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Since July 14th, I have been in the San Francisco Bay Area, away from my beloved partner and peaceful environment In The Woods.

I am participating in the Midsummer Mozart festival. The musicians are the Bay Area’s best, and conductor George Cleve is considered to be one of the world’s finest interpreters of Mozart’s music. I am honored to be part of this group for the three-week season.

I am very fortunate to be able to stay with my dear violinist friend R.A. in Lafayette, whenever I have gigs in the Bay Area. It is a three-hour drive from my shack In The Woods, and is my home away from home; R.A. and her father always extend a warm welcome. I feel like part of the family here.

These three weeks are very intense. George demands a lot of energy from the podium. He also gives in equal measure. It is truly a magical experience to work with this man, and with such accomplished musicians.

We rehearse Monday through Wednesday nights at a lovely church in downtown Berkeley. Then we give concerts Thursday through Sunday, in various venues scattered around the Bay Area. The final concert of each week takes place at the church, which is our favorite place to play — like the Three Bears story, the acoustics are “just right”.

We begin our final week today, rehearsing Mozart’s opera “Abduction from the Seraglio”. It will be semi-staged. Both performances will take place at the California Theatre in San Jose.

I take the Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) train to Berkeley for the rehearsals. It’s a half-hour ride, followed by a fifteen-minute walk from the station to the church. I have become thoroughly accustomed to this system, after initial confusion at the payment kiosks, turnstiles and transfer points. The trains operate well most of the time. Occasionally there will be glitches such as stopping in the middle of the tracks to re-set the brakes, or riding very slowly over minor obstructions. But overall, I’d have to say that the trains are dependable and punctual.

A more vivid contrast to the peace and quiet of The Woods cannot be found. The Bay Area buzzes and hums with activity. The pace is quick and the numbers of people are extensive. I am always in shock the first day I arrive, but gradually settle into the faster rhythm and lack of privacy.

The only real drawback to this whole experience is being separated from James, who has remained at home to attend to various carpentry projects (very much needed!) and to take care of our cat Rupert. This is the longest we’ve been apart since his mother passed away in 1999, when he flew back to Florida for a couple of weeks.

We miss each other terribly but are being rational about the situation. It’s really best that James stays home, in view of the work that needs to get done on the land. We were basically gone during the month of June, doing Phantom in Sacramento and Music in the Mountains in Grass Valley, and couldn’t attend to the chores.

Another deterrent is that it now costs over $140 to fill the gas tank of the truck, our second vehicle.

Oh well. I will be home a week from today! To use 21st Century vernacular, I am SO looking forward to that.

not “that cigarette”, as the lyrics go — but smoke from numerous fires currently raging throughout Northern California.

The local paper advises that outdoor activity should be avoided today because of heavy smoke from fires surrounding Nevada County.

The news article went on to say that if you can see and smell smoke, you are most likely breathing unhealthy levels of particulate.

It’s the worst particulate levels since the district started measuring air quality 15 years ago; almost 400 micrograms per cubic meter, and the hazardous level is 260.

Our little town is at the top of the priority list because “that’s where we have the most residences in proximity to the fires”, according to Greg Cleveland of the U.S. Forest Service this morning.

No evacuations have been ordered but the complex grew to more than 2,000 acres overnight and inundated the Grass Valley and Nevada City area with heavy smoke.

The Scotchman Fire was on the north side of the South Fork of the Yuba River Monday and stopped about one mile east of town.

This is the fire closest to our house, just over a mile away.

The entire Yuba River Complex is only 5 percent contained, according to authorities.

The U.S. Forest Service, which has established a blaze command center at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley (only a few yards away from our trailer!) says: “The fires are difficult because they’re spread out.”

With only 259 personnel on the fire, the command center is hoping to get more firefighters and equipment in coming days as other blazes die out, the Forest service authority said.

He went on to say that the main area of concern is our little town. The Forest Service will hold a community meeting at 6 p.m. tonight at the local Fire District Hall for a fire update.

At about 10 this morning, I took the following footage of our Airstream trailer at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. It gives you a rough idea of how smoky the air is — but you have to breathe it to really believe it!

My final rehearsal for the Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano is this afternoon at the hall; then I’ll have a three-hour break before the concert.

James suggested driving me to the concert hall — even though it’s only a seven-minute walk from our campsite — to minimize my exposure to the excessive smoke. I am already hacking and coughing, even inside the air-conditioned trailer. There’s a little tickle in the back of my throat which won’t go away.

As for James, he is feeling ever-so-slightly better as a result of taking antibiotics. He also needs to stay indoors as much as possible.

On Saturday afternoon, ominous black clouds filled the sky over the Nevada County Fairgrounds where James and I are staying in our Airstream trailer.

