When the conductor is, er, mis-conducted
By David Amos
SAN DIEGO–I wrote in a recent column about a personal family trip. But, as part of my musical career, I have had the privilege and pleasure to visit interesting places, countries in a state of social transition and major political and economic changes. Some of these places were most pleasant, and provided a reasonable amount of creature comforts. Others made me homesick almost instantly.
But in every instance, it was a revealing, educational experience. I saw places that most tourists will never visit, and had the opportunity to talk to many people whose voices had been suppressed for decades; some, for their entire lives. The stories were fascinating. At times, I witnessed history taking place, as was the case in countries where the Soviets were about to depart, or had recently left.
Just saying the word “Israel”, for my musical visits there, can bring to memory dozens of unusual and memorable encounters.
These travels have been for conducting live concerts and recording sessions, lecturing, attending specific musical happenings, auditioning musicians, visiting music schools, or judging in international music competitions.
These were experiences that were priceless, and in most cases, very positive. This, however, I can not say for the travels to and from my musical destinations. No one is exempt from horror travel stories.
Once in a while, after telling someone of an upcoming trip, I am told (you have heard this line many times yourselves!), “Oh, how glamorous! Can I come along and carry your suitcases?” Don’t even think about it.
Take, for instance, a trip that took me to Trapani, in Sicily, in 1999 to be part of an international jury for the city’s annual Chamber Music Competition. Trapani is a fishing town in West Sicily, and East of Palermo. The eight days in Trapani were terrific. Nothing but good things. After all, how can you beat hearing lots of chamber music every day, hobnobbing with brilliant and distinguished musical minds, and eating Italian and Sicilian food?
But, let me tell you of my return trip on Sunday, November 28, 1999. Due to short lead times and details given to me a few weeks before, my trajectory to return home included no less than four flights, all in the same day. It later turned out to be five flights. I awakened from the Trapani hotel at 4:00 a.m., after a late night of the closing ceremonies, and was on my way to the Palermo airport by private taxi an hour later. This car ride takes about an hour. On our way there, we ran into a violent thunderstorm. When we reached the Palermo airport, I discovered that there was no power in the building, due to the storm. They were operating with emergency lights, which were illuminating only a little more than eight modest Hannukah candles.
Even though Alitalia had several flights leaving at 7:00 a.m., there was only one window open to register all the passengers, and what seemed like a thousand people, not forming any discernible cues or lines, were pushing to present their tickets and luggage all at the same time, to a single, distraught employee. Chaos personified, and of course, everything in Sicilian, which is not quite Italian.
You can imagine my frustration those forty minutes after my plane was supposed to depart; I was still cueing in line, with no one around for me to plead my case. I ran to the gate to find it totally empty, only to find out that my plane not only had not departed, but had not yet arrived from Rome.
We finally departed from Rome. Upon landing, I had to call on my limited athletic skills to again run to the next gate. No time for breakfast, but I made it.
Landing in Paris’ Orly airport can be real fun. One is led through interminable shuttles, corridors, and security and passport checkpoints, all through connecting terminals, while being pushed and shoved by a million other harassed passengers. I believe that the terminal where I was must have been a quarter of a mile long. While standing by gate # 2, it was indicated that my gate was to be # 33 for my New York flight. But hurry! Your flight has finished boarding, and they are about to close the doors. Again, I desperately ran to gate 33, only to find out that due to gate changes, my plane was parked at gate # 3, where I was a few breathless minutes before. Run again. When boarding, I was advised by an attendant that due to my inexcusable tardiness, there would be no meal for me, since a final count was already taken. I took my seat for the eight hour flight, sweaty, but relieved. Somehow, I did receive a meal.
Upon landing at JFK in New York, I found out that my suitcases did not make the connection, but I was informed of this after waiting for 40 minutes at baggage claim. Fill out a missing luggage report, and board the airport shuttle to the American Airlines terminal for my flight to San Diego. The shuttle took 45 minutes to take me there (after all, this was the Thanksgiving weekend), and as you might have expected it, my connections luck finally ran out, and I totally missed my flight to San Diego.
Hoping not to lose a night and stay in New Your without my suitcases, I insisted in some form of alternate route home. For this, I was put on a “waiting list”, which is only a notch or two above the handling of cattle. I called home to notify my wife of the situation. There was a flight to Dallas-Fort Worth. I was given the last seat available, in the very rear, with practically the engine on my lap.
In Dallas, another marathon walk in a short time, another waiting list, and the tension of uncertainty. I was given a seat for my flight to San Diego, next to a very drunk and troubled woman. After over 24 hours from hotel in Sicily to landing at Lindbergh Field, I arrived late, hungry, exhausted, and happy to be home. My suitcases, after being subjected to a magical mystery tour of their own, arrived three days later. I have given you only the main highlights of that day; there were other incidents and encounters.
Now, we know that this harrowing experience is not typical of every trip; but potentially, any of these mishaps can happen, and many times do. Do you still want to carry my suitcases?
Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra in San Diego and has guest conducted numerous professional orchestras around the world.