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My four-day playing stint with the Modesto Symphony is now over, so we are back In The Woods.

Whenever I return home after the intensity of playing in an orchestra, it feels anti-climatic. This usually lasts for a few days until the rhythm of my tranquil home life settles back into my bones.

I am living a very rich and varied life, really. But this feeling of let-down is unfamiliar to me. In the past, my work has been much more regular, going from one concert to the next in quick succession. This new freelance routine, playing in orchestras about once a month, is new and different.

I maintain my “chops” (lip muscles) with daily practice at home. This is essential for brass instruments in particular; it’s all-too-easy to lose muscle tone if a few days go by without playing. It’s amazing how quickly I lose strength if I don’t practice every day.

I usually practice at least an hour, sometimes two. This keeps me in reasonable enough shape to play strongly in the orchestra, although the demands of performing in an ensemble are much greater than sitting alone in the practice room.

It was especially stimulating to play in the Modesto Symphony for the first time. It was a whole new musical environment, new people, different concert hall, different conductor.

I put out a lot of energy to fit into this new musical family. Yes, orchestras are families of a sort. Each ensemble has its own group dynamic (no pun intended!). I’m amazed at the variety of “vibes” in each ensemble I play in. Just like real families have their particular group flavor.

The Modesto Symphony is currently in an upswing. What was considered to be a rather backwater, almost-amateur orchestra for many years now has a new conductor, who is very exciting and demanding. There is also a brand-new Performing Arts Center with excellent acoustics. I would say that it’s one of the best concert halls I’ve ever played in. This is the orchestra’s very first season in the new hall.

It was very nice to be immersed in an environment with such positive energy. I made sure to mention this to the orchestra’s General Manager as I headed out the stage door after my final performance on Saturday night.

This building was underwritten by the Gallo wine family. This part of California’s Central Valley has many vineyards, and the Gallos have certainly made their mark in the region. I was very pleasantly surprised to see this new concert hall; no-one had told me about it.

I wasn’t expecting the Modesto Symphony to sound as good as it did. The ensemble has some local players, as well as commuters from the Bay Area and Central Valley who have played in the orchestra for many years.

Then there is the “Freeway Philharmonic” phenomenon that I described in a previous post. These musicians work in a variety of area orchestras and the freelance scene is quite competitive, so the overall playing quality is quite high. Subs are expected to fit into the ensemble immediately, as though they had been a part of the ensemble for years.

This is a new and exciting way of playing for me, although I’ve felt over-stimulated occasionally. It’s a challenge to be “on” all the time.

I have been freelancing for four months now, and am gradually getting used to the rhythm of it. I am starting to become a familiar face on the Freeway Philharmonic circuit, which will hopefully lead to more work.

This initial orchestra playing season as a “sub” hopefully lays the foundation for more playing opportunities in the future.

Fortunately I have acquitted myself well in these various ensembles so far, and my musical colleagues have expressed interest in having me return.

James and I drove down to Modesto on Monday for the first rehearsal.

It was somewhat a shock to delve deeply into the Central Valley, which is such a different world than where we live!

It is one of the nation’s major “bread-baskets”, an important agricultural area which produces much of our country’s fruits and vegetables, as well as beef. Those of you who hail from the Midwest would feel quite at home in California’s Central Valley. The soil is rich and the land is flat as a tabletop.

Along with the geography, the demographics of the region couldn’t be more different than the Nevada City area. The valley has always had a large Hispanic population, and now many Asians, while the area in which I live hardly has any at all. There are many more rich retired white folks in Nevada City/Grass Valley.

So Modesto has a very different atmosphere, both literally and figuratively, than out here In the Woods. I could catch the faint whiff of cattle and hay while walking the downtown streets of Modesto. There are bilingual signs in the stores. Staccato bursts of Spanish can be heard on the sidewalks.

The town seems very laid-back, much more so than cities in the Bay Area. People are friendly and don’t seem to be in quite as much of a hurry as their counterparts nearer the bay.