We are currently being hosted by the Fairgrounds management; the summer music festival is going on right here. It’s a much more convenient commute than from our place in The Woods. In fact, it takes me all of seven minutes to walk from our campsite to the concert hall.

Seeing the dark clouds made us hope for rain, which is so desperately needed all over California.

It didn’t precipitate in our immediate area, but other areas reported some brief moisture.

There was a great deal of lightning; over 3000 strikes were reported throughout Northern California which resulted in 602 wildfires.

One of these fires is burning only a mile-and-a-half from our house. We had no idea about any of this until D. called on the backstage telephone yesterday as I was about to play a concert. D. agreed to drive over from Nevada City to notify James at the trailer, since our cell phone was turned off.

They drove up to The Woods to scope things out. D. went up the hill a mile to our neighbors who are situated closest to the fire, while James stayed at our house and gathered together our musical instruments, important papers and computer equipment and put them in the truck.

Needless to say, I was somewhat preoccupied during the concert, wondering how things were going up the hill.

We finally got in touch after the concert and I had returned to the trailer and turned on the phone. James told me that the area was extremely smoky, although the fire had not crossed Scotchman’s Creek just below the neighbors’. The wind had just shifted and was coming in from the southwest, so the fire would be heading away from our neighborhood.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

Several hours later, I met James and D. at D&L’s house in Nevada City to help unload the harps and trunks. We were grateful that they were willing to take care of our instruments. We transferred the trunks into the Scion where they will remain until the fire danger has passed.

Today we’ve been in touch with the neighbor as well as L., who told us that the fire is not spreading further, but is smouldering out. Hooray! The winds are light and are not expected to pick up much, so the fire should stay confined to the ground — rather than igniting the tops of the trees, which would be very bad.

Our neighbor will let us know immediately if there is a change for the worse.

On another note: the music festival is going well, although the pace of rehearsals and concerts is very hectic. I can’t believe how much playing I’m doing! And this is immediately after performing sixteen shows in a row of Phantom.

It feels very good to play and it is wonderful to see my old musical colleagues again, but I wish I had more time off to rest. Today is the first free day I’ve had since June 2nd.

Today won’t really be free, however, because I need to practice a brand-new piece of music which we are performing tomorrow night. It’s a trio for violin, horn and piano, and is extremely difficult. Virtuosic parts for all, in fact. The composer worked with us the other day and will do so again for our final rehearsal tomorrow afternoon; then we perform the concert a few hours later.

Between practice-sessions, I am listening to a MIDI file of the piece while following the score, and am writing down cues in my horn part so hopefully I won’t get lost!

We are staying inside the trailer today because the air is very smoky, even thirty miles away from the scene of the mountain fires.

For the past ten days, James has been suffering acutely from a sinus infection, brought on by allergies to cottonwood and other things blooming around here. He’s been so ill that he spends most of the time lying down. He was starting to feel better yesterday but then the smoke aggravated his sinus condition. He finally went to the clinic today and has begun taking antibiotics.

It always distresses me when James is sick — it doesn’t happen very often but really zaps him when it does.

Last year at this time, I was the one who was sick (with bronchitis) which lasted for over two months.

Our global environment seems less and less hospitable than it used to be.

Here is a video of bringing the Airstream down from The Woods to the Nevada County Fairgrounds last Wednesday. In all the excitement, I forgot to take footage of our actual arrival at the campground, so I’ll take pictures of our current location next time.

Rupert rode with me in the Scion and was pretty good, although he vocalized his usual displeasure of traveling in the car.

Since June 3rd, I have been immersed in the eight-shows-a-week routine with my former employer, the national touring company of “The Phantom of the Opera”, currently playing in Sacramento. I am playing as a horn sub to fill in for the final half of the run, sixteen shows in a row without a day off.

The last time I played the show was sixteen months ago, in February 2007 — in Des Moines, Iowa.

I was assured by my pit orchestra colleagues that it was like riding a bicycle. I joked that I hoped I didn’t fall off.

Well, they turned out to be right; after ten shows here I feel like I’ve never left! It took four performances to feel completely at ease, but now the show is wearing like a comfortable old shoe.

It is interesting on a number of levels to be back with the company, even if briefly.

Although the road life is hard and the show schedule is demanding, there are lots of worse music gigs.

It is nice to have a regular routine with very few unexpected musical curve-balls. It is reassuring in its predictability — now that I’m not burned out.

The gig pays well and people LOVE the show.

It is nice to be able to wear “pit black” clothes — cotton pants and polo shirt — rather than donning a confining tuxedo or white tie and tails while being exposed under the hot, bright lights onstage as I am for symphonic concerts.

