, the Production manager and the Stage Manager. They assisted me with bringing my instruments in and getting situated.

The Stage Manager showed me where I would be setting up -- upstage left along the very back wall of the onstage area. I wasn't really happy about that since it's harder to hear the orchestra when you are behind everyone, but he had already explained that that would be the best place for me since there would be acrobats, jugglers and aerialists performing upstage, and in view of avoiding interference with the theremin, they felt that would be the safest place for me. That did make sense, but I did still had some misgivings about it. I was elevated on a platform about 18 inches high and with 8 by 10 feet of floor space. Since I was elevated, there was no problem with the audience seeing me, but the hollow platform did pose a different sort of problem. (More on that below.)

I got everything set up and ran a sound check. WOW! The acoustics there are just fabulous. Music Hall is wonderfully warm and resonant. I did my usual "Clara Rockmore three octave-leaps up and three-octave scale down to 'test the room'" at full volume. Boy, did that ever bring people running! Stage hands, technical people, orchestra staff -- none of them had ever seen a theremin and they were greatly intrigued!

 

—ooOoo—

 
Let me digress for a moment and say a few words about the wonderful 3600-seat Music Hall (among the largest in the U.S.) which was built in 1877.


 
The "great Victorian pile of 3,858,000 red pressed bricks" is architecturally eccentric with garrets, turrets, gables, insets, nooks and broken surfaces and planes. It was designed by the Cincinnati firm of Hannaford and Procter and built in the grand style of the day, often referred to as "modified modernized Gothic" or "romantic eclecticism." Some Cincinnatians affectionately describe it as "Sauerbraten Byzantine."


Music Hall as seen from the park across the street.

 
The interior of Music Hall is decorated in hues of burgundy, light gray, gold and white. In the domed center of the ceiling of the auditorium, an oil painting by Arthur Thomas depicts an Allegory of the Arts. This was part of the Hall's original decorations. Suspended from the center of the dome is a dramatic chandelier of brass and thousands of hand-cut crystals, seemingly light and airy but actually weighing two tons.

 


 

—ooOoo—

 
Back to Day One of the rehearsal.

Maestro Erich Kunzel, Conductor of the Cincinnati Pops, arrived early to meet me and see the theremin. He walked over and introduced himself and gave me a very congenial handshake. He looked the theremin over and asked, "So how do you operate this instrument?" I said, "Well, why don't you stand there in front of it and I'll let you see for yourself"! I showed him where to stand and how to position his hands over the two antennas. I then flicked the stand-by switch and stood back. A low, loud roar issued forth from the speaker! Maestro got sort of a wild look in his eyes as he began moving his hands about, making even more unearthly moans and howls as he tried to make it stop!

I reached over and pushed down the stand-by switch. He stepped back and exclaimed, "This thing is dangerous!" Then he asked me to show him how it was played. I stepped up to it and played a short excerpt of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise. When I stopped, he said with great amazement,"Charles, you are an absolute wizard on that instrument!" We then talked about playing styles and how he wanted the theremin part in Spellbound to sound. He agreed with me that something as close to the original sound would be best. So I set the theremin to its "Schpookey Museek" voicing and played with a good bit of portamento and a nervous vibrato. He smiled and exclaimed, "Perfect!!"

He then took his place at the podium and began the rehearsal. When we got to Spellbound, he introduced me to the orchestra, noting that I had come "all the way from Los Angeles" to play with them. I got a nice welcome-round of applause.

We ran through the piece for the first time. I had been careful not to do a lot of playing before the rehearsal once the orchestra members began coming in, as I wanted to keep the sound of the instrument a surprise. And surprise it was! When I ran down that first high Oooooo, ooooo-eeee-ooooo riff on the theremin, many very startled faces whipped around in my direction, then the looks of surprise melted into big gleeful smiles. At the end of the first run-through, Maestro gestured at me and the orchestra gave me a very warm and enthusiastic "orchestral ovation" with foot-stomping and bow tapping.

