How I Celebrated Elgar’s Birthday, or “Surprise!”
(Originally posted June 3, 2009)
Tuesday June 2nd was another birthday for Sir Edward Elgar, not to mention Mikhail I Glinka, Johnny Weissmuller, Henry VIII, Marvin Hamlisch and the Marquis de Sade. June 2nd is also my birthday and has been for as long as I can remember.
Several months ago I was asked by the Mira Costa High School to emcee their orchestras’ debut performances at Walt Disney Concert Hall on June 2nd.
Since Marcia was busy taking care of year-end craziness in her job as a school administrator, I decided “Why not?” So I dutifully showed up at Disney Hall at 7 for the 7:30 concert by the four ensembles to be featured. Since there would be a lot of stage changes, rearranging things for ensembles ranging from a nonet to the combined forces of the Symphony Orchestra and String Orchestra, I was on stage quite a bit, vamping about the pieces to be played, the history of the hall and anything I could come up with.
Everything was going along swimmingly until the end of intermission. I strolled back onto my spot on the right side of the stage to introduce the start of the second half: Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. In mid-sentence I saw movement to my left. It was conductor Chris Schwabe, stepping onto the podium. Before I could finish my thought, he gave a downbeat and the orchestra started to play. My mind ran through the usual thoughts: how could I have screwed this up so badly? Why didn’t Chris warn me to stop? How am I going to get off stage gracefully now? All this happened in the first two seconds of music, because by second three I recognized that they were not playing Bernstein. Instead, the full orchestra of 80 players were being conducted in a performance of Happy Birthday.
It took another second or two to realize that, more likely than not, this wasn’t an accident at all. I’d been ambushed. I turned to my right to the sight of a youngster bearing the largest flower arrangement I’ve ever seen on a stage. She handed it to me and, predictably, that’s when I started to tear up. I took the flowers, listened to the orchestra finish their rendition of Happy Birthday and watched as Chris left the podium and walked up to me, shook my hand, said “Best wishes to you” and then walked off the stage, leaving me – utterly abashed, shocked and at a loss for words – to address the audience in the hall and continue the concert.
I don’t remember what I said except for something about “They say I’ll enjoy my thirties.” The laugh from the audience was inappropriately large and sustained. I didn’t mind one little bit.
The moral of the story? If you ever get asked to host an event by a high school orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall on your birthday, by all means say yes. I’m glad I did. Best birthday ever.