One of the really great things about these Common Chords residencies that the orchestra has begun undertaking is that, rather than just blowing into town for a single night, playing a concert, and leaving again the next morning, we’re able to really embed ourselves in a community and present a huge variety of concerts and other musical experiences for residents who might otherwise never have access to a major orchestra.
But that variety of programming is the biggest challenge, too, especially once the whole orchestra shows up to complete the residency, as we did in Willmar today. Essentially, we’re trying to cram almost as much music as we might normally rehearse and perform in three weeks into a single three-day stretch. We also couldn’t rehearse any of this weekend’s full orchestra programs earlier this week in Minneapolis, because more than a dozen musicians (including a large chunk of our brass section) were already here in Willmar. And once we all reconvened this afternoon, we had just over two hours of rehearsal time to pull together Friday night’s huge Inside the Classics show featuring Ravel’s Daphnis & Chloe and La Valse, and Saturday’s concert featuring Brahms, Barber, Copland, and Ginastera. (The production of Peter and the Wolf that we’ll perform tomorrow afternoon was pre-rehearsed last Thursday with conductor Mark Russell Smith – it’s a program we’ve played a number of times in recent months, though never with Mark on the podium or tomorrow’s narrator, Vern Sutton, at the microphone.)
As Sarah made a valiant effort to drag us through all that repertoire while the clock ticked down, I was bouncing up and down between my seat in the orchestra, and my ItC host position at the front of the stage. This is a familiar routine, but every time we bring an ItC program to a new venue, we’ve learned to expect surprises. Today’s first surprise was that, while Willmar’s WEAC is a vibrant, live concert hall, its amplified sound system isn’t exactly what we’re used to. For one thing, there’s only one wireless microphone, which may not seem like a big deal until you remember just how much time Sarah and I spend wandering around the stage during your average ItC show. To adjust, I’m literally drawing up diagrams of exactly when and how Sarah and I will need to swap off the wireless mic and transition between it and the two corded mics that will also be strategically placed on stage.
The other surprise was that the house system at WEAC was clearly never intended to carry the spoken word above the sound of a symphony orchestra. This was a larger problem, since voiceovers are a regular feature of our shows. As we raced through the pre-intermission excerpts with no real time to go back and adjust the mic levels, I tried talking more loudly, and even holding the mic less than an inch from my mouth, but the amplification actually seemed to get softer when I did! It was baffling – I’ve never been accused of having a soft voice.
Our stage manager, Tim Eickholt, figured out the problem – the house system apparently has an electronic limiter designed to prevent it from overloading and blowing the audience away with too much sound, and that limiter was automatically lowering the volume whenever I spoke louder. This makes a certain amount of sense for a small venue, but it’s not gonna work for us, not with one of Ravel’s biggest pieces cranking up behind me as I wind down the first half of the Friday concert. Fortunately, Tim’s on the job, Sarah and I are making some adjustments in the timing of the voiceovers, and by tomorrow night, we’ll presumably have it all working (nearly) seamlessly. We always do.