Life in the orchestra pit at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion
I just got through playing the glass armonica part in Elliot Goldenthal's ballet Othello at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in L.A. This is a whole different world, and I thought you might find it interesting:
There are 'permanent' orchestras—like the L.A. Philharmonic. And there are 'pick up' orchestras that are assembled for a given gig. This ballet is being performed by the American Ballet Theater, touring the country, and it's simply cost-prohibitive to shuttle an entire orchestra around the country. So a 'music contractor' is engaged in each city to hire the orchestra players. Over time, music contractors accumulate a rolodex of good players whom they know and trust, and so the same people tend to play together on an ongoing basis. But that depends on everyone's availability. And the needs of a given gig will vary also—one gig may need Wagner tubas (like this one)—or even a glass armonica! The next—who knows. Even still, orchestras are enormously expensive.
This was a 66 piece orchestra. Just for one rehearsal, if each player is paid $150 (low), that adds up to about $10,000 for one rehearsal. So the orchestra gets ONE rehearsal on its own. We all show up on Wednesday at 10am. The ballet is about 1.5 hours of music, the rehearsal will be 6 hours altogether (with a lunch break). The sheet music is waiting for all of us. They DON'T get it to you ahead of time—the logistics of that are too daunting. Some players have performed this piece before, others (like myself) have not. But the musicians in this business ('session players') are monster readers. The same goes for film scores. When you listen to the film score of, say, Harry Potter, that orchestra is sight-reading all that music.
Typically they might get one run-through where the conductor fixes balance issues and such ("horns—louder in bar 774 please; oboes—make those staccatos a little shorter in bar 219") and then they record it and move on to the next cue. There simply isn't the time or money to be messing around. On the other hand, the conductor has to know the score frontwards and backwards. For one thing, particularly in modern music like this piece, there are constant meter changes (from 3/4 to 4/4 to 5/4 to 2/4) and tempo changes. There are specific patterns conductors use with their right hand for each meter—the left hand is free for cueing players (it's REALLY helpful after counting 79 bars of rest with constant meter changes to have the conductor point at you when you're supposed to play). Whether playing or counting rests, we're all watching that right hand with our peripheral vision to keep in sync.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch—I have cues in the 1st and 3rd acts—none in the 2nd act. The conductor is kind enough to rehearse the 1st then the 3rd acts so I can leave early. (THANX!) Basically I have three solos of about 8 bars each during which pretty much no one but me is playing. (Otherwise I'd be drowned out, although they do put a microphone on me and a few other players like the harp to give us just a little boost.) And I get to play the very last chord of the whole piece—it ends with just a glass armonica chord, so I get the very last word! Dress rehearsal is on Friday at 2pm; first performance that night at 7:30. The dress rehearsal is where EVERYTHING is put together just like the real show—dancers in costume, lights, orchestra, the works.
There are always little kinks to work out. For example: there is also a 'stage manager' who is, amongst other things, sort of the 'conductor' behind the curtain. They too know the piece frontwards and backwards; they know who is supposed to enter when, what the scene changes are supposed to be, all of that. There's a red light on the conductor's music desk that the stage manager can turn on and off. For example, as the audience is being seated, the red light is ON; the stage manager turns the light OFF to let the conductor know that they're all ready behind the curtain, and the conductor starts the overture.
In another place there's a big change taking place behind the curtain and the orchestra is supposed to 'vamp' (repeat the same two bars) until they're ready—again the stage manager turns that light on while they're doing the change, the conductor keeps the orchestra vamping, then the stage manager turns the light off when the music can exit the vamp and continue. In other places there's a change at the end of a movement, and the conductor can do things like hold the last chord extra long to help cover the change. (TOO much silence is bad.) At the dress rehearsal all of this gets a run through. At the dress we all get our security badges as well—they don't want anyone sneaking in for performances through the artist entrance. And there's an awful lot of expensive equipment—not to mention our musical instruments! So they run a tight ship. Those of us with large instruments leave them for the duration of the show—I figure my armonica is actually safer in the pit than it is in the back of my van. On a regular basis you see the guards doing their rounds.
Every theater has what is officially called the 'green room'. This is where the performers hang out when they're not on stage. (They're never green—why they're called the 'green room' is lost in history.) They're invariably furnished with lots of Goodwill-type sofas. (It's where I'll hang out during the second actâ€“a great opportunity to take a Power Nap!) They invariably have a video monitor showing the stage and the sound piped in so you can see and hear what's happening on stage. (Thus the performers know when it's time to get ready to go on stage.) The sound is also piped into the dressing rooms and the rest rooms. And the stage manager has a microphone that is piped into the green room and environs. The performance is at 7:30pm; at 7:00 we hear the stage manager intone over the green room PA "thirty minutes". By this time I've already double-checked my instrument; I have power and the motor is working; sheet-music is in place; water bowl is filled. And at 7:15 we hear "15 minutes!" Time for me to go scrub with my Lava soap so I'm ready to play. We musicians ascend into the pit:
At 7:30 we're all in place. The conductor walks in, the audience applauds, he waits for the red light to go off, and we start. Standing in the middle of an orchestra is simply an amazing sound. It's not deafening at all; just a feeling of being completely immersed and enveloped in a wonderful sound. There are four performances altogether—one on Friday night, a 2pm and 7:30pm on Saturday, and a 2pm on Sunday.
All goes without a hitch—except on Saturday night between the 2nd and 3rd acts we're in the green room and hear the stage manager over the P.A.: "All dancers: emergency rehearsal on stage RIGHT NOW!" We musicians look at each other and say: "this can't be good" and it's not—one of the dancers has badly sprained her ankle. And here she is—one of the ballet staff helps her hobble into the green room and gets ice for her ankle. Meanwhile, on stage behind the curtain, while the audience is enjoying the intermission, the dancers are working out how they will replace her. Finally, the finale of the final performance on Sunday afternoon. I'm the last musician to leave due to taking down the armonica. And the stage crew swoops in, tearing everything down; putting everything away. The ballet company has to be on the bus in a couple hours, off to San Diego to do "Sleeping Beauty".