Interlude: Taking the Stage

In the days just prior to the ASO’s first performance at the recently renovated Robinson Center, any number of preparations—for the space itself, by the orchestra, by individual musicians—had been made, both over the long and short terms. And it all led up to one moment

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I. 

There’s sound. Not unified just yet, but on this Thursday afternoon, three days before the grand reopening on Nov. 19, it’s there and starting to take shape. As the musicians warm their muscles and instruments on stage, there’s some suggestion of what’s to come. In the brief strobing of sounds, pitched across octaves and registers from the low brass to the strings, there are scraps of melody that’ll soon be familiar.

In taking all of this in, as the rehearsal gets closer, as more musicians, dressed casually in jeans and button-downs and at least one pair of basketball shorts, appear on stage, as everything comes together, it’s a little tough not to veer into the realm of the hyperbolic. Because in so many ways, this moment—the idea of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra filing onto a new stage—is largely because so many things have come together on scales both large and small, everything rejoined in the center after a sprawling diaspora like a supernova played in reverse. Considered in those terms, it might make a little more sense that loose ends in the space are still being tied: the occasional inchworm-long cuts of carpet, the dressing room funiture still sheathed in styrofoam sheets, the ladder curiously placed on stage right, the unseen sources of clinking and clanging as the last tweaks and touches are made to the structure.

As a trombone plays an arpeggio, so too is a brand-new, never-felt-a-tush seat being ratcheted to the ground by a man in a sleeveless black T-shirt. The lilting voice of a violin rises from among the strings, accompanied by the brassy ringing of a wing nut being twirled onto a screw as a young man leaning over the thigh-high guard rail installs a light. Elsewhere, mostly silent, there are other workers who form the complementary sonic colors of construction. They’re the shadows of legs moving in the catwalk, a fluorescent vest glimpsed in the spaces between the shell and the curtains, the two men using a long pole to adjust something that must be 15 to 20 diagonal feet above their heads.

It’s a reminder, first, of the work still being done in the space just three days before the weekend debut—and a display, albeit one not intended, of just how well the sound carries now that the renovation of the Robinson Center, almost 2 1/2 years after construction first got underway in July 2014, is nearly finished. For the musicians of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, who’ve spent that time performing at the Maumelle Performing Arts Center (aka the Maumelle High School auditorium), it’s a welcome homecoming, to be sure, but it’s not just that. It is, as their music director Philip Mann has been known to say, something of a “victory lap” for the organization, which has spent the past seven years coming back from the brink of dissolution, not only subsisting but thriving in the black.

At 12:41 p.m., as the last of the musicians are taking their seats, Philip, dressed in a dark sweater and a blue scarf with tassels on the ends, is speaking with a gentleman on the right-hand side of the stage. It’s this man, Mark Holden of the East Coast-based JaffeHolden, the consulting firm brought in to advise on acoustics, who’s largely to thank for how sound now carries through the space. After a few announcements from members of the orchestra, Mark steps to the dais and addresses the orchestra, explaining that they’re going to be having “an acoustic rehearsal” this afternoon.

“The idea is to get feedback from you all—what you think about this position,” he tells the musicians, referring to where they’re sitting on the stage. “We’re farther downstage than we were yesterday or the day before. This is about as far downstage as we can come, and we want to hear how it works from your standpoint, as far as hearing yourself.”

rp_arlife__161213_3833bSo much of what they’re doing, he goes on to say, is essentially a learning process for all involved. Over the course of the past few days, he and his associates have been getting a feel for the place with the orchestra present. They’d started Tuesday evening with the musicians posted near the back of the shell and on Wednesday had moved the cellos onto risers. And this afternoon, the musicians arranged near the edge of the stage, the acousticians will spend the day making tweaks to the settings of the space, the placement of the acoustic drapes, taking recordings they can turn into data, feed into computer models and make the whole place that much better. As Mark wraps up his spiel, he thanks the musicians for all their help and enthusiasm, after which he’s treated to a resounding applause from the orchestra in the form of much hand-clapping and foot-stomping. Because this isn’t just something where a few sound dampeners were tacked onto the walls. It’s something that has been prioritized from the very beginning, which means you get a complete reworking of how sound operates in the space. Although some elements of the auditorium are tough to miss—say, the stage floor being three stories lower than it was before—there’s still so, so much more that isn’t. Like the walls. Because just looking at them, you probably wouldn’t guess there’s three layers of drywall there, all laminated together and shaped and angled so that sound is efficiently distributed around the hall. Or that, to help sound circulate through the main floor, there are hundreds of square feet of openings under seats of the grand tier—what’s called “a transparent balcony” as Mark will explain later—which, again, is all about making sure the sound is getting to where it needs to be. And if you speak with most anyone who played the old Robinson (where the ASO’s played ever since one of the earliest iterations of the symphony, the Arkansas State Symphony Orchestra, first accompanied the San Francisco Opera Ballet at Robinson’s grand opening on Feb. 16, 1941), they’re likely to tell you: It wasn’t like this.

