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It’s 1:16 p.m. and Nancy Fisch sits at her desk, making mysterious, hieroglyph-like squiggles on a copy of music.
With a freshly sharpened pencil in her left hand — her left-handedness is a sign of her brilliance, she jokes — she’s transferring the squiggles from one copy of a score to another.
“Let’s see how long it takes me,” she says, savoring the challenge.
Fisch is the Joan Rivers of symphony librarians, a wise-cracking, Brooklyn-born, former French horn player with a talent for organization, a salty sense of humor and a tireless devotion to the orchestra.
The music in front of her: the viola part of Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 in D major. It’s one of the works that flutist Sir James Galway — the most famous flutist on the planet — will perform next month in the concerts that open the San Diego Symphony’s centennial season.
On her right is the music prepared by the symphony’s principal violist, Che-Yen Chen. On her left is the copy that needs work.
Chen, the head violist, has made markings between the lines of notes that are to be copied to the other violists’ music. A “v” signifies an up-bow (that’s when the bow moves across the strings starting at the tip). A marking that looks like an unused staple is a down-bow (during which the bow moves from handle to tip). The markings help coordinate the way the musicians play so that bowings will be done in unison, contributing to the cohesiveness of a performance.
Fisch’s efforts mean that each string section doesn’t have to spend valuable rehearsal time going over the coordination of bowing. She does the work in pencil because if interpretations change, old markings can be erased and replaced with new ones. She also watches out for any irregularities in a score. When she spots an eighth note that was printed incorrectly, she quickly fills in the note and fixes it.
Fisch finishes the job in five minutes flat. It’s a virtuosic display by a behind-the-scenes star who joined the symphony as assistant librarian in 1983 and took over the top post in 1989, when her predecessor retired.
Now 66, she’s the duchess of her domain, the Florence and Fred Goss Music Library, named for symphony supporters with an especially soft spot for the library. It is located near the lower lobby of Copley Symphony Hall, but many symphony-goers aren’t aware of its existence.
But Fisch knows every inch of the library. She has to. Her job is to get the music to the musicians.
Fisch is in charge of the music collection for the 80-member orchestra, which contains roughly 1,300 different scores — classical compositions and pops arrangements. Music is housed in large, rolling shelves. Additional copies are in stacks and boxes.
“It’s the most fascinating job in the whole organization,” Fisch says of the post of principal librarian. “Nothing happens on that stage until it happens in this library.”
The process involves discussing the season with music director Jahja Ling and figuring out the availability and cost of the music (the library’s annual budget accounts for approximately $75,000 of the orchestra’s projected $18 million budget). If the orchestra doesn’t already own a particular score, thought is given to renting or buying it.
Rentals can be expensive: Composer Ottorino Respighi’s popular Pines of Rome (slated for November 19 to 21) costs as much as $3,000 to rent for just three performances. Copyright-protected works like that are not in the public domain, so an orchestra can’t buy them even if it wanted to.
There’s a lot of music at stake. The symphony’s upcoming season contains about 120 concerts plus 16 performances accompanying the San Diego Opera’s four productions.
Though a bust of Beethoven peers imperiously from a high shelf, Fisch has a thing for cows. Her fondness is evident everywhere from the bobblehead bovine on her desk and cow-themed computer wallpaper to her cell phone’s mooing ringtone.
More bull-sized is the massive photocopier, which she calls “one big muthah.” It prints, sorts and collates scores, some of which are more than 100 pages long. At the moment, she needs to make copies of a sheet for the musicians that lists all the items on the opening program.
Moving toward the machine in the cluttered office, Fisch pokes fun at herself.
“Back up, baby. Back way up. Wide load coming through,” she tells me before making 99 copies of the program — more than enough for everyone.
In case a score has many markings that need to be changed, she keeps an electric eraser handy. Returning to her desk, she loads the machine that resembles a drill with a white cylindrical cartridge.
With impeccable comic timing, Fisch makes an off-color joke about the eraser that kills any shred of meekness you might have expected from a music librarian.
Her typical routine is to work from around 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., leave Symphony Hall with an attaché case full of music, have dinner, talk to friends on the phone, and then continue working until 11 p.m. at the desk in her Hillcrest home. On concert days, she’s usually the person putting the music on music stands about an hour before the performance. She keeps her cell phone turned on when she goes to bed so she won’t miss a music-related call.
“This is not a 40-hour-per-week job,” she adds. “A music librarian’s job never ends. Like a doctor, you’re always on call.”
Even in a line of work — professional classical music — where being eccentric and exacting is the norm, Fisch’s personality sets her apart.
“She’s a real character,” says concertmaster Jeff Thayer, the orchestra’s top violinist. “She really loves her job and the role that she plays. And she works very hard to please all of us other characters that she has to deal with.”
The varied nature of her responsibilities — and her respect for her musical colleagues — helps fuel her enthusiasm.
The prep work on scores is exceptionally time-consuming because it may include corrections, cuts, phrasing, dynamics and tempo. It can take between 25 and 40 hours to proofread the markings in a single piece.
What happens if Fisch makes a mistake copying the violin bowings?
She speaks solemnly, as if discussing a topic that’s deeply shameful.
“If I don’t transfer the bowings as Jeff has done them, the rehearsal stops and everybody has to make that correction,” she says. “So you just make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Fisch moves on from the viola bowings to another piece, focusing her attention on sorting copies of the Carmen Fantasy, which Galway and the orchestra will perform in the upcoming concerts. She puts the copies into folders that the symphony musicians can take home and use for practicing.
When she sees that the English horn folder is unmarked, she pencils in the name of the instrument. When she discovers the Trombone I part is missing, she finds another copy.
Is such work tedious? Taxing? Not to Fisch.
“It’s important,” she says. “How can the musicians do their jobs if we don’t give them what they need?”
Teamwork is essential in the library. Fisch gets instructions from the opera about how to prepare orchestra parts for opera productions. At the symphony, she works closely with two others, including an assistant librarian — an arrangement that’s typical of major U.S. orchestras. Smaller orchestras, which have fewer performances, often make do with one librarian.
That’s how Fisch got her start. She doubled as a French horn player and volunteer librarian at the Pasadena Symphony, Santa Monica Symphony and Beach Cities Symphony. Because she wasn’t adept at sight-reading (the ability to play a piece cold, without practicing it) she figured out how to get the music early so that she could practice it and keep up with fellow horn players who were outstanding sight-readers. As a librarian, she demonstrated such a knack for organization that her horn teacher suggested she try for a library job at the San Diego Symphony.
“I looked at him like he was nuts,” she remembers. “But in the end, he was absolutely correct.”
Through the years, Fisch has worked closely with a succession of San Diego Symphony conductors. She stayed with the orchestra through good years and bad, the worst being 1996, when the orchestra was so broke that it considered selling off the contents of the music library, then valued at $91,305.
“That hurt me a lot,” Fisch recalls. “It was very painful.”
Yet Fisch has remained in her job long enough to participate in the remarkable turnaround that has made the San Diego Symphony a stable and well-regarded institution, with a 100th anniversary season that will feature such guest stars as flutist Galway, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Lang Lang.
“The best part of my job is knowing that when a concert begins, everything you’ve done is working,” Fisch says. “All your hours of preparation and hard work are worth it when the audience claps and the conductor smiles.”