Cannons rolled Saturday night into this little town of 50 plain folk and around 100 musicians tucked in a sleepy valley between Interstate 81 and the hills beyond Skyline Drive. The Shenandoah Music Festival hosted the rebel-yellin' Cutshaw's Battery, Major Ambrose's ragtag dozen. And behind the Battery came an estimated 1,800 music and cannon lovers to hear the Shenandoah Valley Music Festival's annual rendition of Tchaikovsky's Boom Boom "1812 Overture," Op. 49, Boom.
The festivities began when a 93-year-old gentleman, ramrod straight as can be expected, waved his walking cane at the applauding crowd. But he was no colonel, and gave no rebel yell. There is a war being fought at Orkney Springs, but it's not the American Civil War.
"The young conductors don't even know how to hold the baton" Dr. Richard Lert, artistic director of the American Symphony Orchestra League's summer conducting program explained earlier Saturday afternoon, with Viennese accent and deft movement of his long, elegant hands. "Not this way. This way!" - first palm up then, palm down. "And the pictures of Toscanini you see, there is nothing above here."
"I played with Richard Strauss. He was a wonderful conductor," the 93-year-old maestro captures the past with easy sweeps of his arm. "And when he conducted his hands weren't up in his face. No. His left hand was in his vest pocket, and his right hand, never above here. The young conductors who come here are too full of themselves. They must learn that they are important, the music is important! They must be quiet. The moment a conductor becomes quiet he feels it. The music. But they only come here four weeks. I can teach them little. I quiet them down, then they leave and . . ."
Lelt's hands fly around his face, and he shakes his old head, his eyes twinkling. A friend of Strauss, Bruno Walter, Alban Berg, a man who worked with legendary conductor Arthur Nikisch, Lert will talk about music with anybody, who comes to the decaying white clapboard house, called, with a straight face, "Vienna House," that's just down the road from the huge, old Orkney Springs Hotel.
Over 100 conductors auditioned for fellowships at the workshop: only nine made it. Eighty musicians passed audition to be their guinea pigs. Richard Posner, concertmaster of the Chicago Lyric Opera, came. Fred Korman of the New Orleans Symphony came back for his fifth year. Others are advanced students, or free-lancers - most are from symphonies from places like Baton Rouge, Racine. Terre Haute or Iceland. What do they come to?
First the bad news.
"When I saw my room I thought it was a prison!" Cellist Lovisa Fjeldsted from the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra wasn't joking.
"The rooms are just like a Booth cartoon, only without all the pets," cellist Nanette Koch from the Hudson Valley Philharmonic said.
Fjeldsted, fanning her blouse to get circulation, showed me her room on the second floor of the old Confederate hospital. Bare light bulb, a limp score and a sweating cello sacked out on a sagging bed, wobbly furniture, no air conditioning and a pretty but wilted Icelander explaining, "It's not like this in Iceland."
"People have come here, seen this place and turned around," oboist Fred Korman laughed. "But I don't know what I'd do without it. This is where I get away from everything, but music. When I play with the symphony back home there's always some worry - oh, I have to get the car fixed - but here everything is self-contained. Under the guidance of Dr. Lert there can be very moving moments. Last year when he conducted the overture to 'Die Meistersinger' I cried."
"Everything is music, from 8 in the morning until after midnight," said violinist Hilary Kolmas, back for her second year. "There's a lot of partying, special friendships. People have a good time, except the conductors. This place can be rough on the conducting fellows."
"It's nerve-racking," conducting fellow Harry McTerry agreed and used his hands to explain. "You start conducting and do this hand, "No," Lert says. You start again, and he reaches over, 'No.'"
"We have to learn all the scores performed during the festival and all the scores used at rehearsals," George Marriner Maull, an assistant conductor for the Opera Orchestra of New York, added. "I brought my stereo earphones so I can shut out all the music people are making all the time here. I have to study."
Each conducting fellow conducts a portion of one of the festival programs. Last Saturday, after two professional conductors on the artistic staff, Phillip Spurgeon and Lawrence Smith, handled the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5, and Violin Concerto in D Major respectively, Harry McTerry conducted "The 1812 Overture."
