Brazil or Bust — On the Road with the Women’s Philharmonic

In August and September, as a member of the forty-plus member Women’s Philharmonic, conducted by Apo Hsu, I spent four manic days on tour in Brazil with three of Brazil’s pop music icons — Nana Caymmi, Leila Pinheiro, and Daniela Mercury. These women are sort of the Brazilian answer to the three tenors, although they had never been together on the same stage before they met us.

I’ve been on lots of tours to foreign countries, but this one was way outside the norm. First of all, this was Brazil; second, not a moment was wasted on nonessentials like sleep and food (well, maybe a little bit); and third, this was a tour of women, celebrating women in music.

We spent three days in Rio. The first was a day off to get settled. On the second day, we had two rehearsals in a theater in old downtown, whose inadequate cooling system contributed a constant fortissimo low F# drone; on the third, we played a rehearsal and a concert on the beach at Copacabana. That night, we flew to Sao Paulo for a concert the following morning, then took an evening flight home. Whenever we weren’t working, we were out exploring, shopping, swimming in the ocean (across the street from our hotel in Rio), night-clubbing, and “talking” with the people we met with the help of Portuguese phrase books, high school Spanish, hand signals, and creative leaps of understanding.

I kept a journal of our experiences, excerpts from which should give you a taste of what it was like. We’ll join the narrative on the afternoon of the third day — Saturday, September 1st, before the first concert:

5:45 P.M. Makeup. What a hoot! This group is hardly known for its patronage of the cosmetics counter at the local mall, but the tour is sponsored by Avon; so, here we are — all “glammed out” with sparkly eye shadow, deep blush, and poofed-up or slicked-back hair. Some of us are literally unrecognizable. There are 20 makeup and hair people for the 40 of us. I take many pictures of women being curled, ironed, poofed and painted — blackmail, I think. Of course, I’m vulnerable, too. My mascara makes my eyelids stick together, and it’s hard to keep from rubbing them. Dinner? No time. The food that was meant to be available for us during our makeup hour was eaten by the other Avon representatives.

7:00(ish). The concert at Copacabana beach is about to begin. The crowd covers what we can see of the beach in the dusk, and the street to the concert site is closed off. News cameras are everywhere. Avon’s representatives work the crowd, giving free samples and displaying their wares. The crowd cheers as we come on stage, roars when Leila and Daniela appear, and absolutely explodes as Nana sambas onto the stage. It doesn’t stop until she begins to sing. It’s clear who the favorite is. We begin to realize how truly beloved and famous these singers are. Huge screens on either side of the stage show pictures of each and every one of us in our perfectly coifed and madeup state. What a rush!

After the concert and subsequent congratulations, we are ushered to the gate, from where we will run the gauntlet to the bus. The crowd is pushing against the fence that encloses the backstage area in an effort to catch a glimpse of one of the stars; two lines of 50 or 60 men in black suits stand shoulder to shoulder, holding the crowd back as we leave the backstage area and head for the bus. We watch from the top deck of the bus as Leila, barely discernible in the midst of her escort of “suits”, runs the same gauntlet to her car. Daniela appears a bit later and really plays the crowd. She jumps and waves above the heads of the security guards and stops to sign a few autographs. Just as she reaches her car, a woman manages to break through the line of security guards and lurches toward Daniela. The “suits” grab her by both arms, pull her back several feet into the unyielding crowd, release her, and return to their stations. Meanwhile, the unflappable Daniela is hanging out the door of her car, waving to her public.

We have a police escort on the way home to get us through the throng. They wave to us, and we wave back. Five or six white vans with “Avon Women in Concert” printed on the side are parked in front of the hotel. The enormity of this project is beginning to sink in. Later we learn that the crowd was estimated at 40,000.

9:30 P.M. Dinner? Forget it; we have a plane to catch. We dash upstairs to finish packing and leave ASAP for our flight to Sao Paulo. Fortunately, it’s a charter and will wait for us.

1:30 A.M. Our plane arrives in Sao Paulo. We walk for miles through the airport and see no one. We arrive at the International Hotel in Sao Paulo at about 2:30 A.M. There is a small problem with the rooms…conference between the night clerk, Jeanette (our manager) and Jane (our agent). They look grim, then angry. We wonder if we’ll have to sleep in the park. Luis, our local liaison, tells us to be ready for makeup at 8:00 A.M., half an hour earlier than originally scheduled. Jeanette thankfully overrules him saying, “No, they need their sleep, make it 8:45.” Thank you Jeanette!

