Magazine article The Spectator

A View from the Pit

Magazine article The Spectator

A View from the Pit

Article excerpt

Henrietta Bredin talks to the leader of ENO's orchestra about working 'in the trenches'

'Working in the trenches' is how some people describe their lives in the orchestra pit, playing for opera performances. The traditional opera house has a horseshoe-shaped auditorium and the musicians are accommodated below stage level so that, ideally, the sound they make floats up and out into the theatre without overwhelming the singers. At Bayreuth, in the Festspielhaus that Wagner had built specifically for the performance of his own operas, the musicians are completely invisible, in a pit that is not just recessed well beneath the stage but is also covered by a hood.

Janice Graham is the leader of English National Opera's orchestra and, coming from a background of playing in symphony orchestras, was surprised to discover how much she enjoys playing in the pit. 'It took some getting used to, ' she says, 'but I really like it. My musical life is incredibly varied, which is the case for most musicians; so sometimes I can be playing as a soloist in a concerto, at other times I'm on stage as part of a symphony orchestra and recently I had to play a tango on live television for Strictly Come Dancing, which was absolutely terrifying. As the leader of an opera orchestra, I'm part of the team but I often have the opportunity to play wonderful solos. There's an amazing bit in Turandot, for example, where you're doubling the vocal line and so you have your own character in that, emerging from the orchestral texture before blending back in again.'

What exactly does being the leader of an orchestra involve? Janice laughs. 'I'm often asked that! It's something that I aspired to from an early age. I went into the National Children's Orchestra when I was 11 and I had no idea about my level of playing countrywide, but I went straight in as assistant leader and, as I liked the added responsibilities that come with it, I moved up to be leader. For me it's a great balance - obviously you have to be a pretty good fiddle player and some people who trained at my level would only have wanted to be soloists, but I love coming in and out with occasional solos rather than being the dominant player, and I actually like the day-to-day orchestral tasks you're also called on to do: running auditions to appoint new instrumentalists, ringing round to find the right replacement if someone's off sick. And in rehearsal there's an etiquette to keeping things on track. With upwards of 80 people, you can't just have any of them at any point choosing to ask a question or make an observation. Each section of players has a principal, and things get passed on to those principals who then communicate with me, quite often by sign language or a quick glance. If I can answer then I do but sometimes I'll have to ask the conductor, at an appropriate moment. So many things are going on at the same time when you're rehearsing that if you stopped and spent two minutes on every single thing that needed attention you'd never get through.'

So high levels of tact and diplomacy are clearly called for as well as musical skill.

And, in the case of the ENO orchestra, under the guidance of its music director Edward Gardner, elements of artistic collaboration and, when he is not conducting, acting as a sort of guardian of the flame.

'There is definitely a sense, in any orchestra, of its own style, the essential DNA that makes it sound the way it does. …

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