No organization has yet to step forward and admit sponsorship of this musical train wreck, but somehow the Really Terrible Orchestra of the Triangle (RTOOT) materialized at Duke University’s Reynolds Auditorium and proceeded to gleefully butcher some of the classics as well as a few holiday favorites. There have been rumors floating around of an ensemble so lacking in musical technique, interpretation and performance practice that one had to see/hear it to believe it. Durham finally had that opportunity and, if nothing else, RTOOT can never be accused of violating any truth-in-advertising laws.

RTOOT is the brainchild of W. Sands Hobgood, a (formerly) highly respected keyboard player and church musician. Apparently he had a flashback from a bad trip in 1967 or had a complete mental breakdown after playing his 50,000th church service and gave birth to this musical abomination in May, 2008.
The stated goal is to give those people who are musically developmentally disabled but sadistic enough to foist their problems on the public, a chance to meet others similarly afflicted.

The ignominy of attending such an event began even before stepping into the scene of the musical crime: cameras were in the lobby “documenting” the event. Like the accused on a perp walk, I covered my face, made no comments and quickly walked into Reynolds. Upon entry, one of the accomplices handed me a packet of earplugs and a 32-page program/activity fun book. I may have imagined a cell door clanging shut, but the finality
of this was overwhelming – and I was not disappointed.

After a faux “apology” for the lateness of “My Strow” Hobgood, consisting of a collection of groaning induced musical puns, the conductor arrived and launched into “Fight, Blue Devils, Fight.” It was rumored that Coach K was being restrained in the lobby. During this number, and for the entire evening, there were two “crayon girls” passing out crayons to use in the coloring book portion of the program to help distract one from the horrible commotion on stage. A better use might have been to insert them directly into one’s ears.

Next up was a few selections from one of the Water Musicsuites of Handel. RTOOT showed that they keep current with the most scholarly performance practices and this was an excellent example of a Baroque HIP – Horribly Inflicted musical Pain. Realizing that it might be safer to make this enterprise a conspiracy, Hobgood employs Michael Lyle as Assistant Conductor when he is not safely hidden behind his bass. His rendition of Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toys” from Babes in Toyland was every bit as terrible as the My Strows, so watch out Sandy! The first half finale (yes, it was only the first half) was Robert Russell Bennett’s arranged suite of tunes from Richard Rodgers’ Oklahoma. This was a masterful example of programmatic music at its finest, putting even Richard Strauss’ tone poems to shame. The woodwinds and brass were dead on accurate and exquisite portraying the sound of barnyard animals that one would find in, yes, Oklahoma. It also may have been the first musical depiction of the origin of the swine flu.  

When presenting a performance as terrible as this one was, there is one trait that should take precedence above all others: brevity. A bleating bicycle honker replaced the Parisian taxi horns in a mercifully “blink and you’ll miss it” assault on Gershwin’s An American in Paris. But, the My Strow giveth and taketh and we were subsequently punished with a strings-only interminable rendition of the Valse from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings – yes, the whole thing! Isn’t this supposed to be the season of compassion and good will toward mankind?

This was all a lot fun. Hobgood is very funny and the presentation, if you haven’t caught on by now, is all tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating and goofy. At first I thought about completely abandoning any semblance of seriousness, running the risk of being a wet blanket on the fun. But, despite the self-inflicted humor and deservedly lowered expectations, 90% of the concert actually ends up as this ensemble playing quite terribly, as advertised. Except for a few musical jokes, these musicians were quite serious when playing. This is a well-organized and funded organization, so my only question is “what’s next?” True musical parody, like the late Victor Borge did, or Peter Schickele and his alter-ego P.D.Q Bach does, requires great musical skill. After experiencing this once, the joke may not be enough to bring return visitors. It is a wonderful thing to provide a place for musicians to play, but once the rounds of the state are made it might be time to start developing RTOOT, version 2.0.

In the interest of full disclosure, this writer auditioned for, and much to his dismay was accepted into the cello section of RTOOT in its inaugural year. In order to preserve a shred of a favorable musical reputation in the community, I resigned the next day in order to spend more time with my family.