I grew up in a musical family, and as such, started taking piano lessons early on. Six years in, I switched to cello and excelled at the instrument—so much so that I took up lessons with the cello teacher at Skidmore College. I performed with the all-city and -county orchestras, did a number of those anxiety-inducing New York State School Music Association competitions and got into the Chamber Orchestra at Saratoga Springs High School. By college, I was working under the late, great cello teacher Frank Church at Connecticut College, performing in the college’s orchestra and doing ensemble work with the other cello students. Classical music was a big part of the first two decades of my life.
As I was learning how to play the cello, though, it quickly became clear that it wasn’t all that popular a thing to do. At least the high school jazz band had an electric guitarist and drummer—one-half of a rock band lineup. Those guys could transfer those skills over to Caffè Lena or the high school “battle of the bands.” I, on the other hand, was stuck with a piece of wood from the 19th century that I had to lug around in this giant coffin-like case (try getting attention from the opposite sex when you roll around like an undertaker). Sure, the cello had a “moment” in the early ’90s, when grunge kings Nirvana incorporated the instrument’s dour tone onto a few of their slow-burners on smash-hit record Nevermind—and later, on their much-publicized live album, MTV Unplugged in New York. But had you asked anyone I was going to high school with at the time what their favorite music was, it probably would’ve been Nirvana, not Bach. To this day, everybody knows who Kurt Cobain is, but just ask the average kid on the street who Yo-Yo Ma is, and you’ll get a “Yo-yo, who?” (He’s alive and a virtuoso cellist, by the way.)
Fifty-seven-year-old Jeffrey Curnow, Associate Principal Trumpet in the Philadelphia Orchestra, is well aware of the bad rap classical music gets out there these days. After asking him to prove that classical music was actually cool, he laughed heartily for a good five count. “I think there’s an appreciation for classical music as an adult reaches the age where they look at pop music and can’t understand any of it,” he says. “I listen to what my daughter’s listening to—she’s 14—and I can’t relate to any of it. I see a lot of people my age, in their late 40s or 50s, coming over to classical music for, if nothing else, something to grab onto, musically.” It’s safe to say that, as we get older, we’re less apt to groan or fidget during a two-hour-long orchestra performance. The history behind the composer and the piece tends to excite us more, says Curnow. Who needs Bieber when you’ve got Bruckner?
Thankfully, Curnow’s not the type of classical musician who takes himself—or his craft—too seriously. A talented cartoonist, Curnow is currently churning out weekly cartoons for NPR, in the vein of Gary Larson (The Far Side) or John McPherson (Close To Home), that not-so-subtly make fun of classical music and its musicians. He tells me he’s been cartooning since his days growing up just outside of Philadelphia in Easton, PA. He and his cousins used to draw their own comic books and figure out how to make people laugh with the words and pictures they created. He ticks off Jack Davis (of Mad Magazine fame), Al Hirschfeld, Bernard Kliban and Robert Crumb among their earliest influences. “I had a fascination with how these guys could be funny and cartoonists,” says Curnow. “Artists like da Vinci and Van Gogh—they were great artists. But these guys were funny.” By the ’80s and ’90s, Curnow was getting a smattering of his cartoons published in national newspapers and kept up his craft while in the Empire Brass. And with the advent of social media, Curnow began posting his work to his Facebook page. A friend’s wife, Yolanda Kondanassis (she’s one of the top harpists in the world), became a fan of his work, and passed his name on to NPR Music’s Tom Huizenga. Soon, he hired Curnow to produce the weekly cartoon. “It’s very demanding,” says Curnow of his NPR gig. “I used to just draw when the ideas came to me. Now I have to craft the ideas and make it happen weekly, which can be challenging. But that’s the fun of it for me: Sometimes I’m pacing around the room, trying to think of a cartoon, other times they fall out of the sky.” (During our conversation, Curnow twice asked if he could use things I said as future cartoons.)
So what might you find Curnow cartooning about? A trumpet lambasting his player for bad breath. Trombonists using their instruments as fishing rods. An opera singer getting a warning from a police officer for singing too loudly during his backyard barbecue. (All of these you’ll have to seek out for yourself on his Facebook page.) Curnow also chose a number of his favorites—call them his “greatest hits,” including a few about Saratoga Springs—to complement this article (be sure to check them out in the gallery above). But with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual season set to kick off on Wednesday, August 1 at SPAC, the pressure will be on. Curnow notes the break-neck speed with which the Philadelphia Orchestra works—especially in Saratoga. “When we’re at SPAC, we do one rehearsal and one concert, and a different concert every night,” he says. “So it’s a whirlwind for us.” That leaves little room for error. “Everyone onstage is striving for perfection,” he says. “I like to think of it [as if we’re] an Olympic gymnast. You’ve got your floor routine that you’ve been working on for years and years and years, and you go out there and you have your five minutes to do it, and then it’s done.”
I went to see the Philadelphia Orchestra perform several times as a kid, but I never really paid much attention to what was going on down on the stage. I was usually with my family and just enjoying the delicious picnic my mother had packed for our lawn seats. Now, when I go as an adult this summer, I’ll read the program and listen attentively. I’ll be interested in the historical background of the composer and his composition. And I’ll also be searching for one specific chair in the trumpet section and realizing just how cool this all really is. Who knew?