Before I began my time with Southbank Sinfonia in January, I had never stepped foot in the United Kingdom; I thought the Tube was where viral videos lived and that pudding was a chocolate mush that we fed to our grandparents. The exciting and busy agenda Southbank Sinfonia offers to its players has given me a crash course of all of the names, places, and people that are the lifeblood of classical music in London. If there’s one thing that my time with Southbank Sinfonia hasn’t been lacking, it’s unique performance opportunities.
In May we participated in some of our most exciting projects through our partnership with the Royal Opera House. This year’s partnership has included chamber music performances in the Crush Room, mock auditions, a concert under the baton of Sir Antonio Pappano, and a side-by-side performance with members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.
Our performances alongside Royal Opera players offered a lot of firsts for many in our group. For me, it was the first time I had ever performed for a ballet. Ballet offers unique challenges for us players in the pit, and we have to keep in mind that pit players are acting as accompanists to the featured act on stage. Barry Wordsworth, the Music Director of the Royal Ballet, insisted on a strict adherence to rhythm as the dancers would be completely on their own if the orchestra had a free sense of pulse. The level of respect for the dancers above us skyrocketed when we got a chance to observe their rehearsal with piano. The amount of physical conditioning and finesse that is required for these incredible contortionists is immense; we definitely have the easy part: just count and play.
Paul Wynne Griffiths, a conductor with the Royal Opera House, was directing our opera selections and insisted on similar accompaniment practices as Barry, only this time with a greater emphasis on dynamic range. The singer above us is just one person who can only sing so loud, and certainly not at the level that can overpower 50 string and wind players. The veteran ROH players sitting around us automatically knew which fortes were proper fortes and which we were meant to play under a different voice to support, rather than overpower, the singer.
The opera and ballet music we performed ranged up and down the spectrum of intensity, giving us a chance to sample the different techniques applied in pit repertoire. Although we are out of the spotlight – literally – in the pit, we must still blend and match with the characters on stage. The music in ballet and opera is meant to compliment the story that the stage is delivering to the audience. This means players in the pit have to know what is happening above them in order to deliver the appropriate accompaniment.
There are so many miniscule aspects to playing in a pit that one can only learn through experience. That’s why the most exciting part of our side-by-side project was when we were actually side-by-side with the members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera. When I normally perform on stage with an orchestra it’s typically around 90 minutes of contrasting music, whereas these opera performers seldom have a performance that lasts less than two hours. Of the same composer! Composers like Wagner and Verdi can be quite unforgiving to the violist, assigning us with the task of hammering out endless amounts of tremolo! If it’s not tremolo then it is something else that requires our bow to be on the string constantly (like harmonically ambiguous arpeggios or noodly passages).
With a heavy and cumbersome instrument like the viola, we become increasingly aware of every second our instrument is up in playing position. Playing in these conditions forces the player to adapt to a more comfortable style of playing, and to hone the most efficient energy to sound ratio possible. Tremolo at the lower part of the bow, where the bow is heaviest and the arm can provide the most natural weight, was a common sight in loud passages. My common reaction to seeing a page of tremolo marked fortissimo would be to spend all of my bow and flail around in my chair in order to produce as big a sound as possible (because that’s how you produce a big sound, right?). After about three measures I would be totally spent and have no energy left in the tank for the rest of the opera. Asking myself “is this necessary to produce an appropriate sound?” after every technical choice I make has helped me conserve my energy. Less really is more!
It was such a rewarding experience to sit next to someone who excels at all of the skills required for this delicate art. Having the opportunity to observe and question someone who, every day, creates music the way I’ve always dreamed of has given me a clearer understanding of the demands for this profession.
Find out more about William Neri here.
Southbank Sinfonia’s partnership with the Royal Opera House continues in October as our players perform in the pit alongside the Jette Parker Young Artists in Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse. Find out more here.