"Yes, I'm nervous. Yes, this is big for me." McTerry wasn't exactly calm three hours before the performance. "I don't have an orchestra back home. I work for the Detroit public schools. And have you noticed that I'm the only black persons here? This program gets federal funds, too, but here I am, all alone."
The American Melting Pot - just getting into 80s as the sun went down - was up to its old tricks. Incongruities abounded. The living embodiment of the German aristocratic tradition of conducting sat front-row center. A nervous young black conductor was about to make a debut, and for three weeks he'd been taught "quietness." And in the back lot Cutshaw's Battery was polishing off it's last beers - and in a brief interview they didn't have anything to say about Tchaikovsky. "State's rights, too much federal regulation, turn the guns on Washington," and "we need recruits" bubbled out of the passel of young men with sideburns and sidearms.
Richard Posner who had just performed the violin concerto received warm applause as he assumed the concertmaster's chair. The orchestra tuned up some more. Then McTerry came out and received the applause, adjusted his podium, adjusted his podium again, and then began - his lefting the baton trying to move fluidly, hand at his side, his right hand hold-trying to give importance to the third beat just the way Lert says it is done in Vienna. The quietness was there, only McTerry's hand was shaking - between the slow, two, THREE, four were the hundred little excitements of a man trying to make his destiny.
"It takes a lot of guts just to get out there," Lawrence Smith, one of the teaching conductors, said afterward.
Lert sat quietly, staring straight ahead, his foot tapping quietly at times. I tried to get him to admit that during outdoor concerts his mind might wander to the extraneous noises of the night, but no, nothing crosses his mind but the music and the conductor.
McTerry calmed his shaking hand and his left hand went to work trying to mold the orchestra. His hands went above that "there" that Toscanini never went above. And other, older conductors that night only kept the left hand in their "vest pockets" for a minimum time. Because people are out there. The old aristocratic traditions of German conducting are gone, just like the Old South. Or is it? The overflow crowd might wonder as the creaking behind them alerted them that Cutshaw's Battery was priming the 1863 cannon.
The innumerable bugle calls of "The 1812 Overture" were over; the bell had done it's clanging. McTerry brought his left hand back down, and with elegance admirable for a man up there for the first time, suffered the BOOOMs.
And Boooms, and Boooms. And everybody had to turn to look, everybody but Dr. Lert. The audience was on its feet as the musicians tried to salvage any stateliness that might remain in the old war-horse concert piece. Bravos rent the air. McTerry, to understate the matter, was very emotional with excited tears and ebulliant smile. Then as he left the stage, Cutshaw's vos rent the air. McTerry, to understate the matter, was very emotional their heads back, guns at their sides as smartly as might be expected in 1978. With rebel yells the Battery left. McTerry returned for his standing ovation.
During a hot afternoon's interviewing, learning about the music and emotion in the environs of Orkney Springs, I kept asking if anybody had a Big Experience, something mystical. Since there is nothing there but music, maybe music goes to unbearable heights.
"I think some people can get a glimmer here," Lawrence Smith said with a smile.
"We got group musical therapy." Fred Korman backed away from mysticism.
After the concert as the crowd motored away the musicians chose their diversions. Ping-Pong for some, disco for others or a Mozart quartet.
Among the last to leave the concert were Dr. Lert and the Icelander cellist Lovisa Fjeldsted. She still looked wilted, and Dr. Lert had some unkind things to say about "The 1812 Overture." "The music is no good. People come to hear the cannons."
The musicians at Orkney Springs will be captivity for another week. Friday and Saturday they will perform publicly. They do Beethoven's Ninth on Saturday night. The drive from Washington is about 2 1/2 hours. Come early and talk to people and enjoy the whacky world of musicians.
If you side with the cannons, Cutshaw's Battery will be boom-booming August 11 and 12 at Wolf Trap under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich (who, if you haven't already guessed quiet, Dr. Lert doesn't think much of) performing in Tchaikovsky's Boom Boom "1812 Overture," Op. 49, Boom.