On Monday night after the first rehearsal, and from Thursday through Sunday afternoon, James and I stayed at “Yonder House” at my brother’s in Sacramento. I am grateful that Middle Bro’ makes it much more possible for me to pursue my freelancing career by being able to stay at the family “compound”, whenever I have playing jobs in the area.

From his house, it’s just under 80 miles to the Gallo Center in Modesto. It takes an hour and twenty-five minutes to get there, which is not a horrible commute. At least I don’t have to do it every day!

I was fortunate to have James’ company on Monday and again on Friday, when we drove down to Modesto together. He went shopping while I played the afternoon dress rehearsal, then joined me for dinner before the evening performance, which he also attended.

I drove by myself up and back on Thursday and again on Saturday, arriving back in Sacramento close to midnight.

The orchestra sounded good on the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and on Brahms 2nd Symphony. I played “assistant” horn, helping the Principal by playing certain loud passages to give his lip a rest for his big solos.

Playing Assistant is very challenging, because I spend most of the time just sitting there waiting to play; I didn’t have my own part as the others do. And this particular Principal horn in Modesto didn’t use the Assistant nearly as much as he could have. He’s a very strong player and seemed to want to play as much as he could.

However, I did feel good about my occasional contributions and knew that my presence helped the horn section, and therefore by extension, the orchestra.

As I mentioned earlier, this first season of freelancing is concerned with laying the groundwork for more opportunities later on. Hopefully the Personnel Manager of the Modesto Symphony will think of me first when they need a sub next time.

My white tie and tails are now back in the closet in its suit-bag, probably until the middle of next month when I play with the Symphony Silicon Valley in San Jose for one of their concert sets.

I especially look forward to playing 2nd horn on Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” and Richard Strauss’ “Til Eulenspiegel” and selections from his opera “Rosenkavalier”. These are all great horn parts and 2nd horn plays more than any other position in the horn section, so I am going from one extreme to the other — quite a contrast from my sparse playing in Modesto.

This is my life lately: extremes. But it’s all good.

Back In the Woods: The weather has continued to be clear and slightly warmer, so the foot and a half of snow is gradually melting. However, there is still plenty of it around. My eyes are dazzled as I look out at the sunlit meadow, covered in white.

James and I were glad to find that we were able to get back up our dirt roads without chains upon our return from Sacramento yesterday afternoon.

We hope that we’ve passed the most severe part of winter, but it is entirely possible that we will experience more snow and cold temperatures before Spring comes. Who KNOWS, these days? Weather is so unpredictable lately.

It was almost warm in Sacramento on Saturday. There were even a few mosquitoes out on the back patio!

My oldest brother came down from the Placerville area to play his usual weekend tennis with his group, and then stopped by the house afterwards. It’s always great to see him, and I feel very blessed that all three of us brothers live in the same general area now. This is especially important since our parents have passed away.

I wish that a picture had been taken of the three of us propping up a tree in the back yard which blew down in the severe windstorm of early January. The root system was still intact and Middle Bro’ was just waiting until the ground dried out sufficiently to prop the tree back up.

We were assisted by James and by my nephew — in fact, my sister-in-law also lend a hand until she got her slippers wet! It was fairly easy to raise this tree up with the five of us; then Middle Bro’ wrapped rope around the trunk and attached it to stakes which he’d driven deep into the ground, which was still moist enough but not soggy.

So from this day forth I will always think of this tree as our “Family Tree”, because all three brothers were involved in its resurrection, along with the spouses (except for Oldest Bro’s, who is visiting her sister in Alaska).

I am keeping my fingers crossed that the Family Tree will once again thrive. It didn’t seem to suffer much from lying on its side for a month; its leaves were still mostly green.

I truly enjoyed my time with the Modesto Symphony, along with seeing the family in Sacramento, but it is SO nice to be back home In the Woods now!