Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Page Turner to the Starz, Part 1

Twenty years ago or so I spent two days as a page-turner on a classical recording session. Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, John Cerminaro, and Cecil Licad were recording the Brahms Horn Trio (recording on Amazon HERE) and I was hired to turn pages for Licad.

Scholar that I am, I kept extensive notes on that session, figuring that one day I’d base a polished bit of writing on them, perhaps fiction.

Well, that’s not happened. So I’ve decided to publish the notes. I’ve cleaned them up a bit, but not much. They’re still pretty messy. But that’s how recording sessions are, messy.

I’ll post these notes in three segments. The first post covers the first day into early afternoon. The second post finishes that day. I cover the second day in the third post.
Dramatis Personae

WLB, aka The Page Turner: Frustrated Renaissance man. Theorist of mind & brain and cultural evolution etc. Jazz musician & performer.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg: Violinist. Born in Rome on Jan 15, 1960 & raised by mother and grandparents. Came to USA when 8 to study at Curtis Institute. Went to Julliard in early teens to study with Dorothy DeLay. Won the 1981 Naumberg competition, the youngest to ever win it; they didn't give 2nd and 3rd that year. This was her recording session, though that wasn't obvious to me at the start.

John Cerminaro: French Horn. Spent 10 years as 1st horn with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and 10 years as 1st horn with New York Philharmonic. Now working as a horn soloist based out of Chicago. Middle-age. Gorgeous tone. Brass player's chip on his shoulder.

Cecile Licad: Piano. From Philippines. Small, but has a deep near-masculine voice (baritone). Has known Nadja since they were teenagers at Curtis. Has a small rubber figure of the Beast from the Walt Disney movie, Beauty and the Beast.

Karen Chester: Producer. Was engineer for Nadja's recording of the Barber and Shostakovitch concertos.

Tom: Recording Engineer.

Bob: Piano technician. Lives in Vermont with wife and kids. Used his piano for the session, a Steinway D (7 ft.). How'd he get it into the hall, which has no elevator?

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall: Built in late 19th C. atop the Troy Savings Bank. Acoustically, one of the finest in the world. There’d been several recording sessions here in the past few years. The hall seats c. 1200. Worn but not seedy.

Getting the Gig

Mon Jan 4: Peter Lesser, director of Troy Music Hall, calls WLB saying he needs someone to turn pages at a recording session from 10-4 on Wed and Thur. (The connection runs through Eddie Knowles, member of the Music Hall board and playing compatriot of WLB in the New African Music Collective.) WLB initially declines, using a 10:30 Thur appointment with NYS unemployment as the excuse (though he doesn't tell Peter that his 10:30 meeting is with unemployment). But, WLB thinks. The unemployment notice said that, if unable to make the appointed time, then come as soon after as possible. So there's nothing imperative about that appointment – though those folks can be a pain. And what else does he have to do? Sit around and read another bit of trash fiction? Spend more time squeezing dead cells & oil from facial pores? Watch some more "Days of Our Lives"? No telling what the recording session will be like, and there is the embarrassing possibility that he'll miss a page turn or two, but it's definitely more interesting than staying home. It's two days with Other People, and it'd be interesting to see what the inside of a classical recording session is like and the musicians will probably be first rate.

So, WLB called back on Tue 5 Jan and told Peter that he's available. Peter said the pay would be $8-10/hour but WLB'd have to negotiate that with Karen Chester, the producer. That's fine.

The Gig, Day One

Wed 6 Jan: WLB goes through usual morning routine. Into bathtub at c. 7:00 and watch Today Show. Out of tub c. 8:30 to shave and dress. Eat breakfast while watching Regis and Kathy Lee. Should I take some paper clips so I can mark turning points in the music? Nah. Walk to Music Hall at 9:50 to meet Peter at State St. (side) entrance. Meets Peter at 10, who takes him up into the hall, entering through the stage entrance. Piano immediately to left as walk onto stage; piled with coat and French Horn gig bag. Other piano in middle of stage, with other chairs and mikes hanging from booms. A video camera on tripod aimed at the stage. Two young women on stage – are these the musicians?

