Hearing the call at Tanglewood: Percussionist works his way from stage crew to the stage

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LENOX >> In the music world, it is not uncommon to hear of stars who were plucked from the chorus. But making the leap from being in an orchestra's stage crew — the team that puts out chairs and music stands and sets up lights — to being a player is altogether rarer.

That was the jump made by Miles Salerni, a 25-year-old percussionist who spent the past two summers working here on the Tanglewood stage crew while trying to get his break, and who finally found himself onstage this month playing "Siegfried's Rhine Journey," from Wagner's "Goetterdaemmerung," as a fellow in the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

His story is partly about persistence and partly about the hypercompetitive world of classical music, where conservatories produce far more talented players each year than there are spots for at top festivals or orchestras. Salerni, who studied at Boston University, the New England Conservatory and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, had been trying to win a fellowship at the Tanglewood Music Center, the summer academy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, since 2012 — but never quite made the cut.

With his hopes pinned on Tanglewood, where some of his teachers play as members of the Boston Symphony, he decided to get here by other means. "I was just thinking, maybe I can be involved somehow," he recalled in an interview. "I really wanted to be surrounded by music and be surrounded by my teachers, who I just absolutely love."

So in 2014 he took a job with Tanglewood's small, hardworking stage crew, learning the intricacies of lighting and sound, setting up the stage for rehearsals by day and concerts at night, and often working 70 to 90 hours a week — while trying to soak up as much music as he could.

"During most rehearsals I'd go out and listen in the audience, and just stare at the percussion mostly — just take it all in," Salerni recalled. "Besides it being the Boston Symphony, there are just so many great conductors that come during the summer, and to see them conduct was amazing."

On a handful of occasions, he said, he had a chance to take a night off from the crew and play when more percussionists were needed. His first concert here was a 2014 arrangement of Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé" for brass and percussion. "I was shaking in my boots," he recalled. Later that summer he got to play Respighi's "Roman Festivals," which requires a large percussion section, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a performance conducted by Charles Dutoit.

And he kept on auditioning each year for the music center, a academy with free tuition, room and board, whose first class of students included Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss. Finally, this winter, after two summers on the crew, Salerni tried out once more, one of 60 percussionists vying for six percussion spots. He prepared selections for marimba, snare drum, xylophone, glockenspiel and timpani — any of which could have been chosen for the audition.

He made the first cut and joined about 20 other finalists who advanced to a blind audition, a new component of the process introduced this year. Tapes of these auditions were evaluated by the percussionists and timpanists of the Boston Symphony, who chose Salerni to be one of the fellows this summer.

Several of the players, who had befriended Salerni during his time on the crew, had been hoping he would make it, said Kyle Brightwell, a percussionist with the orchestra.

"We were all kind of rooting for him from afar to get over to the other side, and the fellowship," said Brightwell, 28, who had crossed paths with Salerni at various music schools for years. "I'm so glad it finally happened. The whole section sat down and listened to the tapes, blind. I thought I sort of knew who some people were, but I was just totally wrong."

J. William Hudgins, a percussionist in the orchestra who taught Salerni at the New England Conservatory and who has overseen the auditions in recent years, said, "I was happy that the first year we ever did the auditions blindly, Miles was selected."

Hudgins confessed that he would miss him on the crew. "From an absolutely selfish point of view," he said, "it was fantastic having a percussionist on the crew, because he was familiar with all the instruments, all the lingo, and he just knew what we were going to need."

Having to try out several times to become a fellow here is hardly unusual. Ken-David Masur, who conducted the Boston Symphony here this month and is a son of Kurt Masur, who was the music director of the New York Philharmonic, also had to audition more than once to get the chance to study at Tanglewood.

Salerni, who is originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and now lives in Pittsburgh, said that he treasured his time on the crew, but that spending his days watching other musicians perform had only added to his drive to succeed and made him practice more.

"I would be doing things like preparing a room for Lady Gaga to show up, or these popular artists, I'd get to work on setting up Mahler Eight, or I'd get to go 45 feet in the air on this Genie lift that sways at the top and have to try to thread this rope through a pulley, and all of that was so thrilling," he said. "But there's still no greater thrill than just being up there and playing onstage and performing. There's nothing I'd rather do."

As he left a recent rehearsal of "Siegfried's Rhine Journey" at the Koussevitzky Music Shed, where he played the triangle and added some sparkle to Wagner's interlocking themes representing river and gold, he was gently teased backstage by Christopher Ruigomez, the director of concert operations and assistant director of Tanglewood, who oversees the stage manager and, by extension, the crew.

"Hey, can I get your autograph?" Ruigomez asked.

When summer ends, Salerni will have to worry about his next step. There are auditions for the New World Symphony in Miami at the end of the summer, and for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in October.

But first, he said, he is especially looking forward to the "Tanglewood On Parade" concert in August, which ends with some climactic Tchaikovsky. "The big, culminating thing is the '1812' Overture, followed by fireworks," he said. "And I'm playing the snare drum."


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