She came, she sawed, she conquered.
Caroline McCaskey of San Pablo brought down the house at the San Francisco Symphony in three concerts from May 10-12 with her deft performance of the violin solo from Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld."
The San Jose Mercury raved, "Caroline McCaskey practically stole the show by playing Offenbach with the soaring lyric perfection of a great diva."
But she didn't play it on the violin, even though she's an accomplished fiddler. She played it on the musical saw!
She was nervous before the first rehearsal, but when she reached the highest note in the cadenza, members of the orchestra signaled their approval by clapping, whistling and stomping their feet.
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas also got a big kick out of it - laughing, applauding and slapping the side of the piano. After the first concert he gave her a big hug.
"I took that as a good sign," she says.
MTT was even more effusive after the final concert on Saturday, kissing her on both cheeks and exclaiming, "You ripped us up!" (Old lumber mill pun.)
He also autographed her saw – a 28-inch Charlie Blacklock CB Special, writing, "For Caroline, the prima donna assoluta of the saw. Brava!" on the blade.
That saw will never be used again.
"I have retired it," she says. "MTT has been a hero of mine at least since high school, if not before."
Not to worry. She still has another Charlie Blacklock CB Special, autographed by Blacklock himself, as well as an ordinary carpenter's saw she bought at Home Depot. Blacklock signed his saw on the handle, not the blade, so she can still play it without worrying about erasing his autograph.
Blacklock, who lived in Alameda, died in 2008. He was one of the greatest sawyers – that's the technical term - who ever lived.
In 2007 Caroline won the annual International Musical Saw Competition – aka "The Saw-Off" – in Roaring Camp, defeating many old timers who have been playing the saw for longer than she's been alive.
"The competition is just an excuse to get together," she says. "There are so few sawyers in the world, it's hard to find someone to play with. The real fun happens beforehand and afterwards, at the jam sessions."
Curiously, the musical saw is actually a sidelight for Caroline, who splits her time between teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area and at Swallow Hill Music in Denver, where she teaches fiddle, cello and, of course, musical saw.
But her first love is the fiddle, which she plays solo as well as in musical groups, including the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers.
As I said, Charlie Blacklock was one of the greatest musical saw players ever. But he was not the most famous.
That distinction belongs to – believe it or not – Marlene Dietrich! (You can see videos of her playing the saw on YouTube or Google video. You can see Caroline, too.)
Incidentally, this was not Caroline's first time in the limelight. A few years ago, she and her saw were featured on "I've Got A Secret," along with a strongman who bends nails in half, a woman with the world's smallest waist (15 inches, and she's had three kids!) and the man who invented the pink flamingo lawn ornament.