Seen Through a Lens: John Dancy's Look at the NCS
When former NBC correspondent and anchor John Dancy retired after 27 years of reporting the events of the world from London, Berlin, Moscow and Washington, DC, he and his wife, Ann, decided to make their home in Durham. Luckily for the NC Symphony, the Dancys soon discovered the orchestra. We hope you have followed John's wonderful pieces about the NCS that have aired on WUNC-TV's "North Carolina Now' over the past few years. If you haven't seen them all, or just want to watch again, you can find them here: ncsymphony.org/media/social.cfm. In this blog, John tells us about his experiences following the North Carolina Symphony and what he learned about us.
To the casual symphony-goer, who attends once or twice a season, the North Carolina may seem like a group of talented strangers. Maybe the right analogy is a public utility...there when you need it. As a retired journalist and full-season subscriber to the symphony, I have always been curious about who these people are, from tuba to tympani, bassoon to bass. How do they do what they do? What are their routines? What do they do other than rehearse and perform?
When the Great Recession hit in 2009, I proposed to the orchestra management and to the players themselves, a series of television feature stories under the umbrella title of "backstage at the North Carolina Symphony." I wanted to put faces on the players for symphony-goers and viewers of UNC-TV's "North Carolina Now." The pieces would also go on the symphony's website for Internet visitors.
Music Director Grant Llewellyn and members of the orchestra were enthusiastic supporters of the idea, and gave me and a UNC-TV cameraman great freedom to hang around during rehearsals, and get to know the players.
What I discovered is that this orchestra is wonderfully diverse and talented. As Resident Conductor William Henry Curry told me, "American orchestras can play anything, from rap to rock to Rachmaninoff. It comes from the music in the schools programs all across America."
Indeed, I found it so. Over the last three years, UNC-TV and I have produced pieces featuring the orchestra and a talented troupe of circus performers, the "Cirque de la Symphonie," gone along on a trip to Wilmington to chronicle the long, long days of your orchestra members when they travel to North Carolina cities to play for audiences there. We detailed the exquisite and detailed preparation that goes on in the schools before classes visit Meymandi Hall for education concerts. We saw the inner workings of the orchestra members and staff as they all -- from Grant Llewellyn to the stage managers -- agreed to take salary cuts to keep the orchestra playing a full season despite the recession.
Because the cameraman and I were in rehearsals so often, the players and their conductors probably forgot we were there. Once, when Sarah Hicks was new as Associate Conductor, I was shooting a profile of her at rehearsal. When there was a musical bobble at one point, one of the players asked Sarah about it. "Yeah," she said. "That was my fault. I screwed that up." Everyone laughed, and the rehearsal went on.
The one story I always wanted to do was an audition for an empty position in the symphony. Orchestra positions are highly sought, and attract a mass of talented musicians -- some secretly trying to jump from other orchestras. They must first play for a committee of sharp-eared orchestra staff and players. The auditions themselves are cloaked in secrecy. Candidates play behind a screen, so members of the audition committee cannot determine their age, gender, or ethnic background. The floor of the stage is even carpeted so the candidate-players footsteps won't give the committee any information about the prospective players. With all this passion for maintaining confidentiality, it was no wonder to me that the orchestra did not agree to my repeated requests to do the story.