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Back from the Big Apple


New York, New York. Bright lights, big city. The Big Apple. Skyscrapers that make our giant redwoods seem small. The teenagers in our group tried to act nonchalant and worldly, but you could see the amazement in their eyes. The majority had never been to New York. Some had never been out of California.

For 144 Humboldt County high school students, spring break 2000 was a week they will never forget. Two music groups, the Arcata/McKinleyville High School Orchestra and Eureka High's Symphonic Band, traveled to New York City to perform at separate music festivals.

The 80-member Eureka group brought along 23 adults. The ArMack Orchestra was 66 members strong, including my son, Spencer, a percussionist. I was one of 14 chaperons plus the maestro, Carol Jacobson.

[photo of kids on Times Square] The Special K crew and friends at Times Square.

The cross country journey began on a Wednesday morning, but our departure was preceded by months of advance work. There is not enough room here to list all who gave their time and support in planning, fund raising and donations.

Wednesday 8 a.m. the musicians gathered for one last rehearsal on home turf while the chaperons marked all bags with distinctive yellow tape -- better to spot them on airport carousels. We then began the first run-through of trying to fit everything into spaces that never seemed ample.

One school bus and two vans would not hold us all so one chaperon drove her own minivan. Once all bags and instruments were stowed and everyone had found a seat, we set out on a nine-hour jaunt to the San Francisco Airport, a trip that would take six hours max in a car.

We arrived with just enough time to check in and grab a bite to eat, a necessity since the meal on our all-night flight consisted of a drink and a tiny bag of "Party Mix." Before we knew it we were in the air losing an hour with every time zone. I managed to catch a couple of hours of restless sleep, but some of the teens opted to talk all night. Either way, the entire crew was dragging as we touched down in New Jersey early Thursday morning.

A rush-hour bus trip took us to our hotel in midtown Manhattan, right smack on Broadway. Since they were not ready for us to check in, we opted to drop off our bags and trek to Lincoln Center where we were to attend a rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic.

The process of moving 81 people on foot across the city is not easy. Each chaperon was assigned a group of four students to watch over, some (myself included) shared responsibility for a second group. But with a four-score mob moving en masse, the groups mixed and mingled and it was impossible to keep track of them. Since I was the tallest chaperon, I was assigned rear guard. My task: nip at the heels of the stragglers like a sheepdog and keep the group from stretching over too many blocks.

On this first trip, a dozen blocks or more, the task was particularly difficult. There were so many new things to see: monoliths of glass and steel stretched as far up as you could see alongside old stone and mortar buildings with amazing details designed to tempt the eye. The kids were distracted (I was, too), but I knew I had to keep the herd moving.

The Philharmonic rehearsal was in Avery Hall, a wonderful concert facility with gilt walls and very comfortable seats. Conductor Daniele Gatti's program, titled "Music of Divine Inspiration," was in the middle of work on a dreamy piece by Hindesmith, "Nobilissima Visione." As our exhausted troupe settled in after the all-night journey, heads began to nod.

After a break the massive orchestra, known as "The Phil," America's oldest orchestra, returned for a run through of Mozart's Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter," without even a break for fine tuning.

After a brisk walk back to the hotel we checked in, showered and upgraded our wardrobes for an evening at Carnegie Hall. An incredible performance of a piece by Bartok and Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony by the Cleveland Symphony was preceded by a talk by the conductor and the concert master on the history of the group -- what makes them unique ("clarity") and why they chose the pieces they would play.

We were free to sit wherever for the pre-concert talk, most of us near the front. I noticed one of our flautists was sitting off to the side with a boy not from our group. It seemed she had arranged a rendezvous with her tuba-playing boyfriend from Eureka. Most of their group was in attendance, too.

The tuba player reported that about half of the band members had picked up a bug. One musician was ill when they left Eureka on the bus, but it spread en route to San Francisco. By the time they arrived in New York, that particular busload -- 40 students -- was suffering from gastrointestinal upheaval.

When I ran into the band's conductor, Rob Taylor, during intermission he said that the outbreak had forced them to cancel their planned performance on the CBS Early Show. Fortunately the bug only lasted 24 hours, Taylor said after the group had returned home.

"By Saturday everybody was well and everyone performed."

All three Eureka groups won gold awards Saturday at the Heritage Festival. The Symphonic Band also took home a first place and an adjudicator's award with an overall rating of 95 percent. The judges had also heard about how they had overcome mass illness and gave the Eurekans a special "Spirit of New York" award.

