Alexander McCall Smith and His ‘Tuneless Wonders’
from New York Times / 3 April 2009 / By DEBORAH HOFMANN
Most Americans know Alexander McCall Smith as the venerable and droll author of the best-selling “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” novels (which have just been adapted into a new HBO series). But on Wednesday night, New Yorkers saw another side of the author at a Town Hall event, “An April Fools’ Evening With the Really Terrible Orchestra & Alexander McCall Smith.”
Smith was there in his capacity (rather, incapacity) as the euphonium-playing mainstay of the R.T.O.’s brass section. Perhaps best described as a combination of Monty Python, Tom Lehrer and “Prairie Home Companion,” the concert featured bagpipes, a march, a polka, a Gilbert and Sullivan sendup, new commissions and even a Musical Saw Concerto.
Half in jest, Smith and some Edinburgh friends founded the R.T.O. in 1995. The notion caught hold, while rehearsals and practice never would. With misguided confidence, the loosely knit ensemble grew to 65 “tuneless wonders.” They gained the collaboration of an encouraging conductor, Sir Richard Neville-Towne, K.D.O. (Knighthood of Dubious Origin), who is actually an accomplished organist and director of music at Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirk. Understanding and therapeutic, his batonless and gentle exhortation is, “Do your best!” An excerpt from Smith’s program notes captures the spirit of the endeavor: “At each rehearsal, the members of the R.T.O. arrive deliberately fresh and free from practice.”
On Wednesday, no doubt to provide acoustic cover, clapping along was encouraged. An audience sing-along included excerpts from “The Sound of Music,” with yodeling recruited during “The Lonely Goatherd.” During a deliberately maudlin rendering of “Edelweiss,” the men in the audience were directed to kindly break off in tears before the chorus and let the women and children carry on.
Near the middle of the 90-minute program, Smith called a timeout to discuss the challenges of playing a C sharp — and about his beloved Botswana-based books — with Malcolm Wood, who played the French horn. Smith explained the interview format: “It happens at the middle to give the audience a break.” And, he added, “the musicians, after all, are understandably ready to stop. If we have not taken a little nap or something, in our section, well, then we’ve already played hundreds of notes, and maybe more, if we were able to play them all! ”
As part of the finale to the Tchaikovsky “1812 Overture,” instruments, of a sort — brown paper bags — were provided to each ticket-holder. Two “very naughty boys” were summoned to the stage, to lead the audience in the technique of inflating and then smashing the bags to best effect, to fill the hall with the ear-busting explosion of cannons.
This single date on the R.T.O.’s American “tour” was a huge success, if the number of curtain calls and ovations are an accurate measure. Instead of roses, crumpled brown bags were flung gleefully into the air, many landing on the stage.
If the orchestra continues to do this well, Smith may have to give up his day job. Or perhaps we may look forward to a literary chronicle of the orchestra’s adventures.
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The orchestra hits the Town Hall (New York) by storm