TRUE TALES OF THE PIT: Bill Eddins meets Stalin’s ghost

There aren’t a lot of stories of drug abuse, groupies and biker brawls at pig roasts among classical musicians. That’s why they call them “legit,” isn’t it?

But that doesn’t mean crazy things don’t occasionally happen in symphonic circles. We caught up with Edmonton Symphony Orchestra conductor Bill Eddins recently as he was getting ready to conduct and perform Ravel piano concertos at the Winspear Centre. The second of two shows happens tonight (Saturday, June 18), the last concert of the ESO’s Masters Series (ticket info here). He offers a Triple Feature of TRUE TALES FROM THE ORCHESTRA PIT.

The first incident happened about 20 years ago, when Eddins was conducting the Shastokovich’s First Cello Concerto with cellist Lynn Harrell. The music is all about Joseph Stalin’s infamous “work camps,” the gulags, in Russia after World War II.

“It’s all very depressing and angry,” Eddins says. “We were right in the middle of the second movement, which is specifically about the gulag archipelago, and in the quietest moment, one of the lights up in the proscenium just explodes and comes crashing down onto the timpani. The timpanist just dives out of the way. The orchestra comes to a screeching halt, in shock. And Lynn turns around, looks at it, turns back to the audience and says, ‘Hmm, must have been the ghost of Stalin.’ We started the second movement over again.”

The next anecdote proves that while symphony conductors have to know a great deal more about music than the public might ever imagine, they don’t necessarily know everything. Here in Edmonton at an ESO season opener a few years back, Eddins was getting ready to give the big upbeat to cue the orchestra during Stravinsky’s aptly-named Firebird Suite. In the split second before he flicks the baton, he looks around, as he always does, to make sure everybody’s watching him. What Eddins sees gives him pause: “My principal trumpet player has his face stuck in the bell of the trumpet.” The conductor instinctively and instantaneously files that bit of information in the part of the brain that deals with things like flying cows and backwards trumpet players, makes the cue without missing a beat and hopes for the best. Turns out the trumpeter was merely breathing into his bell to moisten it slightly so he could insert the mute without making any noise.

“That’s what trumpet players do, but how the hell was I supposed to know?!” Eddins laughs. “The first thing that ran through my mind is that my principal trumpet player has completely lost it and I’m about to start the Firebird Suite which has this huge trumpet part.”

Ah, such ribald tales of symphonic tomfoolery! There is one more. Read on, if you dare. It’s the reason why Bill Eddins doesn’t wear glasses.

He recalls, “I was doing a series of summer show in Indianapolis about 12 years ago, outdoor concerts in July, which on hindsight wasn’t very a good idea. It was hotter than the very hind hinges of Hades, 109 in the shade. I was playing and conducting Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin. I get to the end of the first famous piano cadenza, and I give this huge upbeat to cue the orchestra in and my glasses go flying off, slick with sweat. My eyesight used to be really shitty. I spent the next 15 minutes three inches above the keyboard and trying to play piano and conduct the orchestra at the same time.”

Fortunately he had the piece memorized. The glasses were eventually recovered, lenses popped back in (the wrong way) – so Eddins got lasik surgery as soon as he got back to Edmonton.

Nothing really strange has happened since.