Have you ever wondered what goes into preparing for an orchestral performance? What you see and hear in the concert hall is just the tip of the iceberg; 90 percent of the effort happens behind the scenes, and it sometimes can take years of planning and work for an audience to hear the results. "In fact, for every minute on stage, there are five or six hours of behind-the-scenes work," says Susan Lim, orchestra manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.
"Planning for a concert season typically starts about two years in advance, with discussions to line up conductors and any superstar soloists such as Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman," explains Kathleen van Bergen, the Orchestra's vice president and director of artistic administration. After the conductors are selected, the next step is to place soloists and determine the season's programming. "This often can be tricky, since many artists will present only two or three pieces they are willing to tour for a six-month period," says van Bergen. "Many times the conductor will not agree with either the program or the soloist's selections, and the resulting negotiations can be long and tedious."
Once programs are completed and contracts are issued and fully executed, production details can be ironed out and the season brochure designed and printed. This must be done no later than mid-January for the next season's brochures to be available to current and potential subscribers by spring.
As the season draws closer, arrangements are made for travel, hotels and, when necessary, visas for the conductors and soloists. Additional security measures put into place since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, mean that visas now are more time-consuming and expensive to process. Over the past two seasons, many orchestras, including the Saint Louis Symphony, have had to make last-minute changes in programming when a visa was delayed, preventing an artist from getting into the U.S. on time.
As it gets closer to the week of the concert, drivers are lined up; stage crew schedules are set; concert duty staff assigned; musician seating confirmed; and rehearsal schedules distributed. A seating list matches the instrumentation numbers for each musical selection with the names of the musicians who will be covering each part. "The seating chart is then translated into a stage diagram which shows where the chairs are placed, what kind of chair is needed and so on," says Lim.
"Keeping track of who gets which chair is a full-time job, and the stage crew manages this admirably," says Mike Lynch, the Orchestra's stage manager. "The different chairs include bass stools, cello chairs that tilt forward, short chairs for those who are height challenged, and special chairs used by individual musicians for specific health reasons. And then there are two types of music stands." In addition, there are many other small items that the stagehands must remember‹from horn mutes to clarinet pegs to wooden blocks for the timpani. The list goes on and on.
Van Bergen says the Orchestra's stage crew works diligently to accommodate the requests and needs of the musicians. "As a restaurateur caters to the special needs of his or her regulars, so does the production team strive to accommodate the specific needs of each of the musicians. In this way, we can present to our audience a performance that is at the level of artistic excellence that is part of our core mission."
On Friday of the week preceding the concert, rehearsal schedules are distributed. These show the musicians a more detailed version of their calendar, including rehearsal dates and times, off days, what pieces will be rehearsed on a specific day, and more.
"The week of the concert is a swirl of activity," says van Bergen. Local transportation is provided for guest conductors and soloists, who must be met at the airport, taken to their hotels, brought to the hall for rehearsals and meetings, and escorted to media interviews. "In the case of a pianist, there is also the instrument selection, which occurs before the first rehearsal," she adds. "On one occasion, a pianist performed three concerts on three separate instruments‹an older German Steinway, a contemporary American Steinway and a really old American Steinway."
Months of backstage work ensures that listeners perceive the concert as a seamless artistic experience, no matter what chaos has preceded it backstage. "Not only do those who work tirelessly behind the scenes do all they can to make sure that the audience enjoys the concert experience," concludes Lim, "but they do all they can to make sure that the musicians are able to perform at their best."
Carl Moskowitz is a St. Louis-based freelance writer.