As Philip will say later that afternoon, the auditorium is an instrument. And as is the case with any instrument, it needs to be tuned. For a little under half an hour, the ASO plays through Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome. With a trumpet soloist offstage and a six-piece contingent of brass players stationed in a second-floor theater box, the headlining piece is especially well suited for showing off the acoustic qualities of a space. (Case in point: in 2011, the Kansas City Symphony closed its first concert in the Moshe Safdie-designed Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts with the same piece). And for all of this time, you can see the acousticians walking around the space. They sit on the orchestra hall, one side then the next. They sit in rows M, O, D, T, N, to name but a few, likely covering the bulk of the alphabet at one point or another. They stand, they rest their heads on their chins, lean on the seats in front of them, moving periodically and irregularly all around the space, disappearing into the upper parts of the auditorium as the orchestra plays. They’re listening for how the sound fills the space. And while they won’t know until opening night on Saturday how the space will sound when it’s been filled to capacity—that’ll take popping a 17-inch balloon with people in the seats and measuring the dispersal of the sound—they’re able to do enough. It’s why you hear, periodically, the harsh mechanical whine somewhere up above of a curtain being shifted just slightly.

Unfortunately, as Pines builds in volume, so, too, do the voices from the secondary orchestra of construction sounds. At a certain point, when what sounds to be a drill or something resembling a jackhammer starts making a sharp metallic clanging somewhere behind the band shell, Philip has to stop the rehearsal, saying they can’t have all of that happening, which then prompts an immediate flurry of activity from the room.

“I just emailed the contractor,” Mark says, making his way through the seats and climbing the stairs to the stage. “I don’t understand what’s going on.” There’s a brief moment as emails are surely being sent off and inquiries made before he says to no one in particular, “Guys, we can’t have any work going on in the hall.” The statement is immediately answered with two brappy pulses of drill striking concrete somewhere backstage.

“This is totally unacceptable,” Philip yells from the dais. They’ve only got so much time there, he explains, so can’t take a break now. “This is all paid time that we’re losing.” An oboe plays three staccato descending notes, which are then immediately drowned out by the drill. Seeing a man he recognizes out in the auditorium, Philip then moves to the edge of the stage and yells out, “Gus, do you have Mark in your phone?” Coming off the stage, he moves halfway up the aisle and clarifies the question. “Do you have [Mayor] Mark Stodola in your phone?”


II. 

The night before the public debut of Robinson Auditorium, the music starts without a word. It just goes—just is. At precisely 7:30 p.m, following a few administrative-type announcements, the concertmaster and first violinist, Drew Irvin, stands and plays a tuning note, the first of the dress rehearsal. After the last sounds from the orchestra have settled, Philip Mann steps to the podium. He raises his arms without speaking, and then there’s music, and …

What else could you say? Because it would feel strange to write, Yes, it sounded like this. The words later typed out on the page wouldn’t seem to match the sound you heard for tone and color of the orchestra filling an empty auditorium with the sound of itself. Even to speak in general terms about the specific qualities of specific voices rising through the fray—the warmth of the cellos, the murmuring of the basses, the violin section speaking as one—would likely conjure something slightly different in each reader’s mind, the character and timbre of the sound hinging on each person’s past experience and imagination. Because, again, who could really put into words what it’s like to be there as the musicians finally play for themselves in this setting tailored to their sound, to feel yourself lifted by music from the small of your back?

rp_arlife__161206_2888anThough of course, you could try.

Taking stock of the music’s tangible presence on the stage, where it’d been wrangled down from the ether and expressed in physical form, you might look first to the heavily annotated sheet music on Drew’s stand. You could tally the carrot-shaped accents hastily scrawled above the notes, understanding that, yes, those are places where, as per Philip’s instructions, the notes will be played pointedly and, to keep the line alive and bouncing through the auditorium, the phrase played all through. This is different than when they played here before. In the old Robinson, sound had a tendency to fade very quickly once it left the stage, so it required some degree of overcompensation to make the audience hear what was intended. But now? The sound carries. But there’s still a challenge because the people in this group, many of whom have been playing together for decades, are having to relearn how they play together.