However, that first rehearsal did not proceed without mishap. I was of course using my Moog Ethervox, the best (of five) theremins that I own. All was going well when all of a sudden it just, without warning or fanfare, fell silent. The power light was on and the LED panel was lit but character-less. I turned it off and on again, and then there was "gibberish" on the LED panel - scrambled characters that look like the stuff you see when trying to view binary code in an ascii environment.

Maestro Kunzel called out to me, "What's wrong?" I replied, very dumbfounded and red-faced with frustration, "I don't know - my theremin just went 'kaput.'" He said, with some alarm in his voice, "Well, what are you going to do?" I replied, "I do have a second theremin with me; I'll use that one." So I shut the Ethervox off, moved it aside, and turned to the Etherwave Pro which I used for the three live performances. (Fortunately, I had had the foresight to bring both instruments "just in case".)


During rehearsal.

 
The next day, I powered the Ethervox up and it seemed to be fine, other than the LED display fading in and out a couple of times. But I was sufficiently spooked to not even think about using that instrument for the performances because I could not risk another pique of temperament during a live performance. I reluctantly used the lesser Etherwave Pro.


 
(Let me hasten to note that the Etherwave Pro IS a very, very good instrument. However, when you are used to an Ethervox, there's just no comparison. You could say the Ethervox is a Lamborghini and the Etherwave Pro is a Lexus.)

There are several things about the Etherwave Pro that make it a lesser instrument than the Ethervox. For one thing, it does not have as clear and rich a tone quality, especially in the lower ranges. My Ethervox has a full, rich, almost human sonority in the "basso profundo" range where the Etherwave Pro sounds rather flat and electronic.


The naughty Ethervox pouting in the corner.

 
Also, the Etherwave Pro's cabinet is not as steady as the Ethervox. The Ethervox is contained in a large wooden cabinet that stands very securely on four legs. The Etherwave Pro's cabinet is tall and narrow, quite heavy, and is impaled onto a single pole connected to a three-legged stand. Because of its top-heaviness and weight and only being supported on one pole, it jiggles about in response to any movement around it, especially when it's standing on a hollow platform. I was obliged to ask the stage hands for some sand bags to weigh the legs and base down, which did help but not entirely. I had to keep one hand on the volume loop at all times to keep the instrument from shimmering.


Note the sandbags piled around the base.

 
Well, the hardship imposed on me notwithstanding, the performances all went very well.


Taken before the first performance. Don't I just look so dreamy-eyed! (Trying not to look scared s#!t-less!!) I love the red jacket; yes, I asked; no, I could not bring it back with me!

 
At the beginning of each show, Maestro Kunzel made a clever promotion for the Pops' upcoming CD - suggesting to the audience that they were attending rehearsals for the recording session for what would be the Pops' 89th CD! He said that the CD was tentatively entitled something along the lines of "The Golden Age of the Hollywood Film Score," noting that it would contain excerpts from a number of great film scores:

King Kong (1933, score by Max Steiner)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Erich Korngold)
Double Indemnity (1944, Miklós Rózsa)
Spellbound (1945, Miklós Rózsa - the first film score to prominently feature the theremin)
Red Pony (1948, Aaron Copland)
Sunset Boulevard (1950, Franz Waxman)
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Alex North - the first film score to utilize jazz motifs)
A Place in the Sun (1951, Franz Waxman)
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, Victor Young)
From Here to Eternity (1953, George Duning)
Julius Caesar (1953, Miklós Rózsa)
The High and the Mighty (1954, Dimitri Tiomkin)
On the Waterfront (1954, Leonard Bernstein)
North by Northwest (1959, Bernard Herrmann)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, Elmer Bernstein)
Taras Bulba (1962, Franz Waxman)
El Cid (1963, Miklós Rózsa)
Star Wars II (2002, John Williams)

When Maestro Kunzel talked about the Spellbound Concerto, he introduced me and informed the audience that I was from Los Angeles. He told about how the theremin is the only instrument you play without touching, and gestured to me to make a demonstration. I would swoop my hand away from the antenna making a quick, loud moan from it which elicited titters from the audience. Then when Maestro Kunzel quipped, "Sounds like Mr. Lester has been eating at the Skyline [a local restaurant famous for its "Cincinnati Chili"], he got a great roar of laughter!