In the pit, unseen by the audience, it’s great to be able to read a book between passages; the horns do have minutes at a time during the show when we’re not playing. I got a LOT of reading done over those ten years!

Most people in the company — musicians, actors and stage technicians — are very happy to see me, and vice-versa. My presence was appreciated while I was on tour, but I had forgotten just how welcoming these people are. It is indeed a family.

I am glad to see that everybody is doing well. I admire them for sticking with the road routine, which is a very challenging life. But for me after ten years on tour, I decided to give notice because I was getting a bit frayed around the edges from the relentless schedule.

I wouldn’t want to gallivant all over the country and be away from home for months at a stretch, but I am interested in being an occasional sub, playing a few weeks a year. The two horn players on staff would be able to take more vacations if they can depend upon me as the first-call sub. So it’s a win-win for everybody.

I am already slated to play the three-week run in Spokane during the month of October. James and I will drive our little Scion up there, and will stay in a corporate apartment or at a B&B. At this point, we probably won’t take the trailer. Gas has gotten so expensive that it’s no longer cost-effective to use the big truck on long trips.

I had a brief window of free time late Sunday and the early part of Monday, so James picked me up from the theatre after the matinee and we drove back up to The Woods, which is an hour and forty-minute trip.

It was wonderful to be home again and stay overnight, even though it was for less than twenty-four hours. I had to be back in Sacramento to play the show on Monday night.

The aspect of being in The Woods which never fails to surprise me is how QUIET it is up there.

In the gathering dusk of Sunday evening, James and I sipped cocktails and sat on the back patio gazing out at the meadow, full of brilliant bluish-purple bachelor buttons. We breathed in the peace and quiet and thanked our lucky stars that we have the wonderful opportunity to tend this land.

The next morning, we walked along our paths in The Woods and I took some pictures of the new flowers which have popped up.

There are clumps of safflowers growing everywhere. They are not native to the region, but originated from bird-seed. Our nearest neighbors apparently fed a lot of birds in the past.

I wouldn’t have known that if our dear friend L. hadn’t told us on her recent visit. She and long-time partner D. came up from Nevada City to see the new crop of wildflowers a few weeks ago.

There is a larger variety of lupine which we’ve always called “forest lupine”. It has been gradually coming up over the past few weeks, but is now at its peak:

Here’s more, but in a darker purple variety in a separate clump, growing a bit further away from the shelter of the trees:

We wended our way down the “scenic route” path to the river (documented in a previous video). I may take another video because the path looks completely different this month, with much more leafy undergrowth.

For now, however, let us be content with a shot of a stand of ferns, where the largest bed of trilliums used to be.

One of the most fascinating aspects of watching these mountain wildflowers is how they come and go. Last month, the meadow was covered with a smaller version of lupine. This month, they are all gone and have been replaced with bachelor buttons. These brilliant little flowers are covering an even wider area:

Here’s a shot which includes the barn in the background. It is slightly to the right of the previous picture (to the south).

On our way back towards the barn, we stopped to take a picture of an ancient rose-bush which may have been placed there by the owners, long ago. The term “tea rose” comes to my mind but this may be incorrect. If anyone can enlighten me further, I welcome the feedback.

California poppies are quite common along the roadsides and fields further southeast towards Nevada City, but they’re not so prevalent in The Woods. So it is a treat to have several small stands of them growing right near our patio:

Lastly, here’s a video of several things: the Yuba River at the height of its flow on May 31st, contrasting with more recent footage taken last Monday in approximately the same spot. Then, you will see how extensive the field of bachelor buttons is in the meadow (please forgive the somewhat jerky panning; I was being attacked by a mosquito!) The final segment is of an industrious bumblebee visiting the tea roses.

I have six more performances of Phantom through Saturday. Immediately following the last show, James will pick me up from the theatre, kitty Rupert and our possessions in tow, and we’ll head on back up to The Woods late Saturday night.

The next evening, Sunday, I immediately jump into playing the local summer orchestra festival “Music in the Mountains” in nearby Grass Valley (which I participated in each June from 1985-2001) and will be busy with that through July 3rd. The horn will have been on my face constantly for about six weeks, so I’m looking forward to a break later this summer!

Lately, I have been busy making music rather than making words.

Last week I spent in the San Francisco Bay area, playing a very challenging concert set with Symphony Silicon Valley. The program: Copland “Appalachian Spring”, Vaughan-Williams “Tuba Concerto”, Richard Strauss “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” and “Rosenkavalier Suite”.

This ambitious program was demanding for all the instruments in the orchestra, but especially for the horns. I was also challenged by playing 2nd to a very talented young woman who holds the distinction of having contracts with nine different orchestras in the Bay area. She substitutes in many more ensembles, and has become famous amongst the freelance musicians for playing a high number of gigs in the area.