The group had an action-packed itinerary, quite similar to ArMack's. What would he remember most? Taylor said, "I was particularly excited when we came down from Carnegie and in the lobby there were almost 200 kids and parents from Humboldt County, all together in one place in New York City. That was something."

Saturday was also festival day for the ArMack Orchestra, in our case, the Gateway Music Festival, which took place at Manhattan Community College in the Tribeca Performing Center. The orchestra gave a great performance presenting three difficult pieces: "Bacchanale" by Saint-Saens, "Cappriccio Espanol" by Rimsky-Korsakov and the 3rd movement from the "Romantic" symphony by Hanson.

 [photo of ArMack Orchestra]

The ArMack Orchestra poses before its performance at the Tribeca Performaing Arts Center.

[photo of EHS Symphonic Band]

Eureka High's 80-member Symphonic Band poses for a group photo.

[photo in museum][photo of woodwind players]

At left, Eureka students and chaperon visit ancient Egypt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Right, woodwind players of Eureka High School Symphonic Band.

After the performance came an evening of cultural whiplash. A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art gave us an opportunity to stand before some of the finest pieces of art in the world (the real thing, not copies!). That was followed by another en masse walk, this time across Central Park to the Natural History Museum. We weren't there to see the museum (it was closed); we were there to witness a laser light show set to the music of Led Zeppelin.

Sunday began with a bus ride back to Jersey for an awards ceremony at a theme restaurant, Medieval Times, the place they went for dinner in The Cable Guy. The ArMack Orchestra was awarded first place in its division with a gold rating based on a national standard. (Each of the three judges gave them 90-plus points out of 100 to qualify for a gold.) In addition concert master Sasha Chandler received a special award as best soloist of the festival for her passages in "Cappriccio Espagnol," the only individual musician at the festival honored in this way.

The award ceremony was followed by an overlong medieval melodrama featuring knights jousting on real horses. A long hot bus ride in heavy traffic took us back to the city just minutes before curtain time for the matinee performance of "Les Miserables," Broadway musical theater at its best.

Dinner that night was at the Hard Rock Cafe -- our third theme restaurant. The decor was very cool -- rock memorabilia that touched on almost any rock fan's taste -- but the menu was suspiciously familiar. Since we were a party of 80-plus, our choices were limited: a hamburger, a grilled chicken sandwich, a salad or the "house special," in this case some sort of mystery pork sandwich. Since I had eaten chicken sandwiches for three days in a row, I opted for none of the above, skipping the prepaid meal, and ordered a penne pasta dish that came with -- chicken. But at least it was blackened chicken and it tasted pretty good.

Next stop -- what else? -- the Empire State Building. A lovely night, the lights of the city sparkling, the view was stunning. When it was time to return to the hotel my group decided that instead of taking a cab we would hire a long, white stretch limousine for our last ride back to the hotel.

[photo at Lincoln Center][photo of girls at Medieval Times]

Lunchtime at Lincoln Center and blowing kisses at Medieval Times.

[photo of Matt Robertson and Sasha Chandler][photo of group disembarking]

Matt Robertson and concert master Sasha Chandler on the Circle Line Tour and disembarking Saturday morning.

Since it was our last night in town, I made the rounds to make sure the kids were at least thinking about packing. My son and his roomies were reportedly in the lobby, so I hopped in the elevator to see what was up.

A group of seven awaited me with pleading eyes. It was after midnight, this was the city that never sleeps and they begged for one more visit to Times Square. We were off for a farewell stroll down Broadway.

Monday morning we bid goodbye to our hotel, the Novotel, once again squeezing into buses and plunging into rush-hour traffic. (Is there any other kind of traffic on the Jersey Turnpike?) We made it to Newark in time and boarded our flight to San Francisco.

This time we actually got an in-flight meal. As the flight attendant worked her way up the aisle asking "Chicken or lasagna?" I thought to myself, "Even if the lasagna is bad at least it's not chicken." Then one row before ours she announced the end of the lasagna. It was chicken or nothing; I ate the chicken.

Regaining the three hours we had lost on the way, we actually arrived in California ahead of schedule. Another arduous bus ride brought us back to Arcata where families and our own beds awaited. Laying my head on a familiar pillow I nodded off immediately and slept like a rock.

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