Back in July, a few weeks before the Philadelphia Orchestra made its grand, annual debut at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), I had the pleasure of chatting with (and writing a feature about) the orchestra’s Associate Principal Trumpeter Jeffrey Curnow, who weekly, draws a humorous cartoon series for NPR Classical, poking fun at some aspect of the classical music world—whether it be the players, conductors, composers or compositions. (I was classically trained on the cello for more than a decade, and my instrument and I were the butt of many an off-color joke throughout the years; picture how a cellist plays his instrument, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.)
All you have to do is look at one of his cartoons to realize that Curnow doesn’t take himself too seriously. And the vast majority of them are hilarious; rare is the dud in his heaping portfolio of scribbled buffoonery. (I particularly like his cartoon entitled “Recycled Instruments,” in which he shows a tuba being used to hold golf clubs on the links; a flute, as a his/hers towel rack; a double bass standing in for a grandfather clock and—wait for it—a viola shredded into mulch. It’s true; no one who’s ever played the viola has ever gotten any love!) Think: The Far Side, but with classical musicians standing in for the animals. He sent me a bunch of examples of his work—including a few inspired by his yearly residency at SPAC—and I published them along with the feature I wrote about him. During the interview, Curnow told me that, oftentimes, ideas for his next cartoon would just “fall out of the sky.”
Little did I know, but a few minutes before the end of our discussion, one such idea would fall out of the air, anvil-like, with a resounding thud, somewhere between my desk here at saratoga living and Curnow on the other end of the phone line. I was asking him about what it was like to play shows with the Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC, night after night, from August 1 to August 18, with so little room for error. “What do you even do to prepare?” I asked him. “I’m assuming you guys are listening to one another, and it’s pretty obvious onstage if someone makes a mistake.” Before I let him answer me, I asked, almost rhetorically, “Does anyone ever make a mistake onstage?” I kept riffing. “Do you get a slap on the wrist from the conductor [afterwards]? Or is there an after-concert pep talk, like a sports team gets?” I said. At this point, Curnow started laughing. I’d struck a chord. “That’s a cartoon,” he said of the sports team question. “I’ve got to remember that. That’s great. OK, I gotta write that down.”
Well, as luck would have it, Curnow wasn’t joking. He ended up drawing a version of my off-the-cuff question: what a pre-orchestra-concert pep talk might look like. NPR Classical posted the cartoon to its Facebook page, and voila! The results are spectacular—and the cartoon’s been shared hundreds of times.
I guess my sixth-grade teacher at Lake Avenue Elementary School was wrong, after all. There’s no such thing as a stupid question.