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  • Going Underground: A day in the life of the orchestra pit

Going Underground: A day in the life of the orchestra pit

How do beautiful performances emerge from such dark, cramped conditions?

By Andrew Mellor (Journalist)

22 January 2015 at 5.34pm | 2 Comments

Everyone warns you about the noise. But nobody mentions the quiet. It’s a particular sort of quiet – tense, cutting and pregnant. Sitting in the pit at the Royal Opera House as the lights go down, you hear a silence the like of which you’ve never heard before. Even when nobody’s playing or speaking, there’s still the muffled breathing of a violinist or the gentle patter of a flute’s exercising keys. But when the conductor raises the baton, even that drops away. You’re plunged into a total, concentrated sonic vacuum. You could hear a pin drop – such is the acoustic cramp of the pit, where nothing goes unheard.

That silence is as much connected to professionalism and perfection as it is to physics. Contrary to the idea of pit musicians kicking back, reading books and exchanging gags, the atmosphere is more intense than anything I’ve experienced on a brightly lit concert stage. ‘You’re concentrating whether you’re playing or not’, says percussionist Nigel Charman. And boy do you sense it. ‘It’s disrespectful to do anything but. It doesn’t matter if it can be heard out front or not: your colleagues will be affected by extraneous noises.’

‘Out front’ is pit parlance for the auditorium, where things sound so very different from how they sound down here. When the orchestra eventually gets going, digging into the groove and grind of Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety (accompanying The Royal Ballet in Liam Scarlett’s choreography) that sonic vacuum has been replaced by the opposite: an instrumental mêlée, loud and disjointed parts of the score drifting in and out of focus, mingled with copious technical noises from instruments and their players – the click of keys, the tap and scrape of woodwork and the hiss of sharply-taken breaths. ‘It’s a very unsympathetic sound in the pit, you hear absolutely everything, every slight imperfection’, says Charman. ‘But out front it somehow blends together, all tidied-up and lovely.’

It might be a strange thing to consider, but everyone points to the Covent Garden pit – this dark, unsightly recess full of odd corners and unidentifiable technical relics mummified by gaffer tape – as the key to this orchestra’s distinctively smooth, woody character. ‘It’s not a great pit by international standards, but it does make a lovely sound’, says Barry Wordsworth, Music Director of The Royal Ballet. ‘I wish we could appreciate just how lovely it is out there in the theatre. It takes on this delicious bloom, which is one reason why it’s not a good idea to play loudly down here, because you lose that – it breaks up. The orchestra knows that. It’s very difficult to balance in, but they know how to coax the best out of it.’

But it takes some skill. ‘I think all orchestras develop a sense of telepathy’, says Section Principal Horn Richard Bissill, who came to the Royal Opera House in 2009 after 25 years playing in the same position with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. ‘You have this sort of inner adjustment, so that you know when to play and how to play. Even though you might hear the other side of the pit playing a fraction of a second behind, you have to stay with the baton so that it sounds right out front. It’s instinctive really.’ And for the horns, it really has to be.

‘If you look at the way we’ve got the pit laid out today, the horns are very far away from the trumpets and the trombones’, says Matt Downes, Orchestra Operations Manager. ‘There’s a rising seventh theme in Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem [the score for Aeternum, the final work in the triple bill] that runs between the trumpets, the trombones and the horns. How on earth do you get that together when you’re sitting so far away? It just comes from experience – from doing it a lot.’

There are eight decades of experience to draw from. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was founded in 1946 when the theatre reopened after the war. Today it numbers 105 players, who rotate to provide music for some forty projects (just under three hundred performances) a year. Despite the lack of stage glamour, this is the orchestra musicians fight to get into; when Richard’s job came up six years ago, nearly every principal horn in London (and many beyond) applied for it. The critical community, too, is beginning to take note of the impeccable sensitivity and blend of this ensemble and others like it. The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York was named as one of the ten best in the world in a poll of major conductors six years ago, and that ensemble hasn’t had the luxury of eight decades in the care of some of the best conductors in the business: Georg Solti, Bernard Haitink, Colin Davis, Antonio Pappano. ‘There’s certainly an ongoing identity. You can say “that’s the sound of the Opera House Orchestra”, but still it’s quite different from how it was 20 years ago’, says Wordsworth, who has conducted here regularly for 40 years. ‘Certainly they respond differently to me from how they did 30 years ago. I think the orchestra is more consistently good in the level of its performance now than it has ever been – for opera and ballet.’

Back in the pit, as the Bernstein ends and the Britten looms, the Orchestra Operations staff have to execute one of the most complicated technical changes all Season, during an interval. ‘If you’re on a concert stage with a symphony orchestra you can effect a change very quickly’, says Matt. ‘But here we have the extra complication that everything is plugged in, every stand has a light.’ That, and the Bernstein includes three orchestral pianos (including one right in the middle of the pit by the conductor’s podium) which need to be moved out using hydraulic lifts before string desks are moved back in. ‘We have to be careful that the right buttons are pressed and we don’t crush a piano.’ When they’re back, nearly every musician is in a slightly different but exactly specified position. ‘It’s all worked out so everyone is comfortable and has the room to play. The most important part of our job is enabling every musician to give their best’, says Matt, which means, increasingly, looking out for the health of their ears.

The problem of excessive noise is countered by experimenting with clever positioning of loud instruments to direct sound away from colleagues, and using ear-plugs, both rudimentary – like those handed to me as I entered the pit (I couldn’t bring myself to use them) – to the ones being trialled by Nigel and the orchestra’s percussionists. ‘We’re at the forefront of things with these – they’ve got a microphone and a speaker and sensors, so they amplify the quiet sounds and take the edge off the louder sounds’, Nigel explains. ‘They seem to work well – I can hear the other side of the pit, which I can’t normally. But it’s about personal preference and they don’t suit everyone. Obviously in a perfect world you’d be playing with nothing above you, so the sound has somewhere to go.’

This summer Nigel and his colleagues will get the chance to do just that. On 4 May the Orchestra will give the first of a series of annual concerts on the Covent Garden main stage under Antonio Pappano, performing concert music by Scriabin, Bernstein, Chausson and Ravel. The idea is to highlight the relationship Pappano enjoys with the orchestra he has made his own; for Co-Concert Master Sergey Levitin, it can’t come soon enough: ‘We would love to come to the stage more and play like a symphony orchestra – it’s important for us and for our development.’ For an orchestra used to overcoming the compromises and constraints of the Victorian dungeon that is the pit, playing on stage is quite a prospect. Don’t miss it.

This article was originally published in the Royal Opera House Magazine, received quarterly by the Friends of Covent Garden.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Felix Rigg responded on 27 January 2015 at 2:05pm Reply

    Nice article. I heard Andrea Chenier recently (Pappano) and was really impressed with the tight rhythmic control of the orchestra. Plus I happen to know - and play chamber music with - one of the violinists and I can tell you that the standard of playing of the individual pit players is exceptional and their dedication to making a great sound admirable.

  2. Anne Aldridge responded on 7 May 2015 at 10:01am Reply

    Interesting - thanks!

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