Continue across the stage and off through the dress circle and up two flights to room that's doing duty as the control room. Speakers, mixing board, recorders, electronic gear. Video monitor showing the stage – no direct line of sight between stage and "control room."

Three people, Karen, Tom (recording technician), Bob (piano technician). WLB introduced around. Peter leaves. Karen asks if $10/hr is OK.

WLB: Sure.
Karen: You'll have to submit an invoice to get paid, I'll give you the information later.
WLB: Fine.
Karen: They're pretty good at paying. You can have them mail it to you or I could bring your check with me next time.
WLB thinking (what next time?): Oh that's OK. I'll wait for the mail. What're you recording?
Karen: The Brahms Horn Trio, with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg on violin, John Cerminaro on horn, and Cecile Licad on piano.

Fwitt! the light goes on in WLB's head when he hears "Salerno-Sonnenberg" (but assumes absolutely cool and composed facial expression, matching Karen's delivery of names). WLB is mainly into jazz, hasn't followed classical for 20 years. But, a few years ago he was watching Johnny Carson and saw this impish violinist who played with great intensity and passion, though it was only the Carson show. She carried a picture of a baseball player in her violin case. Had a long name. Then only a few months ago, late 92, CBS did a 2-hour special on performers which had been featured on 60-minutes. There was that same violin player with the long last name, again. And now he was going to be turning pages at her recording session. What a delight.

Karen: “Should have brought a book. We'll be working with the sound for a few hours.” WLB goes back down to the hall and takes a seat a few rows back and in the center, watching various people move variously around doing various things. Musicians, piano tech, recording engineer, stage hand. Hears a male voice coming from stage when no man is on stage. Tentatively tracks the voice to Licad.

Cecile takes off her regular shoes and puts on her "recording shoes", with soft sole, presumably, to facilitate pedaling.


Nadja: Are you the page turner?
WLB: Yes.
Nadja: I wondered who you were sitting there so silently. I'm Nadja, this is John.
WLB: I'm Bill.

The way she said "I'm Nadja" betokened an uneasy compromise with her fame. How do you survive as a human being when you are on the Virtuoso Track? It defines the way you present your art and make your living and gives others the right to anchor their hope, grief, & passion to what you do and become in performance. But what of your passion, not to mention your simple needs and wants? The North Star is a navigational aid only for those of us who are so far away. To those who live there, it’s the uncharted sea. How do you live as the uncharted sea that others use as a guide point?


I'm wondering just whose recording date this is. It is a horn trio they're recording, suggesting that the date is John's. But Nadja is certainly the one with the name. The interaction does suggest it's her date, but not all that strongly. She's certainly not making strong displays of authority.


Nadja, kneeling at her violin case doing something or other, talking to herself and/or no one in particular: "On Jan 15th I'll be toity twee. " (WLB thinking: Is that 33? Thought she was younger.) Quite often she speaks in a little girl's voice. It's strange. Makes me feel protective. Assume it's about coping with life on the Virtuoso Track.


John mentioned that he had another pair of glasses, one without metal temple pieces. Said he might use them later on. He'd heard that metal temple pieces sapped your energy. Nadja too had heard something like that. WLB thinking: here we go, musician anxiety superstition. It's gonna be interesting.

Tinkering Tinkering

So, the musician's would play. We'd hear a comment from above . . . well, the sound actually came from a speaker in front of the stage; the signal driving that speaker came from the control room. The musicians would play again. Sound engineer comes down and tinkers. More playing. Karen commenting. WLB: wonders when they'll need the page turner. What if I screw up? Tom comes down and tinkers with the mikes. More playing. Karen commenting. WLB: wonders when they'll need the page turner. Should I be up there now turning pages as they run through bits and pieces? Should I look through the music to see if there are any repeats? What is the decorum for the page turner? Tom comes down and tinkers with the mikes. Peter brings two space heaters over from the Music Hall office – it's a bit cool on stage. One near John so he can keep his horn warm. Another near Nadja for her fiddle. (More often than not, calls it a fiddle rather than a violin.) Change position of piano, violinist, hornist.