I stylized this photo with a "water-color" filter just for a fun effect.

 
I briefly mentioned the aerialists and acrobats who were performing with us. This troupe of artists was spectacular and thrilling! Dubbed "Cirque de la Symphonie," they have performed with the Cincinnati Pops several times already. Some of their acts were performed high above the stage on rings. Just absolutely breathtaking. You can see more about them, including a great video presentation, at www.CirqueDeLaSymphonie.com.


Aloysia Gavre, one of the aerialists, poses with the theremin.

 
By the way, the concert received an overall favorable review by the local critic, a few "sniffs" notwithstanding. He did mention the theremin, although focusing more on Maestro Kunzel's "flatulence joke" than on the instrument itself.


Just another instrument in the orchestra!

 
Monday morning, after the three weekend performances, came the recording session with Telarc. The chief recording engineer introduced himself and told me he had worked with a thereminist before: Telarc had recorded the soundtrack CD for the 1994 film Ed Wood, which had featured Russian thereminist Lydia Kavina.

 

 
I hoped against hope that my Ethervox would behave itself for the recording since I really wanted its superior sound to be memorialized. I gave it a go and it worked just fine, to my absolute delight. After two full run-throughs and several short retakes, we were done.

Then came the happy-but-sad chore of packing up my instruments. While I was doing so, I mentioned to the Stage Manager about the enormous cost I had incurred in checking them as luggage. He said, "Well, why don't you arrange to have them shipped back to you instead? Do you need them right away?" I said I did not, so they did arrange to do so. And even agreed to pick up the shipping cost! Even greater still, I was told that the excess baggage cost would be covered as well. Wow! Thanks!!

The aerial journey home was as pleasant as the one out there, actually more pleasant in not having to deal with my huge road cases. I have already decided this will be the way to go from now on.

All in all, it was another glorious, wonderful, dream-like stop on "The Road of Happy Destiny" that I have been trudging along ever since I first began this strange and unforeseen journey that began on a hot August afternoon in 1995, when I sat in the Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles and wept my way through the Steven M. Martin documentary Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey. When I left that theater on a definite mission to find a theremin, little did I know what incredible adventures awaited me. And I do believe the adventure has only just begun!

I'll close by noting that based on this narrative, it may seem that "The Theremin and I" were the highlight, the center of attention, of these performances. While that may be so from my perspective (of course!), I actually had a fairly small part in the overall program — playing only on the one piece, and only an excerpt at that, with one of the key theremin passages cut. Indeed, during the first rehearsal Maestro Kunzel quipped, "You mean I'm paying him all that money for just that little bit of playing?!" I just don't want anyone — especially people from the Cincinnati Pops — to read this and harbor any suspicions that I suffer from delusions of grandeur! (Even though I do, hahaha!)

On the other hand, brief and fleeting though my participation was, I believe the theremin did have a big impact on everyone involved, both on-stage and off. It certainly created quite a stir, in a very positive way. I have already received inquiries from other venues based on my performances in Cincinnati, and indeed have a formal offer in hand to appear as a featured artist with the Indianapolis Symphony in the fall of 2009. But I do just want to make sure my dear readers are aware that this was NOT "The Charles Richard Lester Show, Featuring the Cincinnati Pops!"


My speaker, which, as usual, received many remarks and compliments.

 


 

The Theremin

My Web Site Portal Page

Miklós Rózsa web site performances list
(Scroll down to "Past Performances" and you'll see a reference to my Cincinnati performance)

priscillaneous - "theremininistss"

 

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