By Ingrid Sapona
It’s rare that a single word sums up an event, but what
transpired on Friday really is best described as surreal. For you see, on Friday I got to conduct the Toronto
Symphony Orchestra (TSO). Honest. Now, it’s true that amazing, thrilling, and very
cool also describe the experience. But the way it transpired was simply
surreal. (In case you’re wondering, Merriam-Webster.com defines surreal as:
“very strange or unusual: having the quality of a dream.”)
A couple weeks ago I saw an ad in the
newspaper with the heading: You’re invited to conduct Us! Presented by:
CultureDays and the TSO. I’d never heard of CultureDays so I went on-line to
see what it was all about. To my surprise, this year marks the fifth
anniversary of CultureDays. Turns out it’s a weekend-long, country-wide participative
Eventually I found some details about the
“Conduct Us” event. Basically, on the day of the event, people interested in
conducting had to show up at the symphony hall between 10 and 11 a.m. to
register. Then, at noon the orchestra would come on stage and they’d then draw
names. There were three pieces (each about 2 minutes long) that guest conductors
could choose from. On line there were short videos with Peter Oundjian, the
orchestra’s conductor, describing each piece and demonstrating how to conduct it.
There was Alford’s Colonel Bogey March (in 2:4 time), Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto
(in 3:4 time), and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9: Finale From The New World Symphony
(in 4:4 time).
I was very excited by the idea of
conducting the TSO. I used to play in the band and one of the highlights of junior
high was when the band instructor let some of us conduct a piece. But, I
figured there’d be hundreds of folks like me, so it was a long shot. Still, I
marked the date on my calendar and figured I had time to decide whether I wanted
to even bother going.
In the 10 days or so between when I first
saw the ad and the actual event, there were many ads for it. Each one added to
my belief that the crowd would be huge and the odds long. But, the day before
the event I decided I’d go and at least check it out.
I had no intention of waiting hours in a
long line, so I timed it to arrive at about 10:15. My plan worked beautifully.
The person greeting folks at the door directed me to where you sign in and
there were only a few people ahead of me. Folks who registered were given a
wrist band and told we’d be seated in a section near the stage, in case our
name was called. When I saw that the wristbands were my favourite colour, that
seemed like a good sign.
There was about 90 minutes before the
auditorium opened, and we were free to leave and come back. So, I went and ran
some errands and stopped for a coffee. At the coffee shop I kind of became
overwhelmed with the thought that I’d be picked and that, in fact, I’d go
first. I pushed the thought out of my mind and proceeded to read the book I
I returned to the concert hall a few
minutes before the auditorium was going to open. Before going in, I decided to visit
the ladies room. I found the nearest one and when I walked in, the first thing
I noticed was a conductor’s baton on the counter by the sinks. That seemed
really odd to me. I looked around and there was no one else in the washroom.
Honest to God, my immediate thought was
that it was some kind of Candid Camera stunt where they put out a baton to see if
people might pick it up and practice conducting in the mirror. Well, I was
damned if I was going to be caught so I didn’t dare touch it. I went about my
business and by the time I finished, the baton was gone. Now, how weird it
The main floor of the concert hall was
full. As we waited for the orchestra to file in, I did a quick count and I’d
say there were 60-70 of us with wrist bands. When the MC, a local television
host, came out and talked bit about the event, she said that no major orchestra
has ever invited people from the public to conduct.
After the orchestra tuned up, the MC
introduced the orchestra’s conductor and invited him to pull the name of the first
public conductor. He did and, just as I had envisioned over coffee, he read out
MY NAME. It was truly unbelievable.
Next thing I know I’m back stage and I’m
being asked which piece I’d be conducting. I knew I wanted to do the piece in
3:4 time and when I said that, the conductor said, “Oh, the Tchaikovsky – good
choice”. I had to wait a few minutes because some celebrities had also been invited
to conduct. When they were through, it was my turn. The MC then introduced me as
the first public conductor of the TSO. The conductor walked me to the podium
and pointed to the baton. This time I picked it up!
It was all over in a flash, but I made a
point of savouring the moment. Though I had to focus on trying to keep the
beat, I did my best to look at as many members of the orchestra as I could. And,
as different members looked up, they smiled to reassure me. When we were
finished, the musicians applauded by tapping their bows against their music
stands and stomping on the stage. It was quite overwhelming and I was nearly in
Indeed, the whole thing felt quite surreal.
But, the best part is that it wasn’t a dream – it was a dream come true!
© 2014 Ingrid Sapona