On being … surreal

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 event.

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 brought.

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 that?

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 tears. 

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


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