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Press Release: 24 August 2007
The new violin
Turnham Green to Zurich
Venice to Rome via Stockholm
Kampala, the Tender Talents Magnet school
Australia to Hong Kong
Taipei to China
Buenos Aires to Miami
USA, Canada and back home
28 Sept - 24 Oct
THE LAST LEG - FRANTIC ALL THE WAY
Clutching a ruinously expensive business class ticket (for explanation please see previous blog – basically about planes with engine trouble and a TV interview in Miami – see below) I make my way through Caracas airport towards the American Airlines lounge. At the sight of the trays of fruit, croissants and coffee my inner musician takes over and I stuff myself.
I’m just starting to relax when I remember I don’t have anywhere to stay in Miami yet and, without an accommodation address, won’t be allowed to enter the US. Second panic call of the day to Jane. An hour later, by which time I am sitting on the plane, she still hasn’t found anywhere I can afford. The aircraft doors close, I switch my phone off and after four hours, during which I attempt to eat my way through $1,150 worth of business class breakfast we land in Miami. I switch the phone on.
The Levy brothers have come to my rescue. Guillermo, who read an article in the Miami Herald, has emailed and arranged for brother Oscar to make his sofa-bed available, my introduction to couch-surfing. (Couch surfing, Oscar explains later, is an internet network that puts travellers in touch with locals who can offer them … well … a couch. He’s been signed up for a while and is a complete convert.)
Fiddlers – no thanks
At least one other person has read the Herald article – a manager at Miami International airport emails to ask me NOT to play my violin at the airport. I haven’t got time to anyway. Guillermo is waiting outside to give me a lift into town.
The CBS TV crew are waiting at Miami Beach. They plan to run the story on the west coast evening news on Sunday night. Fantastic! Exactly the kind of kick-start we need for the US. I set up eBay auctions (a short concert as the item) for LA, San Francisco and Seattle, timing them so as to capitalise on the broadcast.
Before that there’s a reunion in Dallas. Nicolette Solomon, who I’ve known since I was in short trousers, was my date at my high school dance. Thirty-four years on, Nicolette, who now runs the Suzuki Institute of Dallas, has forgiven me my dancing and agreed to take on the task of looking after Musequality’s US donations.
She’s also had a warning from Dallas Fort Worth airport management about any kind of musical offering. Undeterred, Nicolette’s waiting in the baggage hall with just a small orchestra, serenading the (very, very happy) passengers waiting for their bags! The rest of the day is manic – busking, a few lessons, a short concert in the evening and, finally a couple of glasses of wine. Think it was just two.
Next morning is a very early start to fly to LA. Agnes, my contact at CBS, emails: the network bosses in New York really like the story and have decided to run it nationwide. So far so good. The problem is that the first available slot isn’t for a couple of weeks just two days before I’m due to fly home. Ah! Looks like it’s going to be Plan B again. Ebay bidding is, to be honest, very slow.
A pattern now starts to develop as I scrounge beds from my friends as I make my way round America. Children are evicted from bedrooms although I draw the line at depriving them of their meals as well.
Jane Salonen invites me to stay in LA. I do a sort of preliminary busking probe in Santa Monica (without a permit) and am fairly quickly warned off by a man armed with a clipboard. My problem is that a licence takes up to two days to process. It doesn’t look as if there’s much chance of getting one until a friend of Jane's, who works at the council, offers to help. She has me sorted out in about 15 minutes!
I do an interview with Dennis Bartel on KUSC, southern California’s classical radio station, which is great but, alas, too late to breathe life into the eBay auction. Never mind. I spend the afternoon and early evening busking (legally for the first time in a while).
The eBay auction attracts one bid. At least it gets me off the street and my buyer, Wilma, has invited a load of friends along. It turns out to be a great evening and raises $400.
San Francisco next. We’re (Jane and Jo in London and me) struggling to get the media interested. It’s going to be much easier to get serious support for Musequality if we can get the story out. I’ve got an interview lined up on KDFC, the Bay Area classical station, but really need to get something in print. I had no luck with the LA Times despite a concerted effort so decide a change of tack. I send out a much more downbeat press release, violinist just scraping by on the streets kind of thing. As a matter of fact, by the time I arrive in SF I’m feeling pretty downbeat myself.
In baggage collection I switch on my phone to find a message from Joshua Kosman, music critic at the SF Chronicle. I meet him in Union Square. I haven’t got permission to play there but talk a security guard into giving us a few minutes for photos. We walk down to Embarcadero where I manage to earn about $3 – a not entirely convincing haul.
