The Life of the Long-Distance Conductor….


…or Planes, Trains and Hotels….

Over at the Inside the Classics blog, conductor Sarah Hatsuko Hicks has written about her travels and what it’s like to be on the road most of the time, her activities, rehearsals, free time, food, etc.  Conductors travel a lot.  So Evan Quinn needs to travel to gigs in other places.  I needed to think about where he’d settle as his “home base,” too.  Perceval opens with him on tour, conducting at the last stop on this tour — Vienna.  I’ve lived in Vienna and had always wanted to set a story there, so almost by default, Vienna became Evan’s home base.

For Evan’s travels, I have a choice of either showing him during the actual trip or skipping that travel to place him immediately at his destination.  What I include depends on the purpose of the travel and how it affects Evan or moves the story forward.  Any kind of actual travel, whether Evan walks from one room into another or boards a plane to fly to another city, threatens to be what I call “narrative dead time.”

But travel is a part of a conductor’s life.  Even conductors with stable music directorships accept guest conducting gigs and can travel to the other side of the planet for them.  Evan’s a guest conductor, not yet a music director (or chief conductor), and he must go where the work is.  In that regard, conductors are unique musicians or “instrumentalists.”  Their instruments are a group of people playing musical instruments and its highly unlikely a guest conductor would have his own to carry around as a violinist could have his own instrument, for example.  So, conductors are dependent on invitations from orchestras to conduct — and getting invited back.

What’s it like for a conductor on the road?  Is he treated like royalty because he’s a conductor?  I once saw Georg Solti, music director of the Chicago Symphony at the time, waiting alone at the curb near Orchestra Hall’s stage door for his ride to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport.  It was a January day with a brutally cold wind chill, but he waited outdoors.  No posse followed him around, no one hailed a taxi for him.  We called him back inside to wait in the warm building and he protested, he didn’t want his driver to miss him.  As if the driver wouldn’t know to run into the building for him…. 

Conductors are like any frequent travelers and few, if any, travel with a retinue.  They deal with TSA security checks, long layovers, crowded flights, missed connections, jet lag (especially jet lag), lost luggage, bad or weird food, indigestion from the bad or weird food, bad weather, how to get laundry done, boring hotel rooms and being alone.  Sometimes they travel with spouses or significant others (I know of one conductor whose wife was his manager), but most of the time, they travel alone. 

On a flight to Albany, New York one August, I observed a conductor immersed in a music score for the entire flight.  He sprinted out of the plane as soon as the doors opened at the gate.  I have kept these images of this conductor in my mind ever since thinking that conductors must work on music scores not only on flights but waiting to board flights or in hotel rooms.   

A guest conductor would spend most of his time at a guest conducting gig in rehearsal, meeting with musicians, doing publicity for his concerts, and conducting the concerts.  Free time activities would be unique to the conductor’s interests and the amount of time he might have.  I know of one conductor who loves baseball and tried to attend games in the places he conducted.  Another enjoyed exploring museums, fine dining and theater.  I imagine Evan going on runs in the mornings to explore the city he’s in and its sights, filling his days with work, then enjoying a really good dinner, some TV and sleep. 

Travel for work, whether for an executive or musician, is not glamorous.  It’s exhausting as in jet lag exhausting, constantly-on-the-road exhausting.  It takes stamina.  The social connections, while warm, friendly and helpful, tend to be superficial.  And as interesting as a new city might be, as exciting and rewarding as the work is, it’s still a lonely life.  Especially for guest conductors like Evan who spend more time on the road than they do at home.  That loneliness can be painful, depressing.  Dealing with the loneliness becomes a challenge.  And fodder for me in writing Evan’s life and his responses to the world.

So, in the end, travel for Evan is an opportunity for character development, Evan’s life as a long-distance conductor.  How does he react to his surroundings, to the people he meets and to his situations there?  I have the opportunity to show his commitment to and love for music, the satisfaction of a performance well done, his joy in making music.  And I have the opportunity to explore the future in travel and urban development (or not), grounded in research.    

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2 responses to “The Life of the Long-Distance Conductor….

  1. I’ve known quite a few people who traveled extensively for their jobs. None of them particularly cared for it. One fellow had over a million frequent flier miles. He was going back & forth to China monthly for a while, and traveling all over the world even more often. He laughed, because he’d never be able to use them all, especially with America’s concept of a vacation being a week, or perhaps a decadent 2 weeks.

    For a work project, I traveled a bit. Being on a per diem, and not having to either cook or make my own bed in the morning was pretty nice. Going out to dinner with the business associates could be pleasant. But it was so lonely, even if it wasn’t solitary. These people didn’t know me. They were friendly, but they weren’t friends. There was no continuity to it all. I’d go back to Michigan, they’d go home, and life would continue with some data/money exchanged.

    I attended the annual conference of a professional society every year for about 5 years. I knew several people, they were fun to be with at the conference, we participated with a list-serve to exchange ideas/experiences/news. Last time I did was 4 years ago. I was at a conference this week here in Mpls, and saw one of the people I spoke to on a regular basis at this other conference. He had no idea who I was. While not surprising, it demonstrates how superficial these relationships are. I might go for a few years without seeing you or the people at Stammtisch, but I’m quite certain I would remember you. Because that group of people isn’t superficial to me.

    I can see how Evan would be lonely or isolated.

    An interesting idea pops into my head – I apologize if I mentioned it before. It has to do with traveling & memories:
    At a week-long class out-of-town, I was sitting on the hotel bed, with the t.v. on, doing ‘homework’. The show was HBO’s From Earth to the Moon. [ a spectacular series of 12 or 13 episodes chronicaling NASA space program from Gemini to Mercury to Apollo] The episode was the on about the Apollo 11 mission. The show got to the high tension point-people sitting around, glued to their t.v. sets waiting for that amazing shot of John Glenn jumping off the Eagle lander.

    I was abruptly struck by a violently clear memory of sitting in my parents’ den watching t.v. I can vaguely remember my dad waking me up at some god-awful hour to watch t.v. (the only thing I could imagine it having been was this event). anyway – I could so clearly see the t.v. set, the horribly-60s rug, the coffee table … Things I have never seen in photographs in intervening 30+ years.

    I find it odd … I’ve seen that shot countless times, as have we all, in the past 39 years. Why trigger the memory at that moment?

    I was completely focused on the show, which put the film footage in a context, not just some sterile news reel. And, I think, the fact that I wasn’t home. There was nothing to distract me from giving the t.v. my total attention. There was nothing familiar around.

    Like a background “white noise”, the absence of anything familiar became visual “white noise”, letting my subconscious paint something on it. In this case, the image of something real that ‘fit’ with the object of my attention.

    Of course, I could just be delusional (about the reasoning, the memory of the den was real).

  2. Memories can be triggered by just about anything, at any time. That moment for you may have been “special” to trigger that family memory not only because you were in an unfamiliar place, but also there could have been sounds or smells or something about the television, etc. that made it more likely than not that the memory popped up.

    I actually explore memory in the Perceval novels and Evan’s experiences dealing with his. It’s a fascinating subject and terribly misunderstood by the general public.

    It was Neil Armstrong, not John Glenn, who took the first step on the moon….(smile)

    Business travel is definitely not glamorous. I’ve done some myself and never have enjoyed it much, although I’ve enjoyed meeting the people. I don’t know why people tend to think of a conductor’s life as being glamorous…..

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