It’s Friday morning, and a woman in casual clothes, with a viola case on her back, bicycles down Harbor Drive. She’s headed toward Embarcadero Park, behind the Convention Center, for a summer pops rehearsal of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra.
The Coronado Bridge and downtown loom large, and the green lawn and blue waters of the bay complete a scenic color palette.
Approaching the stage from the parking area, dozens of people — older, distinguished-looking fellows with mustaches and smoking jackets, alongside young Asian women in shorts and T-shirts — stride along with instruments slung like guns.
Closer to the stage, across the field of chairs in rows, strains of classical tunes spring up and die away among the scales and finger exercises and quiet conversations.
An ominous trombone. A curious bassoon. Swooning strings. Dapper clarinets, and the tinkling flutter of a flute.
The orchestra is warming up.
Tonight, the men will wear tails and white bow ties and cummerbunds, and the women will be in black formal wear, with sleeves past their elbows and skirts past their knees; but right now, there are visors and straw hats, reading glasses and Ray-Bans, dress socks and sandals.
The rehearsal begins with some announcements. Monica Mancini, the guest artist for tonight’s summer pops show, is introduced. The orchestra members clap. Many of them — instruments in hand — “clap” by tapping their feet.
Mancini waves and smiles to the symphony members and says nothing. Her performance with the summer pops this evening will celebrate the music of her father, Academy Award-winning composer Henry Mancini. As for Monica, she’s been nominated for multiple Grammys and sung with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Michael Jackson to major symphony orchestras.
Matthew Garbutt, summer pops conductor for the symphony, says good morning. And then, “Let’s begin.”
Garbutt is wearing high-top white sneakers, khaki shorts, and a red, short-sleeved, collared golf shirt. His outfit provides counterpoint to the conductor’s baton in his right hand.
The baton — like a judge’s gavel or a hypnotist’s watch — is the mark of a specialist among specialists. Leonard Bernstein referred to the conductor’s baton as an “instrument of meaning.”
“First up, we’ll do ‘Pink Panther,’ ” Garbutt says, referring to one of the elder Mancini’s most famous tunes.
For much of the three-minute instrumental, Garbutt taps his right foot, his hands behind his back, his head bobbing in tacit enjoyment. Every half-minute or so, he turns the page of the score on the stand in front of him.
Slinking along the notes, the orchestra sounds flawless. That is, until something almost imperceptible occurs, and they all stop playing at once.
The strings are confused about a transition. “Bar 105,” a voice says. And then the same voice asks a question. Garbutt leans forward, addressing the question.
Then Garbutt speaks up and says, “Everyone! Let’s take it from 105.” And “Pink Panther” plays on to the end.
Mancini steps up to the microphone. She’s thin and attractive, with long arms and legs. Wearing sunglasses, she faces the empty seats on the lawn of the Embarcadero and sings “It Had Better Be Tonight” with the orchestra sounding spicy behind her.
After the tune, the harpist applies hand lotion.
Then “Moment to Moment” comes on, seething and slow, but stops after a few sultry measures. The woodwinds have a question about tempo. Garbutt responds, “It’s two-four in the alto part,” the rest of his answer mostly swallowed by an airplane flying over.
The orchestra starts again.
They seem like a race car in the slow lane or a hurricane-capable wind lifting a few leaves, half-hiding their potential.
This is the orchestra’s second time rehearsing the Henry Mancini material and its first time rehearsing with Monica Mancini. Tonight will be the show.
After an hour, it’s time for a break. The musicians tend to their instruments first — wiping down strings, protecting reeds — before they tend to their own needs. They have a snack in a tent behind the stage and then shuffle back up to their places.
During the first piece after the break, Garbutt interrupts. “We need the brass a little more raunchy,” he says, “a little dirtier, a little more hot.” The tune they’re playing is, after all, called “Le Jazz Hot.”
“Should we stand up to play it?” asks one trombonist.
“Do whatever blows your skirt up,” calls out Mancini.
But Garbutt says no, no need to stand.
Garbutt, 57, has been with the symphony since 1977.
“Being the pops conductor, I have instantly a little more connection with the audience, because we’re playing popular stuff that they know,” Garbutt says.
In addition to Garbutt, the symphony employs three conductors: Jahja Ling, the music director; Marvin Hamlisch (of A Chorus Line fame), who is the principal pops conductor and leads the winter pops; and Philip Mann, the fellowship conductor.
Garbutt is also the principal tuba player for the symphony, when he’s not waving his baton.
“For the summer pops, we played along with a Pink Floyd cover band this year,” Garbutt says. “And we did the music of Billy Joel.”
Back from the Ashes
Ward Gill leans earnestly across a small round table in the corner of his office. Gill has served as the symphony’s executive director for the past five years. His office in the Symphony Towers building on Seventh and B breathes with an air of elegance, right down to the rich wood desk, lush fabric on the chairs, and abstract paintings on the walls.
“I’ll speak from a business perspective,” Gill says, folding his hands. “If you want to be a business player — and there are new concert halls going in right now in Beijing, Shanghai, in Malaysia and India — you need to have a symphony. You judge a city by its institutions: its hospitals, its universities, its museums, its theater community, and certainly its symphony. That’s how you create great cities.”
Says Gill, “Six years ago, we were a tier-two orchestra, or a regional orchestra. We had a budget of a little over $8 million. Since then we’ve more than doubled that, to over $17 million.”