Later there’s just time to dash over the Golden Gate Bridge where I get my favourite pic of the tour. EBay has not taken off here either but I’ve been saved from the embarrassment of going unsold by an old friend, Jon Angel, who insists on feeding me as well.
Almost the finest hour
Hoyt Smith gives me a really good plug on KDFC radio for a busk at lunchtime which, netting $450, turns into the second best single hour of the trip (after the first day in June). Trevor and Lynda Hastie put on a concert at their home on the Stanford University campus – they get a crowd of friends in and the evening makes over $1,500.
Next morning it’s back down to LA for a house concert at the home of an architect friend. Clive Wilkinson was a travelling companion on my first busking trip through France. Since then he’s designed the Google headquarters and, as it turns out, a very nice little concert hall in his house too.
Nearly miss my flight up to Seattle the next morning after getting out at the wrong terminal. Then nearly miss my lift from Seattle airport when it takes me 20 minutes to spot conductor, Stewart Kershaw, who has come to collect me. In the end, he finds me and drives me to Robert Warren, an old school friend last seen 25 years ago, who is looking after me. We discover that our sons are uncannily alike – to the point that even we would have trouble telling them apart in photos. Nelson Dong invites me in to meet staff at Dorsey and Whitney law firm after which Robert gives me a guided tour of Seattle. There’s also time to visit a couple of schools and to do a bit of busking outside the Experience Museum.
The next morning I’m on the early train up to Vancouver. After a couple of quiet days media wise, things have picked up. Beth, the Granville Island busking coordinator (they actually have someone whose job it is to help buskers – how good is that?) sorts me out with a permit in no time and I get going. It’s a brilliant place to busk. Lots of people, organised pitches and, best of all, indoors. It’s a case of making hay while the sun shines so I keep going. I’m knackered by the end of the day with aching shoulders, the first tinges of tendonitis and, a bit worryingly, an aching joint in my left hand first finger.
I’m very glad when Alan Kenney, who is taking me in for the night, offers to collect me. Life gets even better when Heather serves up a couple of generous helpings of salmon for supper, after which there is just time to be thrashed at video tennis by their son before bedtime.
Call Chris in a corner
There is someone whose hidden presence has been a major feature of this journey. Though we’ve been in almost daily contact, I haven’t seen Chris Helm in about 35 years. Chris’s rugby playing contacts have been a major support right the way round and, from his home in Hawaii, he's been able to get me out of one tight spot after another.
A personal best
In Toronto. Simon Wynberg, another South African, meets me at the airport. The next morning I do a short stint outside the CN Tower followed by a couple of radio interviews. I pop in to do some teaching at the Regent Park School of Music which provides music education for children in a neighborhood where 70 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. It’s rush hour by the time I’m finished so I decide to slot in a quick bit of busking before supper and set something of a personal best by being moved on three times in four minutes. Dianne and Peter Simon make sure I am entertained, fed and generally well looked after.
Hopping back to America
The next morning Kevin Leung picks me up bright and early to take me to the airport for a hop over the lakes to Chicago. The McArthy family has organized a concert with a spot of busking at the local library in Elgin the following morning. Then a train in to Chicago to meet Rachel Goldstein of the Chicago Symphony who’s arranged a slot for me as a street performer during the Macy’s Music Day.
First I have to find an internet connection so I can make a reservation for my flight to Boston the next day.
Sorting out flights is one of the more stressful chores. I can’t be sure when I’m going to have internet access and have to strike a balance between booking ahead and retaining some flexibility. At this stage I haven’t been able to get online for about 24 hours and am now pushing flexibility to breaking point. I’m running short of time before my slot outside Symphony Hall. There seem to be only a handful of seats available for the next day and, to make matters worse, the airline booking sites keep hanging up on me. There are only two seats that I can afford and which will get me there at a workable time. Only I can’t get in to the web site to book them. I try phoning – no luck. Then there’s just one seat left and, a few minutes later, none. I have to try different routes – there’s a flight via Rochester at 6.35am. That means a 4am start. Oh well, I don’t have any choice.
Rachel is waiting outside Symphony Hall and has brought some duets. Two are definitely better than one especially as we have to spend about 40 minutes competing with a parked bus that, even though it’s going nowhere, has its engine running continuously. We get to play indoors for a bit too, which is great.
Back to Elgin on the train. In spite of an early start we celebrate with a jam session with Rick, daughter Mary and myself on permutations of violin, guitar, ukelele, theremin and banjo. Sue and the family dog look on.