3:00 A.M. In bed, I try several buttons on the phone to arrange a wakeup call; no one answers. I give up, so Carol (my roommate) sets her alarm, which she says is rather soft, for 8:00 A.M. We figure we need sleep more than we need breakfast. Zzzzz…

Sunday, September 2nd, 9:45 A.M. The phone wakes me up. “This is Luis. You must go down to makeup immediately. It’s 9:45, and the bus is ready to leave!” We had slept through our alarm. Carol is still out cold. I wake her up, we try (again) to wash off last night’s makeup, throw on our concert black, and run downstairs. The bus is indeed ready to leave, and the makeup people have already packed up. Luis hands us our Avon-pink acrylic turtleneck sweaters (in this heat!?). We run back upstairs to put them on and grab our own makeup so we don’t look too washed out among the other glamour girls. (Not so subtle comments from the madeup ladies in pink about our extra hour, or more, of sleep. They wish they’d thought of it!)

9:53 A.M. The bus leaves for Ibirapuera Park, where we will play. We drive through mainly residential areas; at first, the houses are mostly apartments and row houses, but gradually they become larger and more grand. On the edge of the park, many of the homes are Spanish looking — stucco, with balconies and small courtyards in front, containing flowering trees and bougainvillea. Very pretty. The park is huge. There are lakes with swans, the ubiquitous vendors selling cotton candy, popcorn, tapioca, coconuts, etc. There are also areas with poles for hanging hammocks when spending the day in the park. People and families are everywhere. I see more children here than I did in Rio — even on Saturday morning at the Copacabana beach.

10:50 A.M. We pull up to the backstage area. Again this is a shell over a platform — constructed just for this concert. Hurriedly, we are madeup and poofed up; we scoot up to the stage, where the orchestra is about to tune. Our jaws drop at the view from the stage. The crowd is standing shoulder to shoulder — literally as far back as we can see, and they spill around to the side as far as we can see. There must be tens of thousands of people here. Helicopters cruise over the crowd. Later we learn there were about 80,000. Incredible!

11:00 A.M. The stage is full of pink ladies, and the concert is about to begin. The crowd dances and sings, roaring when the singers come out. Again, Nana is obviously the favorite as she glides and pirouettes onto the stage; she really knows how to work a crowd. During Girl from Ipanema, Leila hesitates over her entrance to the second verse; the conductor signals and counts off the bars — 1, 2, 3. The winds get the idea and keep going; the violins aren’t sure where their obligato goes. Timidly, I come in after counting out what I think is the right number of bars rest. The others join in a note or two later. The day is saved! What could have been a major train wreck was averted! The rest of the concert goes as planned. The last number features the 3 divas together. Near the end, Daniela dances with Apo, Leila and Nana dance together, the divas dance in a three-way hug, the crowd dances and roars. We can hardly hear each other. At the curtain call, Daniela motions the orchestra to the front of the stage.

Backstage after the concert, the divas are interviewed on camera. I take pictures. On the way to the bus, children ask for our autographs from behind the roped off path to the bus. Security is not anything like it was last night. Still, what with requests for interviews and autographs, and crowds of people waving to us as we ride the bus through the park, we get a taste of what it’s like to be a pop star.

4:30 P.M. I try to take a nap, but I’m too wired to sleep. I’m not ready to go home yet. I’ve only seen a tiny bit of Sao Paulo; I could spend months in Rio. What a wonderful country! And the people have all been so kind and helpful, in spite of our hand gestures and feeble attempts at Portuguese. The ladies in pink of the orchestra are wonderful, too. It feels so good to be a part of a group that hangs out together and makes the best of, and really enjoys, what is often a very frustrating experience. I will miss this…Sigh…I head for the jacuzzi in our bathroom. Ah…just the ticket. The last of the mascara dribbles down my cheeks.

6:00 P.M. I rouse myself to rearrange my suitcase. I’m still at it at 6:23. The bus is supposed to leave at 6:30, and we are determined not to be the ones holding up the show again. After considerable re-folding, poking, shoving and jamming, I get most of my goodies in my suitcase and the rest in my violin case. We make it downstairs in time not to be conspicuously late. Evidently there’s no hurry; the bus doesn’t leave until after 7.

8:00 P.M. We arrive at the airport for our 9:30 flight. This morning at 2 A.M, you could have marched a herd of elephants through here and not hit anyone; now it’s wall-to-wall people from just inside the door to the check-in point. Using the basses as a battering ram, we push towards the end of the line; looking back, we see that the line now goes out the door. 70 min. later…

9:10 P.M. A few of us have finished checking in. On the way to the gate I hear the  boarding call for our flight. Most of us are not close to checking in. I call Jeanette’s attention to this, and she says everyone in line is on our flight. This is only mildly reassuring. Hurrying to the gate, I get right on the plane only to find it mostly empty; maybe we’ll all make it after all. Apo comes aboard and tells us that they’ve worked it out, and we’ll all make it.

Monday, Sept. 3, 9:30 A.M. After some 16 hours of travel, we arrive at SFO to be greeted by friends or family. At home, I begin to crash. It’s Monday morning. I haven’t had a decent meal since Saturday breakfast, and I’ve slept in a bed only 6 hours since then (and about 4 hours on the plane). It was fun while it lasted, but it’s good to be home.