To properly describe the music, you might even look to Philip himself, who leaps up and down making grand sweeping gestures—more than a few of which are vaguely reminiscent of a sorcerer’s apprentice attempting to fill a bucket of water—and is a reflection and amplification of what’s there on stage. And ridiculous as they might appear in print, you could even transcribe Philip’s actual words spoken from the podium to show what it’s like to be there: “Actually start the Menuetto at the very end, the last four bars—da da-da-dee, da da-da-da, da da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. What I’m hearing is a little bit of yum-bum-bum-bum, yah-buh-buh-buh, like some of us are getting there a little bit early, and it doesn’t have that crispy bite and the extra marcato.”

Sitting in the space as all of this happens—as the music is pieced together and polished—it’s almost like seeing a face whose features are still shifting into place. And even if you’re not able to hear it entirely in the seats, when the change is made and the phrasing is tweaked to carry the line to the end, you know that, yes, that’s exactly what it needed to be, and the face becomes a little more clearly defined. There’s the sense of being there for something very special. And at least in part, it’s because of the space. Because it’s where a piano really is piano, where you hear every breath that the soloist is taking when he’s on the stage, where you feel like you can hear every fiber of the strings of the bow, the strings of the violin, the contact they make with the finger board of the instrument—where everything you’re hearing is exactly what you’re supposed to be hearing because the new hall allows for it. And where, from the vast swell of voices that have all come together, the orchestra speaks as one.


III. 

In Saturday afternoon, almost exactly two hours before the first notes of the concert will be played at Robinson, Drew Irvin stands sock-footed on the carpet of his living room, and the sun comes in. His socks are black. The carpet is red-on-red-checked. There’s a patina of dog hair from the three dogs sequestered by choice to the television room. From the kitchen comes the soft tinkling sound of the dogs’ automated water dish, which itself is masked by the hard knocking of the metronome that guides Drew’s afternoon practice. And there is, of course, the music.

The music he plays is vaguely familiar, made more familiar as the afternoon goes on, one voice lifted from the thick of many voices heard at the concert hall, played and repeated a few times over in the isolation of his west Little Rock home. It’s the third movement of the Korngold concerto, a piece featuring the celebrated violinist Philippe Quint as a soloist—and which presents a special challenge for the accompanying orchestra in that, unlike other pieces on the program, it’s very rarely symmetrical and tends to be, as Drew says, rather “pushy-pully.”

He plays a line. He plays it again, hearing something that he doesn’t quite like. It’s played, slowed down, broken apart, played again, rejoined and strung along as the phrases, stronger now, again come together. Eventually, in varying degrees of completeness, he plays it seven times.

“I want that one, that’s the one I want—that’s the one I want.”

He plays it again.

“You don’t just do it once the way you want it. You have to go back and do it so many times that it’s …. You don’t want to be batting a thousand. Oh, I did it once, that’s great.” He plays it again. “Twice. You want to do it six, seven times in a row, maybe 13.”

Asked what he was listening for, what the problem was, he explains that it was a question of his bow arm and the tension going into his fingers. So, he adjusted, listened until the tension was right. Having explained this, he plays it again.

“So, I feel like I’m hanging the sound as opposed to pushing the sound.”

He plays it again.

“See, it’s warm on the last note when you do that,” he says. “That’s what we mean by technique. Some people think about it; some people don’t. Maybe they don’t have to. I have to.”

In all of this, there’s something interesting that feels very grounded in pattern and habit. Not rote, but something like it. Almost businesslike. For much of the day, this is what he’s been doing. Nothing particularly out of the norm or exciting. Earlier in the day, around 11 a.m. or so, he’d done a soft warm-up, all the scales—major, minor and melodic. Just enough to get himself warm. Not enough to spend what he’s saving for the evening.

Around noon, he’d stopped to eat a small lunch before returning to practice for another few hours. Around 2:30 p.m., he stopped, ran to the dry cleaners for his laundry and to Panera for salad and soup. And now, again, as the light starts to wane, he’s here again in the room.

“Everybody in the orchestra knows their own pattern,” he says as he finishes his practice for the afternoon, walking toward the case where he keeps his 250-year-old violin. “Some people don’t even have to think about it. Our principal cellist, David, runs a marathon, then later that same day plays the Verdi Requiem. … At the same time, my muscles, with all that lactic acid, and it’s such small, small stuff we’re doing—I can’t do that. I know the math.”

