The William Tell Overture is scheduled for a couple of childrens' concerts that I am playing this week with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony. I have only played the piece once before, and that was when I was a teenage flutist. It was probably the most humiliating moment (to date) that I ever had with music.
I believe it was in the spring of 1974, and I had only been playing flute for a year or so. Before my mother stopped playing the flute, due to a hand operation that made it impossible for her to hold the instrument, she had been the principal flutist of the Newton Symphony. It was a first-rate community orchestra that was conducted by Michel Sasson, who was then a violinist in the Boston Symphony. There is a mistake (probably a typo) in Michel Sasson's biography. The Newton Symphony was formed in 1965, and my mother was one of the original members.
They needed a principal flutist at the last minute for a childrens' concert at the Brookline High School, and I got a call to play. There would be a short rehearsal that would be followed immediately by the concert. Someone probably assumed that my mother's daughter would do as good a job as she would have done. That someone was dead wrong. I had never played flute in a real orchestra before, and I had never really heard the piece. The flute part was in my orchestral excerpt book though, so I practiced the (very difficult) solo diligently, and was pretty sure that I could play it accurately.
In the rehearsal my dialogue with the English Horn was fine, and the first variation might have been relatively acceptable, but the second variation, the one that has the three-note vorschlagen, and jumps around using various parts of the beat as its trampoline (it begins at 1:37 in this recording) was all over the place. I didn't know if I was in the right place, and the conductor (who may or may not have been Mr. Sasson) indicated severely that I should indeed be playing.
I was genuinely freaked out (and I imagine the conductor was boiling mad). I was not prepared for this! Why hadn't someone in my (extremely musical) family encouraged me to listen to a recording? Did they just assume that I would know what to expect? They assumed incorrectly. It is indeed a wonder that I continued in music after that. I embarrassed myself and my family with my incompetence. I dug a new bottom for the definition of incompetence, and, perhaps I imagined that the only way to go was up.
The concert went a little better than the rehearsal, partly because I knew what to expect (and possibly because the English Horn player may have advised me simply not to play). Nothing in my ensuing 36 years in music has come close to the humiliation of that moment in rehearsal, and I'm pretty confident, at this point, that nothing ever could.
Reading through my part for this childrens' concert, I notice that those da-da-dums in lower register of the viola are pretty hard to articulate cleanly, but from my seat on the second stand of the viola section, nobody will be able to "tell" if they are less than perfect. Still, I had better practice!