Advanced Search | Search Tips

Our Newsletter

May 2008

A Boston Pops Tale

Excerpt from Real Men Don't Rehearse by Justin Locke.

My bass teacher, a long time member of the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops, swore that the following events actually took place, but he was such a loud liar we'll never know for sure. These events supposedly took place back in the 1950's or 60's, in the days when the Boston Pops was conducted by Arthur Fiedler.

Before proceeding I should quickly mention that, while Arthur Fielder was beloved the world over by everyone else, several of the musicians in the Pops didn't like Arthur very much. There was one musician in particular– a Pops percussionist– who was always looking for ways to torment Arthur without being so obvious about it that he would get fired.

According to the story, the Boston Pops was playing a concert in a relatively small town somewhere in the middle of Massachusetts, with Arthur Fiedler conducting. They eventually came to the final piece on the program, which in this case happened to be Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The orchestra began to play the piece, just as they had played it hundreds of times before.

At first, everything was going fine. But then, about 20 bars into the piece, this percussionist (the one I mentioned, who liked to torment Arthur), well, I'm not sure how else to put it:

He threw up.

Mind you, he didn't throw up in the dressing room, and he didn't throw up off-stage.

He threw up . . . on the stage.

Obviously, this is not something you would want to have happen at any elegant event, much less an elegant event like a Pops concert, but orchestral musicians are human beings, and human beings, on occasion, do such things. And so there everyone was.

One would hope that this percussionist at least had the sense to do this deed behind a set of chimes, but wherever he did it, it was in full view of Arthur Fiedler, who immediately started yelling at this guy (quite audibly, by the way) to get off the stage. In response, the percussionist waved an apologetic hand motion to Arthur, and then he did indeed walk off stage.

At this juncture I think it is important to note that, in the world of professional orchestras, once you start playing the 1812 Overture (or any other piece of music, for that matter), you do not stop– for anything. So the rest of the musicians kept right on playing, in spite of the gastronomic malfunction and labor/management dramatics that had just transpired.

With the percussionist now safely off stage, things returned somewhat to normal, or at least, as normal as they can be in such circumstances. But about 50 bars later, that very same percussionist came back out onto the stage . . . carrying a mop and a bucket. And he proceeded to clean up the mess he had made.

At this point, Arthur was turning three shades of indigo with veins popping out of his forehead. All the while the percussionist was making more of his little hand-waving signals, expressing his sincere apologies for having thrown up on stage in the first place– all this, in the middle of 1812. And of course, while all the other musicians in the orchestra were experiencing internal hysterics, every single one of them did what professional orchestral musicians must always do in these situations: they kept right on playing (beautifully, I might add), pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

The percussionist got everything cleaned up, went off stage again, put everything away, and then, with a completely straight face, came back out to play his part in the big ending with all the chimes, cannons, tympani, cymbals, and snare drums.

I wasn't there, so I can't say that this story really happened, but given my experience with professional orchestral musicians, I have no reason to disbelieve it either.

Justin Locke spent eighteen years as a professional double bassist, playing in the Boston Pops, the Boston Symphony, and just about every other orchestra in New England. The lengthy list of great conductors he played for includes Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, John Williams, Henry Mancini, and Arthur Fiedler. He is the author of REAL MEN DON'T REHEARSE, a humorous book about the world of professional orchestras. He has appeared on WCVB's Chronicle, the Paul Sullivan Show on CBS Radio, and on Greater Boston on WGBH with Emily Rooney. He is also the author of several educational concert programs for orchestra that have been done all over the world-- in Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Poland, Australia, and Guam.