Calling in support
The cab for the airport arrives at 4am. I still don’t have anywhere to stay in Boston. Because I’m doing as many interviews as I can, I have much less time to busk as well so am really going to struggle if I have to book into a hotel. Back in London Jane rings a friend, Libby, and, 10 minutes later, I have a bed for a couple of nights.
First stop is Linden Square where Karen Hilliard has organized some local families to come along. Then to Fanueil Hall for a couple of hours. Karen picks me up from the local train station and drives me out to Dover where Liz and Rud Barrett are waiting with a gin and tonic, supper on the table and a very comfortable bed.
Boston starts to get busy. After an interview with Cathy Fuller at WGBH radio station I’m introduced to Lisa Wong who has dropped by the station. Lisa is a doctor who helps run the Longwood Symphony Orchestra, a band made up of doctors, that raises money for medically underserved groups. I have to dash off to another meeting but we agree that we must meet up again. I’ve got some flexibility in my schedule so can come back to Boston fairly easily. That evening Liz and Rud have invited some friends round and I subject them to my scraping.
Moan, moan, moan
In spite of some good local news spots, we’re still struggling to get wide coverage. Radio stations obviously need to have you in their studio while newspapers usually want a report of how it was busking in their home town. They are also reluctant to commit to anything in advance which adds to the uncertainty. The net effect is that, by the time anything is published, I’m on my way to the next city missing opportunities to meet people who may be able to help.
In Washington Simon Shercliffe has arranged for me to play to staff at the British Embassy. After that I’ve got an interview at Reuters. I’m still nervous about whether the CBS broadcast is going ahead. Agnes at CBS reassures me that we still have our slot, much to my relief, but I know that if there’s a big news story on that day we will almost certainly lose it. Reuters is syndicated nationwide as well so that may get the story out sooner.
Outside the White House I am very politely asked not to play my violin on the pavement. The policeman says I can play as much as I like as long as I stay in the road (pedestrianised, in case you are wondering).
Bell v Juritz: you decide
There’s one other pilgrimage that has to be made. That’s to L’Enfant Plaza, the subway station that was the venue of violinist Joshua Bell’s foray into busking ($32.17 in 40 minutes). I ask permission from someone in a uniform and start up. Almost immediately someone else in a uniform steps in and it’s game over. If Josh played for 40 minutes, I’m lucky if I managed 40 seconds but, crucially, in that time a passer by gave me a dollar. My hourly rate was therefore $90. So who did better?
To Georgetown in the evening. After my subway triumph this is a bit depressing – although there are lots of people around, the pavements are very narrow and there just aren’t any good pitches. $7 in two hours.
Stroke of Guinness
Simon picks me up and, over a bottle of Guinness, he hatches an idea. If I’ve done the White House, I should have a go at the Prime Minister’s residence at No 10 Downing Street. He has a friend who works there and offers to email him. It’s a long shot, but …
Quick quick slow
To New York on the train. As we hoped, the Reuters piece has kicked things off. I meet a reporter and photographer from the Daily News (NY’s biggest circulation daily) at Penn Station and, after that, have to dash up to the Lincoln Centre to meet a journalist from the New York Times. We head to Central Park to do some photos. It’s a little slow but not bad.
A few people come up to chat. A man introduces himself as Dan and asks if I have anywhere to stay. I’m all right for tonight but do need a bed for a few nights coming up. I take his card with a warning that I might take him up on his offer.
Go to Starbucks to check emails. The New York eBay has ended without a single bid. Bugger. Up to the Lincoln Centre where the London Symphony Orchestra is playing. Bump into a couple of them then head out over the road to see how I fare standing on a traffic island in the hope of picking up some passing trade from concert-goers. It’s not stunning.
Back to performing on a platform
There is one thing that makes busking in America great and that is the First Amendment, under terms of which, everyone has the right to freedom of expression ie. I can hack away to my heart’s content without fear of being chased away.
Well almost. I have to meet a TV crew from Reuters. We are immediately chased away from the Time Warner Center by a guard quoting the Homeland Security Bill. I have had the occasional criticism of my violin playing but this is taking it a little far, I think. Still, I’m not about to argue and instead we duck down into the subway. On the platform business is surprisingly good – nearly $200!
Back to Starbucks for the email and then head down to Penn St for the train out to Scarsdale where I’m staying.
Press stress depression
Having spent the best part of three weeks worrying about getting coverage, it now starts to snowball. I’m dashing around New York like a headless chicken while, back in London, Jo and Jane are frantically trying to organise me. Press back in the UK is picking up too. Interview with Guardian lined up for morning. The Independent also gets in touch. Jo juggling between them as they want to run stories on different days, jeopardising our chances of getting both.