I wanted to make the best impression possible. The 2nd horn’s job is to make the Principal horn sound good. She didn’t need any extra help because she already has considerable playing ability, but it was important for me to match her well.

It could also lead to more freelance work in the future, since she is so well-connected in the local orchestra network. Hopefully word will continue to spread that I am a valuable asset to any horn section.

I like to think of myself as a musician who “brings a lot to the table”, so to speak. For risk of blowing my own horn (pun intended), I pride myself on a high level of professionalism and I am easy to get along with in the orchestra.

My horn teacher in college insisted that I develop these qualities in order to be a successful musician, and I thank him for emphasizing this into me early on.

I had the privilege of playing in an excellent horn section in the Sacramento Symphony from 1982 through 1996. Our playing was in sync and we got along well professionally. Over a decade after the organization’s demise, people still talk about how good our horn section was.

Spending time in the SF Bay area is so very different from being In The Woods. The pace is crazy-fast; there are so many people (seven million in the metro area) and the physical environment contrasts sharply with the higher, woodsy elevation of my home.

At sea level, many flowers and trees were already in bloom in the Bay area, although the air still had a cool neutrality about it last week; not quite Spring yet. But you could tell it was coming soon!

I am very fortunate to be able to stay with my violinist friend R.A. in the house she shares with her father, in Lafayette which is only an hour commute north of San Jose where the orchestra rehearses and performs.

I have my own room and access to the internet in the adjoining room which is being used as an office.

I adore both R.A. and her father, and always look forward to seeing them.

Still, my heart is home in The Woods with James, who stays behind to take care of the cat and the place.

He’d accompany me on these trips to the Bay area if we were able to bring Rupert, but R.A.’s father has made it clear that he doesn’t want cats in his house. He is a retired veterinarian and saw his fill of pets during his long, successful career.

When R.A. first moved in with her father a couple of years ago, she brought her old cat Jazzy. It was sometimes incontinent and was kept in R.A.’s quarters upstairs, which was the only real alternative but not an optimum one “for man or beast”.

When Jazzy passed on, Morrie said something along the lines of “Never again!” as far as cats were concerned.

So James stays home with our puss, while I work intensely with the orchestra and shuttle back and forth to San Jose from Wednesday through Sunday.

Sometimes Morrie cooks dinner for us, and other times R.A. and I grab a bite out, or I buy a few things at the grocery store to nibble on. I made R.A. peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on two occasions. Other sandwiches over the course of the week included sprouts and tofu, and tuna. This was often supplemented with carrots, apples, pretzels and a little cheese.

On Saturday evening before our first concert, Morrie made us shrimp louie salad, accompanied by a fresh, crusty baguette. I supplemented this with ready-made veggie minestroni soup from the store deli. This nice. light meal sent R.A. and me off to San Jose in good style.

I don’t like to eat heavy foods before performances. I’ll leave it to your imagination to think of why this might be so, for a horn player — or any wind player for that matter. 😉

This gives you an idea of the food I eat when I’m away from James’ excellent cooking. It’s fine, and particularly good when Morrie cooks, but I’m always glad to return home. Yes, I’m very spoiled!

I arrived back In The Woods late Sunday night, after a successful week with Symphony Silicon Valley. It was wonderful to see James (and Rupert) again, enveloped by peace and quiet and the smell of pine trees, and to sleep in my own bed.

I woke up the next day, exhausted from expending all that energy down in the “flatlands”. But it was a good kind of tired — a satisfaction which comes from a job well done.

However, I didn’t have much time to rest; James and I have been busily working on various recorder arrangements and compositions for the local recorder group in Nevada City.

I have been expanding some of my recorder duets for the larger ensemble. One piece requires eight players and two other pieces use seven. I had finished the largest one last week, and completed another at R.A.’s over the weekend. Then I worked most of Monday and Tuesday on the next piece, which I finished in time for last night’s rehearsal.

We recently bought a basic black&white laser printer, which is fine for music. I’m very pleased with its output; the music score and parts look professional.

I printed out the three pieces yesterday before we went down to “Big Town” for our weekly Wednesday grocery shopping/errands and recorder rehearsal in the evening.

We rehearsed at one of the member’s homes, which was a treat. Hostess Vanessa was gracious and accommodating. Eight of us set up in her living room (the furniture was pushed back) and rehearsed director Richard’s arrangement of “Carmina Burana”. Each movement calls for different combinations of recorders, and he wanted to add harp and hurdy-gurdy to some sections.

So I brought my small 26-string lap harp, which has a wonderful bell-like, “folky” tone perfect for recorders and Renaissance music.