Play. Tinker. Play.

Getting the horn and violin properly balanced was tough.

Sometime minute adjustments of mike position, a quarter, half inch one way or the other.

The playing is mostly fragments here and there. But they do work up a head of steam sometimes. It sounds good. The horn is liquid, the violin has an edge, the piano crisp. Several times Nadja remarks that, once they get the levels set, things will go just like that.

After c. an hour & forty-five minutes the musicians go upstairs to listen. John comes down alone and as he walks across the stage:

WLB: How're your chops? I'm a trumpet player so I know what you're going through.
John: Tell them that.
WLB thinking: And we haven't even started recording yet. Are we in trouble already? Brass is grueling, and the horn is the most treacherous of all, but . . .

John plays and there's a bit more tinkering. John and Cecile return to the stage and get seated. It's 11:30. Do we break for lunch or get some work done and then lunch? Let's work. They're going to play straight through the first movement and then go back to record patches. Nadja asks me to come and turn the pages. So, I'm on.

It’s a go

I go up on stage and sit down to Cecile's left. Some final positioning for John and Nadja so each can see all. Do I sit down and then stand up to turn a page? – I certainly can't reach the music from where I'm sitting. But that's a lot of motion. Easier to stand and remain. So I stand.

Nadja: Do you want to stand?
WLB: Yes.
WLB thinking: I have the impression that she's being considerate of all.

So, my heart is thumping ever so little and I'm feeling a little anxious. Will I make the turns in time? Nadja nods and off we go. I make the first turn in time, but the pages rustled enough so that the sound will surely be picked up on the mikes. So, score one for the page turner; but, better him than one of the players. We play through to the end. I make all the turns, and no more rustling. I had an edge on the whole way. The playing was lovely. As we came to the end, I could feel my ear-to-ear grin. I had to tell my legs to keep in place, this was no time to boogie out. Laughter threatened (recall Goethe's "laughter of the gods" that Hesse kept invoking in Steppenwolf – an absolutely humorless and joyless book that talked about heroic laughter as the key to life) like I laughed in amazement at Aladdin's procession to the palace in the current movie [Disney’s Aladdin].

Nadja would sway a lot in her seat when she played. Cecile would groan sotto voce in intense piano passages and rise off the bench to bring home the fortissimo accents. Large piano, small woman, big sound.

[Note: Here’s how the recording went. First they went all the way through a movement. Then they’d come back and record specific sections here and there. Those bits are called patches. Finally, the whole thing again.]

Then we went through some 60 patches for the 1st movement. Some just a couple of bars, some whole sections. I made all my turns. Getting some confidence. Maybe I won't commit any major screw-ups. Maybe they'll never know that I can't follow the score all that well. Still, it's interesting comparing the notation with the sound I hear. Cecile had not only her part, but also the horn and violin parts as well. Often I'd follow one of them since there were fewer notes I had to grasp. The piano part was on two staves and lots and lots of notes. My god, the horn's got to make soft entrances above the staff. That's rough. John does it, and smoothly.

Still, John's worried, and says so. All these takes are wearing him down. At one point WLB asks whether or not it's time for the alternative glasses, the ones without the energy-sapping metal temple pieces. All laugh. The page-turner, and witty too. This IS the most difficult movement for John, but it's NOT all smooth sailing from here on, especially if he blows his chops now. Finally, the first movement's done. We break for lunch. John cools down by buzzing on a bass trombone mouthpiece attached to 8 inches of garden hose.


At breaks Nadja and Cecile go to a dressing room to smoke. Smoking is prohibited in the hall, which is old and fragile. Who'll tell?

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