Next morning train into New York. In London Jo is engaged in delicate negotiations between Guardian and Indy who still won’t see eye to eye on when to print. Six telephone calls back to London before 8.30 am. As I arrive at Penn Station I get a call from Good Morning America producer. An hour ago I hadn’t realised that life was this complicated but now, with the Brit press complication, the last thing I want is to get caught up in a similar battle between ABC and CBS risking the news slot that is still lined up. I say I need to run any other big TV interview past CBS. This goes down like a lead balloon. Agnes (CBS) says to go for it but ABC have quickly lost interest.
Jo rings. Guardian and Indy have both agreed to run the story on Saturday. Perfect.
Out of the blue I get a call from a Times reporter as I’m walking to Penn St to catch a train to Boston. Can he talk to me quickly? We meet and chat for five minutes after which I hop on train. An hour later Jo rings. The Times want to run their article tomorrow and won’t agree to match publication with the Guardian and Indy. The Guardian and Indy indicate they will probably pull their stories. Depression sinks in.
Weillerstein v Juritz : you decide
Lisa Wong is waiting at Boston station. That evening I give a short concert at the house of David Perlman. The leader of the Cleveland Quartet, Don Weilerstein, a wonderful violinist, is a guest and I really feel that I would much rather be listening to him playing.
Back to NY the next morning. Dan (from Central Park) Arshack says the offer of a roof over my head still stands. Now my computer screen is starting to pack up so need to get that sorted at some point. Arrive in New York and get on with busking straight away. The subway platforms are good places but the passing trains are incredibly noisy. The busiest platforms at the changeovers for the express trains also have the most trains stopping and so I am drowned out for much of the time. I am also having to hump my bags up and down staircases – there are surprisingly few escalators on the NY Subway. This is starting to feel like hard work.
Well, maybe it’s not that tough
Back to 42nd St to meet up with the Arshacks who are seeing a show with friends. Set up outside the theatre entrance and start scraping. Donations are minimal but it keeps me busy. We go back to their place on the subway and I am treated to champagne and fois gras. Their kids come in – conversation is extremely fast, lively and very funny. The World Series in baseball is on and the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are battling it out. In Boston all the talk was about the Red Sox. They’re just as partisan in NY.
Dan and Nancy are a lovely couple. Dan is a criminal lawyer and Nancy, a former dancer, is a midwife. I’m sleeping in Dan’s son’s bedroom. One of my first requests is if I can put some washing on and, as I pair my socks, I realize that I now have five clean pairs with just three days to go. The end is in sight.
After one failed eBay auction in New York, I’ve set up another one and this time I do actually sell – not a huge price, it has to be said, but at least I’ve got something to do on Saturday night.
Revisiting sights in New York
I go down to Ground Zero on Sunday morning. Last time I was in New York I went up to the viewing area of the World Trade Center. Now it reminds me more of a scar than a building site. There can be few people who weren’t deeply shocked by the Twin Towers attack but, visiting the site one can only imagine the overwhelming horror of experiencing it at close hand. Walking round the area is a sombre experience.
Winding up as it starts to winds down
The Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, a very good non-professional orchestra, has invited me, through Mo Barrett (the son of my Boston hosts), to make a brief appearance at their concert on Sunday afternoon. Afterwards we have a Chinese meal. Mo is extremely entertaining as are his YouTube videos - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Odvauc094I.
CBS broadcast the five minute clip. They’ve done a really nice job. Things have gone our way back in the UK too. After all the negotiations we get coverage in The Times, The Guardian and The Independent back home.
On Monday there is a string of interviews. I’m starting to feel very tired but decide to stop off at 92nd street platform for a final busk – to be honest, I need the money. I’ve been there for an hour when I see two familiar faces – it’s Antonella and Angelo Marini. Angelo saw me in June when I was in Italy, then happened to be walking past when I was in Miami. A week later, I met Antonella in Palo Alto and now, in my last half hour of busking, they get out of a subway train right next to me!
In the evening the Arshacks take me out to supper at a small Mexican restaurant where they’re playing Brahms chamber music as background music. Even if there’s the potential for cultural indigestion, the food is delicious. After that, I nip down to Times Square to try to buy some small presents for the family. I realise with a shock that I’ve been away for two months and have no idea how tall 12 year old Jordy is going to be when I get back.
Last morning. Downtown to visit the British International School. Get a call to meet a photographer down near Staten Island Ferry – rush down there and then have to rush back uptown to the Arshack’s apartment to pick up my bags. Nancy very kindly drives me to JFK airport.
I check in and then, just before I board the plane, get a message that No 10 has agreed to me busking there in the morning. It’s not quite finished yet.