But Vanessa’s hurdy-gurdy stole the show. What a fascinating instrument! Its concept began in the 13th Century. I had never seen or heard one before. This ancient instrument is difficult to explain, but I will say that it’s basically a rectangular wooden box, about two feet long, ten inches deep and ten inches high. It has a drone sort of like a bagpipe’s and has four strings, and is operated by a crank on the side.

In fact it sounds rather like a bagpipe, but is much more subdued — thank goodness! Some of the movements in Carmina Burana are perfect for the sound of the hurdy-gurdy, and Vanessa got very excited when she was able to play the melody, after we helped her tune a couple of the notes which needed to be changed to fit the key of the piece.

I enjoyed alternating between tenor recorder and the harp. It just so happened that the movements which didn’t call for tenor work out well on the harp.

The time flew by quickly during this creative process. Before the rehearsal ended, director Richard wanted to make sure we had a chance to play through one of my compositions, so I put on the CD of the computer-generated score in order for the players to get a rough idea what the three pieces sounded like.

I was pleased at the positive reception, but even more pleased when we played through one of the selections. I’ve composed various pieces over the years, duets mostly, so it was a real treat to hear these musicians play a composition with seven parts.

In fact, I was almost overwhelmed with emotion.

Obviously, they enjoyed playing the piece, “Hymn”, which had started out as a duet shortly after my mother died in 2005. It has sort of a churchly flavor, like a quiet organ in the lower register. I’m hoping that it will eventually become a best-seller, when James and I get our recorder music website going.

Richard wants us to perform it at our upcoming Spring concert in late May. I feel very honored.

I am excited about the prospect of having my compositions performed with this group, and possibly with an even larger recorder ensemble which Richard directs in the Bay Area. James and I plan to attend their Spring concert in Berkeley on April 19th, to hear what the group sounds like. We may join them when their new season starts in the Fall.

If time permits at next Wednesday’s rehearsal, we’ll play through my other two pieces. Richard expressed interest in including another of them on the Spring concert program. So there may be two compositions by Cameron on that performance, which is exciting.

I was gratified to see that he (along with the others) seem enthusiastic about having a “resident composer” in their midst.

Actually, TWO resident composers — James has some wonderful recorder compositions too. They are quite different from mine in that they start out as arrangements of various jazz and pop songs, but are adapted and modified so that they have become original pieces.

I can hardly wait for the group to play James’ version of “Corcovado” (Quiet Nights) when he finishes it. The piece takes its roots from a version performed by Engelbert Humperdinck — jazzy, upbeat and corny, and I think that the recorder players will love it!

Ah, the Vernal Equinox arrived early today. It’s wonderful to experience the upsurge of new Spring energy.

It’s going to be a busy season — full of rehearsals and concerts with symphony orchestras in Sacramento, Modesto and Nevada City, as well as our activities with the recorder group — not to mention all the MANY projects which need doing here In The Woods!

More about what’s going on In The Woods in my next post….

It’s always a surprise to drive on the hectic, congested highways after spending days on end in the peace and solitude of The Woods.

People are nuts. Why is everyone in such a hurry?

It takes three hours to get to R.A.’s house in Lafayette from our place. Traffic wasn’t horrible, but it’s always stressful on some level. We arrived at R.A.’s in good time on Saturday afternoon.

We had a lovely visit with R.A. and her dad, who is 84 years young. He and I share the same birthday (along with R.A.’s brother, amazing!) and I’ve always felt a wonderful connection with this warm, intelligent man who is so full of interesting stories.

It was especially nice for James to see him for the first time in a couple of years. They share a cooking connection because both are excellent chefs.

Morrie had just baked soft cinammon spice cookies, and also oatmeal fruit bars, which were cooling on racks in the kitchen. Delicious!

After visiting for a couple hours, James, R.A. and I drove to the BART station to catch the train to downtown San Francisco, a 35-minute ride.

In all these years I had never taken BART, and of course it was James’ first experience too.

The Lafayette station is right next to the highway. We ascended the escalator to the upper deck and were greeted by the whoosh of cars whizzing by, only a few feet away.

The train arrived a few moments later with a screech and expulsion of air. Bing-bong went the bell as we passed through the sliding doors and found seats.

I’d never been on a train with carpeting and upholstered seats before. That’s where the musty, rather dirty smell came from! It seems that with fabric on a train, more regular cleaning and maintenance would be required. Ah, but this was not the case here.

I was also surprised at how NOISY the train was, especially going through the tunnel under the Bay. It was positively ear-splitting! I’d have to wear earplugs if I took the train regularly.

The BART stations looked like something out of a futuristic science-fiction movie in which the world is about to come to an end. The walls were stark and dingy, and the faint flourescent lighting flickered uncertainly with a buzzing sound.

