A little before 6 p.m. on a Sunday evening, I’m in the back seat of a car driven by Joe Newberry, the director of communications for the North Carolina Symphony. His front seat passenger is David Marschall, the Assistant Principal Violist of the North Carolina Symphony. As I join the pair on a jaunt to Pinecrest High School in Southern Pines, they tell me about the peculiarities of working in a touring symphony orchestra.
“They used to call it the ‘Suitcase Symphony,’” Newberry says.
That’s because, unlike most orchestras, the North Carolina Symphony travels across the state, performing at schools and in concert halls for all North Carolinians, not just those who live close to its Raleigh home base.
I’d hoped to ride on the bus with the larger coterie of symphony members but couldn’t, because of insurance issues. That ended up being just as well—a bus carrying the North Carolina Master Chorale breaks down on the way to the gig in Southern Pines, and those passengers are redistributed to the symphony’s main two buses.
The 62-member Master Chorale is joining the symphony for a program called “A Baroque Christmas,” which features works by Bach and Handel. It’s part of a month of holiday-themed programming that dominates the symphony’s schedule from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
“Before I came here, it was grueling. The real old-timers say that they’d go out on Monday morning and come back Friday afternoon, week after week,” Marschall says of the touring schedule. He joined the symphony in 1987. “By the time I got here, we only had a dozen or 15 hotel nights a year. Now, we just have a handful.”
The reduction in road time doesn’t mean the symphony doesn’t have as much statewide exposure. In fact, it’s gotten easier for the orchestra: Marschall and Newberry both credit governor Jim Hunt’s highway-building initiatives with significantly reducing the number of hours the musicians have to spend on the bus. The symphony can access cities like Wilmington, one of a few that once required overnight stays, in a fraction of the time it used to take them, thanks to Interstate 40.
“We really do get around,” Marschall confirms. “We just get there quicker.”
The symphony used to travel to perform at more schools, too, but the opening of Meymandi Concert Hall in 2001 as the symphony’s home venue gave the symphony a place to host elementary school groups (usually fourth-graders) visiting from across over North Carolina.
Newberry pulls into the parking lot of Pinecrest High School for the 7:30 performance a little before 7 p.m., beating the buses by a few minutes. In rock club settings, bands arrive to a venue early in the evening, to load in, set up, check their instruments and then figure out a way to spend a few hours between soundcheck and showtime. The symphony’s slim margin comes as a surprise, then. The musicians don’t get a standard soundcheck, though the performances do require extensive set-up. A three-person road crew arrives to each venue with a truck full of chairs and stands about two hours before the symphony does.
All this traveling comes on top of the symphony’s regular, almost weekly performances in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. During an average week, symphony members will spend 20 hours onstage for formal rehearsals and performances. This is outside of each musician’s own private practices. Marschall compares it to the life of an athlete, going so far as to point out the physical effects of so much practice. Tendonitis and carpal tunnel are common ailments, and shoulder problems are frequent, too—think about how a flute player holds an instrument, and imagine having to hold your arms like that for 40 or so hours a week.
“There’s a lot of stretching and rehab and recovery,” Marschall says. “We have to take care of our bodies really well.”
Though the musical fare is lighter this time of year, the symphony does end up spending more time on the road with its holiday pops. For some smaller North Carolina towns like Clinton, Murfreesboro and Elizabeth City, these performances are the only symphony stops. For Marschall, those one-offs are the most special.
“We go to these little towns and maybe we’ll play the concert in a local church, and the whole town will come out,” Marschall says. “The place will be packed, and they’ll have their Christmas sweaters on.”
Newberry says that these pops shows, both at home and away, are often opportunities for the symphony to engage with audiences who otherwise might not consider themselves classical music fans. Children’s reactions, he says, are especially telling.
“I watch the audience every performance, and there’s a kid who starts conducting. And once it hits them, they’re conducting through the end of the piece,” Newberry notes. “You never know when you’re going to draw somebody in.”
The symphony has a few more chances for you to be drawn in before 2015 comes to an end. This weekend features the Cirque Musica Holiday Spectacular. And as always, the annual New Year’s Eve in Vienna program will ending the year on a high note.