What Really Happens on a Minnesota Orchestra Tour?

We chat with Sam Bergman, MnOrch violist and blogger, about the goings-on behind the scenes as he chronicles the European tour starting today.

Sam Bergman, who plays viola for the Minnesota Orchestra and hosts (with conductor Sarah Hicks) the orchestra’s chatty Inside the Classics series, first chronicled a Minnesota Orchestra tour in 2004, for the ArtsJournal.com. The blog became an immediate hit, garnering write-ups in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times and an interview on the BBC.

Starting August 24, when the orchestra ships off for a week-long European tour, including two performances at the BBC Proms—the Super Bowl of classical music—Bergman will once again be chronicling all the behind-the-scenes moments, from airport shenanigans to string-breaking to the official Minnesota Orchestra airplane cheer.

MM: Sam, this will be the fifth tour you’ve chronicled. Did you expect such a big reaction to your first blog?
SB: Not at all. I thought, “I’ll write when I can and no one will read it.” Instead, there I was on the front page of the Washington Post style section. I was getting 50 emails a day from readers.

MM: Did you write pretty much everything you wanted to?
SB: The orchestra never complained, public relations was reading it but never asked for changes. They were really great about it. And I was trying not to self-censor at all. I like to look for the little things, like the day Osmo dropped the metronome that he always has us rehearse with and everybody clapped.

MM: There was a lot of drama on that trip—it was music director Osmo Vänskä’s first tour with the Minnesota Orchestra.
SB: And his return to Lahti, Finland, where he’d previously conducted. And we almost didn’t get there. Our plane broke down in Glasgow, there was a blizzard in Helsinki, we had no dinner and no rehearsal. Yet we made it, and I think we did six encores for that concert.

To add to the drama, it was also Osmo’s birthday, so we played Happy Birthday and, because it was being broadcast, we ended up getting fined—who knew that Happy Birthday was copyrighted and every time it’s played on the air some little old ladies collect a check?

MM: What are you guys doing to get ready for this trip?
SB: It’s a massive operation—there are nearly 120 of us, after all, and I forget how many tons of equipment. There are four to five of us per wardrobe trunk for clothing and stuff. And we have the option of trunking our instrument, specially built trunks that can be flown in climate-controlled environments.

Most people probably trunk their instruments, just because flying with an instrument is such a pain these days. The airlines are all over the place with their policies. And frequently it comes down to, do you run into an employee who wants to throw their weight around at the gate. There’s no law that says they have to let you on with a violin or viola, and often they like to argue that it won’t fit in the overhead—which it does.

MM: Has this always been going on?
SB: It got significantly worse after 9/11, but then, everything about flying did. The musicians union has been lobbying Congress for years about this. British Airways famously has a policy regarding instruments, and Northwest finally did. But then they got eaten and Delta is notoriously one of the airlines that gives people the most trouble—I think there was even an unofficial boycott by musicians of Delta a few years back.

MM: Do you travel with a different viola than you usually play?
SB: Most people, on a tour like this, want the best sound possible so you bring the one you always use. And that’s how it usually is anywhere—only for some outdoor shows, where the weather might damage it, do people bring out a different instrument.

My viola is actually made of wood salvaged from an old Ontario barn. It’s even got a little of that weathered barn look.

MM: The orchestra will be playing at the BBC Proms again in London, which is a tremendous honor. What’s that like?
SB: These concerts are events, there are nine newspapers just in England that send critics and it’s frequently front-page news. There are 5,500 people attending each concert, it’s incredible. A line forms at 7 a.m. to get what they call Prommer tickets. This is standing-room at the front of the hall, and these people stand there the whole time and they’re in charge of the hall, like they shout things in unison, they shout things at the audience that they’ve all got written on cards. They’ll shout things at the orchestra—when the Dallas orchestra played they shouted, “Who shot J.R.?” During our last Proms concert, when the stage manager came out to lift the piano lid, they shouted, “Heave ho!”

MM: You also host the orchestra’s Inside the Classics series conducted by Sarah Hicks. How did that come together?
SB: When this started, it was supposed to be me hosting with whatever staff conductor was available. And the first time out, Sarah was the available conductor and I told her what I was going to do and just before we came out I said, is it all right if I interview you when you first come out? And she said sure, and she was so comfortable with the microphone and so engaging with the audience that I went back to our management team and said it’s got to be her. People love to hear her talk. And I think it helps that she’s not a stereotypical conductor: she’s young, she’s a woman, she doesn’t have a big shock of grey hair.

MM: How did they pick you?
SB: I’ve never asked. But a while back, on Saturday nights we started a thing where someone would speak from the stage. And you’d usually just thank the audience and introduce the piece and sit down. And when I looked up the story for this ballet we were doing, Daphnis et Chloé, I realized it was the stupidest story I’ve ever read in my life—seriously, look it up, it’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever read, nothing makes sense, non sequiturs all over the place. And I’m thinking, what am I going to say about this idiotic story. And I thought, you know what, I’m just going to make fun of it. And I think because people weren’t expecting someone to stand up and crack jokes about Ravel and Greek myths, people really went nuts for it.

MM: Did you tell the orchestra what you were going to do?
SB: No. And I deliberately didn’t tell anyone in my section and specifically my stand partner, and I asked her, while we were warming up, what do you think would happen if I just walked up there and grabbed the mic and started talking, do you think I’d get fired? She’s like, no but you’d probably be in a lot of trouble. I said, hell, I’m going for it. She started to reach for me and then realized I was holding a script.

MM: Good luck on the tour. Are you going to have some fun, as well?
SB: Well, we’re pretty much on our own, we just have to get to the concert on time. So I’ve got a couple friends in London I’m looking forward to seeing. I think we’re going to go to a Chelsea Club [soccer] match. And it’s festival season in Edinburgh when we get there—it’s like midtown Manhattan during festival season, and if you can’t enjoy a concert like that….