I’ve been in the subways of New York City, Boston, Chicago and Washington D.C. (and Mexico City) which were all more interesting than BART. Some were not terribly clean, but at least they were “atmospheric”!

We emerged above-ground at San Francisco’s Civic Center. I had not been in the City since Memorial Day 2001, when James met L. & D. to see a concert, just as we were doing now.

(On that occasion, I didn’t attend the concert, because I was playing one with the San Jose Symphony at the time. I met the others in the City afterwards.)

San Francisco is almost always cool and damp, but at least we were greeted by clear blue skies on this late Saturday afternoon. The silver-white sunlight angled low through the corridors of buildings as we walked towards Davies Hall where the concert would take place. We were to meet L. & D. at a nearby coffee shop to share a long visit beforehand.

As we approached the square in front of City Hall, James suddenly stopped in his tracks. “Look at that!” he said to R.A. and me, pointing towards the line of cars parked at an angle along the street bordering the grass.

At first I didn’t notice anything unusual, but suddenly we realized that all of these cars were at least thirty years old! There was an orange Gremlin, a ’76 Lincoln Mark IV, an early ’60s Mercury Parklane station-wagon, a ’64 Ford station-wagon, a Pontiac Bonneville and many others parked in an unbroken row along the street. There were NO newer cars in the area.

The most amazing thing is that none of these vehicles were in mint condition; they looked like “regular” cars that ordinary people would drive. There were dents and peeling, faded paint on some of them. That’s why I didn’t notice anything special at first.

When James initially set eyes on this row of vintage cars with period license plates, he thought to himself, “San Francisco is even trippier than I remembered!”

As it turned out, the old cars were part of a movie. James recalled that Sean Penn is currently filming “Milk” — the story of the San Francisco supervisor and his assassination (along with recently resigned mayor George Moscone) at City Hall in November 1978.

We crossed the street to look at the relics more closely. There were placards inside the windshields with dates and times for filming over the weekend.

What a trip.

It was one of those moments when you’re looking at something from a bygone era but in the back of your mind you assume it’s the present — then suddenly the realization dawns that it’s NOT!

We met L. & D. at the coffee-shop and had a nice visit with them for well over an hour; then we strolled over to the concert hall.

I hadn’t seen the San Francisco Symphony in many years, since they played a concert in Sacramento in the mid-1990s. And I had never heard them in their own Davies Hall.

They performed a couple of compositions by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, one of which featured flute soloist Paula Robison, followed by the Sibelius Seventh and Shostakovich Ninth symphonies.

As professional musicians ourselves, R.A. and I could easily see that this orchestra is one of the best in the country, definitely in the Top 10.

It was a treat to be in the audience to hear an orchestra for a change; usually we’re on stage playing in one!

After the performance, we parted company with L. & D. and enjoyed a late dinner at the Hayes St. Grill. R.A. and James had a green salad with goat-cheese while I had greens without the cheese. R.A. and I both had the sole with yellow mushrooms and fingerling potatoes, and James ordered a dish of big homemade sausage links.

We took the BART back to R.A.’s house in Lafayette and arrived at midnight. We had just enough energy to watch the the documentary “Freeway Philharmonic” that I’ve described in a previous post. R.A. had taped the 50-minute program and I looked forward to seeing it.

I know many of the musicians featured in this film, along with many more former colleagues playing in the various orchestras in the footage. Following each musician’s story was fascinating, but it tired me out to watch them schlepping up and down the highways for their various gigs. I am very glad that I don’t have to depend upon the Freeway Philharmonic circuit for a full-time living. It would be extremely challenging, especially coming from such a distance.

But as I mentioned before, it would be nice to have about two gigs a month. Little by little I am approaching that quota more consistently. There have been a handful of months with two gigs, and then other months with nothing. It takes time to work into the freelance scene.

I’ve got two gigs coming up this month; the first in San Jose beginning a week from Wednesday, then one with the Sacramento Philharmonic, where I haven’t played since their first concert set of the season in October.

James and I left R.A.’s house late Sunday morning, and drove to Sacramento where my brother and sister-in-law hosted a brunch for some of her relatives. It was great to meet one of S.’s sisters (from Boston) and a cousin from San Francisco and his family. Then Middle Bro’s good friends Dave & Elaine were there, along with Oldest Bro’ and my nephew Ben.

The food was good and the company excellent. I must admit that I got a bit carried away with visiting and didn’t pay attention to James’ subtle requests to leave. But he politely “went with the flow” and we finally did depart two hours later.