Half an hour later, he’s sitting at the kitchen table with a green-goddess Cobb salad, an unsliced apple, a glass of water, the surface of the table partially covered with sketches his husband had done of the dogs. The dogs themselves, Suki, Keiko and Sam, are walking an erratic circuit, nails clicking against the wood floor, evidently aware d-i-n-n-e-r is just a few minutes from being served. Looking at a friend’s Facebook post about that evening’s concert, he says, mostly to himself, “Let’s see who’s coming.” Under his breath, he says, “People I don’t know ….”

“I am really getting excited,” he says. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be … now, coming down to it, it is another concert, just another concert. … But if I keep it in my mind as just another concert, I’ll feel better about it.”

As someone who’s spent his career auditioning and refining and retaining his technique, from the time he was a little boy growing up on a farm in central Missouri to his stints across the country (and the world, for that matter), he’s quite familiar with the butterflies. But, as he said earlier in the day, they’re good butterflies. He knows himself well enough, both as a musician and otherwise, to understand what he needs to do.

He knows he’ll need to eat a banana 20 minutes before the first notes are played. He knows he’ll need a second one at intermission if the show is a big one, as is the case this evening. He knows it takes about two minutes for the blood to circulate the system, for the oxygen to get around counteracting the adrenaline, and he knows that, if you’re lucky, you’ve got the experience and the wherewithal to still play, as he says, fantastically.

A little later in the evening, a few minutes before he’ll head back to the bedroom and don his tux and head to the auditorium, as we’re standing in the kitchen, he again touches on this idea:

“Our entire career is a version of a pressure cooker. No one likes to know how the sausage is really made. The hours of work. [When I play something] six times, 13 times, I’m just going to be doing more of the same quality work. I might have to do more of my own practice. … It’s making me pay more attention to my violin. In the old Robinson and even in Maumelle, sometimes I could hear myself clear as a bell; sometimes I couldn’t. And now you can hear yourself clearly. Which is great. Learning how to piece it together in an orchestra that’s 90 people big—that’s the challenge. That’s why I’m grateful for a conductor.”

“It’s really weird because we don’t have to work as hard, and it’s all raw sound,” he says a few minutes later. “Before, we had to work, and now we just let the music happen. … Here’s the thing: We’ve been working hard forever. Now the audience is going to get to actually hear what we’ve been creating.”


IV. 

In opening night, there were people. They were young and old and older. They congregated and milled and meandered, walking across the carpet, now clean and free, at least to the naked eye, of anything suggesting the auditorium’s recent role as a construction site. The people who came filled all three floors, and it was strange to see so many people there—strange to hear so many voices rising and falling, contributing to the vast droning sound of conversation that hadn’t been there before. And gradually, as the hour got nearer, the people took their seats.

To look down from the upper tier of the balcony, as members of the orchestra filled the stage, all the efforts to make the evening possible weren’t immediately evident. It felt like the space already belonged to them. It was only when Richard Wheeler, chairman of the Arkansas Symphony Board of Directors, and Christina Littlejohn, CEO of the Arkansas Symphony, introduced the space and spoke about the collective effort to make it a reality that the extent of the collaboration was made clear. Gretchen Hall, president and CEO of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, without whom, as Richard said, none of this would have been possible, was asked to stand in her box on the upper tier of seating. Mark Holden, the acoustician, was asked to stand where he sat on the orchestra floor, just across the aisle from where his team had monitored the sound a few days previous. After thanks were given—to the musicians, the board, the staff—they left the stage.

There was applause as Drew Irvin walked onstage and gave a tuning note. There was applause as Philip Mann walked across the stage from the wings and started without a word. And as the orchestra played, there were no sounds of construction in the hall, and there were no stops, and there were many voices there, all come together as one. It became very clear, for this reason, that all of these elements had been necessary to create the sound being produced in this moment. But of course, there had always been one thing missing.

After the first half of the show had concluded, and after a 15-minute intermission had come and gone, Philip appeared onstage with Mark. Mark was holding a large red balloon, 17 inches in diameter. It was not for a birthday, they clarified. Rather, they had one last test they wanted to do. Up until this point, the work had been incomplete. In order to understand how sound moved in the space, they needed bodies in the seats. So, Mark explained, he needed everyone to be quiet. Philip then jumped in, saying he was familiar with getting people to listen and said, “This is kind of my wheelhouse here, so I’ll tell you when you can make sound. How’s that?” As Mark raised the pin, there was no sound. The balloon popped, and then there was silence.

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