An extract from From the Podium, a collection of tales from orchestras around the world by former Auckland Symphony Orchestra conductor, Gary Daverne.
I hate outdoor concerts and avoid them if possible. Lighting can be hopelessly inadequate. Engineers seem to always want to light from the front, so the audience can see the players, but this light shines in the players’ eyes and casts a shadow on their music. When players look up to see my beat (and they do sometimes) they get a blinding spotlight in their eyes. Not good. It also reflects off my balding head. Back lighting – what is that? This is not only a comment about lighting outdoor concerts; inside auditoriums can be just as frustrating – every concert, same venue, same problem.
The sound for outdoor concerts is generally “enhanced” and controlled by someone who calls themself a sound engineer who has little experience with symphony orchestras, who is rarely familiar with the programmed music you are playing, and has different ideas from mine as to what the balance of the instruments should be and how it should sound overall. I seem to have continual confrontations with young sound and lighting engineers who think they know it all.
But in the summer of 2007, when the Auckland Symphony played at an outdoor concert in an olive grove at Matakana, everything was as perfect as one could ever hope for.
A warm summer’s evening, a beautiful setting with the orchestra playing in a sound shell built across an artificial lake set in the rolling grassland hills. The audience of around 1200, some with picnic dinners, sat on blankets and folding chairs among the olive trees enjoying the warm, still, cloudless night for a programme of popular symphonic music, presented as Stars Under the Stars.
We were also blessed with experienced, mature sound and lighting engineers, and the result was one of success and satisfaction. It was a job well done, without complaint or criticism. Thank you team.
We did receive one complaint, however – from a neighbour some kilometres away, that it was all too loud. Remember we are out in the middle of farming and wine-growing country. Not a house for miles. The noise control people arrived and we were three decibels over the legal limit. I told my percussion section to tone it down just a little. There is always someone who is difficult to please. The complainants had actually been offered complimentary tickets to the concert. They declined.
Every concert seems to have its problems. It can be the lighting, the sound, acoustics, too small a stage, unsuitable chairs for the players (quite a common one) – and in this case, the sun.
During the late afternoon sound check, the sun moved around to the west and shone straight onto the stage, making it impossible to play because of the heat and glare from the setting sun. The string players were afraid of damage to their instruments, and rightly so. The start of the concert was delayed until the heat went out of the sun and it had sunk lower on the horizon. Nevertheless, when we started playing most of the orchestra members were wearing sunglasses and could not see me because of the sun. Do they watch me anyway, I wondered?
Stars Under the Stars was divided into three acts and featured some of New Zealand’s fine young emerging talent and one of our leading divas. The First Act was mainly popular orchestral and film music, Act Two music from the theatre, and the Final Act, mainly popular music from opera.
During Act Three our lovely diva was singing at her best. She had the audience with her all the way. She talked to them and they loved her. This was the first time that we had worked together, but it was a very comfortable performance. Then towards the end of the performance she wandered off-stage unannounced, telling me “I’ll be back”.
We all watched and waited. Our diva returned with a large piece of card with the words to the next song on it and told the audience, “I don’t usually sing requests from conductors but Gary asked me to sing this one, a favourite of his, and I am going to: ‘Song to the Moon’ from Rusalka.”
I took that as a big compliment.
Now this song was supposed to be the final item in what was a selection of famous soprano opera arias. Our diva, at the end of the song, decided to then tell the audience all about the opera. When she finished she looked at me and said, “Oh dear. I shouldn’t have done that. I suppose we had better sing the encore now.”
So, we did, Summertime from Porgy and Bess.
The audience loved it all, the bows, the flowers, the hugs and the kisses. The emerging artists took their bows and accepted the accolades and applause, as did the orchestra and myself.
We were all standing off-stage wondering what to do next, as we had performed our one and only prepared encore and the crowd was calling for more. I made the executive decision to repeat Summertime. However in the meantime, the stage manager, on the other side of the stage, had given instructions for the orchestra to leave the stage.
As Diva and I walked back on stage, the concertmaster and deputy had got up from their seats and were leaving the stage. Our diva went chasing after them, grabbed the deputy by the arm and dragged him centre stage to take bows and then sat him back down in his chair. The concertmaster was standing bemused at the back of the violins when he was also chased by our diva, dragged centre stage and re-seated in the front desk of the violins. Both played along very well, accepting the limelight and being told what wonderful musicians they were.
I then announced that we would play Summertime again, much to the horror of some of the wind players, who had packed up for a quick get-away.
The small township talked about the Stars Under the Stars concert for months. Thank you, Malvina.
From the Podium by Gary Daverne ($35) is available here.
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The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.