We discussed the situation on the drive back up to The Woods and I apologized for not being more attentive to James’ signals. Our life up here does require certain adjustments, such as allowing time to do grocery shopping in Nevada City on the way up, and hopefully arriving home before dark. Then there’s usually wood to split and then building a fire, and later on, dinner to be cooked. We got home well after sunset and were tired, but had to do these things before we could relax.

Lesson learned.

As always, we treasure our time at home, especially after being in “civilization”. We’re basking in it today, and don’t have to be anywhere until Wednesday evening for our weekly rehearsal with the recorder group.

I practiced horn this afternoon after not having played for two days, and luckily my lip is not the worst for the unusually long break. Sometimes I can take a couple days off without getting weak, and other times even one day off wreaks havoc. Luckily now, I have more than a week to get into tip-top playing shape for the next gig.

Today we took our lunch out on the Sky Deck in the brilliant, warm sunshine. The bluejays made their raucous calls in the meadow pines while monarch butterflies flitted here and there. The smell of pine needles is gradually getting stronger as the weather warms up.

Ahhhh…life is good.

I’ll pop in briefly here before even more time slips away without a post.

First of all, Spring really does seem to be coming now, and fast. The snow is nearly gone and the birds and bugs are already making an appearance. There are tiny buds on some of the trees, and the croaking of frogs can be heard as an accompaniment to the roar of the river, engorged with snow-melt.

The first hints of Spring arrived last week, but I kept my hopes to a minimum because we all know that March can be a capricious month with weather extremes. Even now I remind myself that snow is still very possible before Spring arrives for good.

Yet my spirits are buoying optimistically in spite of themselves and I do feel an increase of energy with the sunshine and rising temperatures, so I am going to hold positive thoughts that Winter is pretty much done here!

(Ah, one of the good aspects of living in California…)

James and I have been busy with the recorder group; we rehearsed for the second time on Wednesday, down in Nevada City. Then we had another rehearsal at a junior high school in town early this morning.

All week, we had prepared the assigned pieces and were then thrown a curve-ball with several new selections at Wednesday’s rehearsal, so we were sight-reading all over again! (Everyone else had played the music.)

Although no-one seemed to mind that we weren’t quite on top of things, WE didn’t like being put on the spot in such a way, and prevented from putting our best foot forward. Especially since we’re brand-new to the group.

Today’s one rehearsal with the kids — who are doing a few Renaissance dances at the Miners Foundry in Nevada City on March 6th — went fairly well, even with a few miscommunications in our group about repeats in the music. (We call it the “road map”. Repeats and “da capo” etc. can be confusing.)

We played on stage at the auditorium which doubles as the cafeteria. There were seven of us, chairs arranged in a semi-circle, and our audience consisted of about a hundred seventh-graders.

There I was, giving a demonstration on the tenor recorder, playing a two-octave C scale on an instrument that I’m not acquainted with all that well yet!

I made the mistake of thinking about this while I was playing. I brashly sight-read the tenor part to the piece of music that we had just performed (I had played alto, which is in a different key and has different fingerings) and I ended up skipping a line on the page of music. Pretty lame! But the kids applauded anyway.

James was smarter to play just a few notes and talk briefly about the alto recorder.

It feels good to be volunteers-of-sorts in the community. This is an excellent way for both of us to contribute to the musical life of the area. It is also nice to be able to play with other recorder enthusiasts, and stimulating to play in public.

Other news: tomorrow we are going to San Francisco to hear the Symphony, followed by a late dinner at a rather “fancy” restaurant near the concert hall. We are sharing this special occasion with L. & D. from Nevada City, and my violinist friend R.A. from Lafayette.

James and I are driving to Lafayette, then going with R.A. on BART (public transportation) into the City to meet the others shortly before the concert.

After dinner, we’ll take BART back to R.A.’s house and will stay overnight.

Then on Sunday we head over to Sacramento to join my brother and family for a special brunch at the family home; one of my sister-in-law’s sisters is visiting from the East coast and a cousin of hers from San Francisco is also coming with his family. Quite a gathering!

We’re looking forward to this unusual change-of-scene and social interaction with these various people, but you can rest assured that we’ll be even more glad to get back home to our shack in the Woods.

Last night, James and I got together with a group of recorder players in Nevada City. There were seven other players in attendance at their weekly meeting on Wednesday nights. They hail from all around the area.

There were a couple of occasions in the past when our friend M.A. joined us in playing recorder trios, but this was the first time that we’ve connected with a group of other recorder players.

James and I were both a bit nervous to “be on display” at this first meeting. I had contacted the director a few days previously, who asked us to play a couple of duets for the group so they could hear what we could do.

This was an audition, of sorts. But as I reminded James as we parked the car and toted our big bag of recorders into the rehearsal room, we were auditioning THEM as much as they were auditioning us.

In addition to James and me, there were three men and four women. Everyone was friendly and welcoming.

The youngest member of the group was a rather “unusual” woman who looked like she might have been in the punk scene in past years. She was very nice but shy.

The rest of us were middle- to late-middle aged. Lots of gray hair and beards!

This group plays occasional concerts in the Nevada City area, including the schools.

In fact, they are preparing a program for a junior high school’s annual Renaissance event coming up. James and I were invited to participate and we accepted. We’ve got one more rehearsal next Wednesday night, then a rehearsal at the school at the end of the month. This program will also be repeated in early March in downtown Nevada City.

The director led the group by beating a large drum to keep the rhythm, as we rehearsed four Renaissance dances.

It was quite fun to play with a group of recorder players for the first time. James and I have always wanted to expand our playing experience beyond the two of us.

As we progressed through the rehearsal, I started to relax and thought that perhaps we weren’t going to be asked to play our duets, after all.

But suddenly the director DID ask us.

James and I performed reasonably well, although we were both a bit on edge. It’s interesting to think that although I’ve performed many times in front of very large audiences with the French horn in orchestra without being nervous, I was somewhat nervous playing the recorder in front of seven receptive people.

Everyone liked our original compositions. We played one of mine and then one of James’.

James later asked if anyone was interested in trying out his composition to play themselves, because no-one else has ever played it other than us. A couple of the women agreed to do so. It will be interesting to see what they come up with!

Hopefully, our participation in this recorder group will open up possibilities for composing and arranging pieces for at least nine recorders — something we’ve wanted to do for a long time.

I’m glad that James and I have finally taken the plunge to reach out to other recorder players in the area. It will stimulate us to write more music for these funny, rather off-beat little instruments — which actually have a great deal of potential.

We’d like to expand the traditional Renaissance/Baroque recorder repertoire to include more “modern” pieces in the pop, jazz and classical styles.

The director had written an arrangement of Petula Clark’s 1964 song “Downtown” which we read through last night. I chuckle now to think about us middle-aged recorder fuddy-duddies GROOVING on this pop hit. It was fun!

A year ago today, I played my final two shows of “The Phantom of the Opera”.

Middle Bro’ had called to tell me about Dad’s passing at 11 p.m. the night before. I was rather in a daze when I dragged out of bed the next morning, as I didn’t sleep very well. I had the vague but persistent feeling that my father visited me in my dreams.

As James drove me to the theatre in downtown Des Moines for the matinee, my emotions threatened to bubble to the surface and I must admit that I tamped them down, in order to get through that long day of performances.

I decided not to spread the word in the Phantom company about my dad’s death. Everyone was busy packing up to leave for the next city; the final show day is always chaotic and people’s nerves are frayed as they throw everything into large hampers and the stagehands load the seventeen 53′-long semi trucks with the many sets and costumes. It requires a monumental effort to “get the circus out of town”, and I just didn’t want to add to the general confusion and drama.

Besides, I was about to be laid off for six months (along with a few other traveling musicians) and knew that I might not return — so why share this news? I simply wanted to slip away without a fuss.

However, I did tell my horn colleague (I played 2nd chair) who I could trust to keep mum. E. knew that my father had been in and out of hospitals for the past six weeks, so it wasn’t a shock to him. I will always appreciate his tact and understanding.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full year since I’ve played the show. Time has gone by so fast!

Well, it’s been an extremely busy and eventful year with many changes. When James and I drove out of Des Moines that night after my final show, we assumed that we would be spending the rest of our lives in a certain small town in southeastern Arizona.

It sure didn’t work out that way and we’re glad! Our current situation In the Woods is ever-so-much better on all levels.

It’s taken me nearly a year to regain my “horn chops”, which had been somewhat limited by playing the same show over and over again. I estimate that I played 3,500 Phantom shows over the ten years I was with the company.

So it is no surprise that I’ve had to practice and perform other music extensively in order to crawl out of the show rut. I’m just now starting to feel better about my playing.

I am grateful for the opportunities to play the horn in Northern California — I wouldn’t have performed on it nearly as much if we had stayed in Arizona.

The Phantom company will be in Sacramento from mid-May to mid-June, and I am actually going to play the last two weeks of the month-long run! I’ll be subbing for my replacement, who is taking a short vacation.

I’ll be doing sixteen shows in a row from June 3-13, with no days off. This is happening because the trucks need an extra travel-day to haul the show to their next city, Tulsa. The company crams in the eight shows-a-week quota into one less day.

It will be very nice to see my old colleagues again, but even nicer NOT to have to pack up and go to the next city with them when the Sacramento run ends!

Playing Phantom for ten years was a very interesting experience, but I am so thankful that I am off the road.

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!