Vanguard from the orchestra pit

05 June 2013 | By Behind Ballet

In a recent company initiative, a small number of dancers and staff members were kindly invited by the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra to observe performances of Vanguard from the Sydney Opera House pit. Company Manager Jasmine Moseley relates her experiences.

I was a spectrum of emotions: excited, nervous, curious (most of all excited) to be sitting in the orchestra pit at the Sydney Opera House, watching the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra perform the musical program for Vanguard. It was a unique opportunity, afforded by virtue of working in this special theatrical place, with those who are willing to share their knowledge, and open the doors to hidden spaces.

Dressed in head-to-toe blacks so as not to distract the audience, I was led by orchestra management up into the pit, the belly of the beast. As I settled into my seat, I took stock of my surroundings: the warmth of the sconce lights above each music stand, the proximity of the musicians, and the range of view around and above. Through the stretched pit net, the audience (alarmingly close as it turns out!), were faces framed in a semicircle of half-light, oblivious to my subterranean observation. I felt simultaneously exposed and hidden. The players: diverse but collegiate, focused, friendly (“welcome!” whispers a violinist to my left). Somewhere above and out-of-view were the dancers of the company, with the exception of Ty King-Wall and Juliet Burnett, my covert companions, experiencing the show from the very back of the violin section (before and after, respectively, their appearances onstage).

Ahead was a diverse and challenging musical program: energising Hindemith for Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, the genius patchwork accompanying Kylian’s Bella Figura (fragments from Baroque to more contemporary) and the relentless, hypnotic minimalism of Steve Reich’s Double Sextet a perfect match for Wayne McGregor’s Dyad 1929, which rounds out the night.

Curtain up. Before each piece we sit in attentive, anticipatory quiet. Preparations: instruments tucked under chins, the wetting of a reed, arrangement of score pages.

Each work sees the orchestra take on different forms. The first configuration, my introduction, is for the Balanchine: Hindemith’s string orchestra with a piano at the heart. Thrillingly, I can glimpse pianist Duncan Salton’s hands through the gap between players and a structural pole which divides the pit. I can’t see his face but imagine his usual calm expression above the manic movement on the piano keyboard. I am so transfixed at one point of the piece (peering over a violin player’s shoulder, trying to follow the musical score) that I completely forget where I am. Suddenly I find myself surrounded by the plucking of pizzicato strings, enveloped in sound. It feels like being inside a flurry of notes, which fly around my ears like cotton balls. The next day I can still hear the rolling arpeggiated piano motifs, and the strings soaring smoothly (strongly, insistently) above, as I walk into work.

Interval comes and goes (“ladies and gentlemen of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, this is your first and final call…”). There’s been a shift in readiness for Bella Figura. The woodwind section has materialised, as have two singers, standing elegantly at the centre back of the players, below microphones. They take deep breaths, eyes fixed in contemplation of the task ahead. We can hear the soft sweep of movement onstage and the excited murmuring of over a thousand people, gradually subsiding into watchful calm. I wait for the conductor to stride past. I wonder where she is – it feels like the piece is ready to start.

A flash of blonde hair and Nicolette Fraillon emerges from the shadows, hidden against the wall at the front of the pit. Slowly, purposefully, she ascends the podium, seamlessly commanding the orchestra into action with the experienced hands of a maestro. The sound of the strings float into the audience and the singers release their first harmony, stretching away into glorious dissonance and resolution. Nicolette’s hands fold, divide and smooth each musical phrase. I watch her gesture forward and inward, as if scooping and stirring an enormous pot. The music follows, and the orchestra move in sympathetic concert. The style has a different flavour to the Hindemith, the hand gestures are soft but strong. Every now and then, a smile is exchanged, perhaps in acknowledgement of a difficult moment accomplished. The bond between orchestra and conductor has an elastic quality, in which you can feel the give and the take, the shared responsibility.

Watching Nicolette conduct is as thrilling as watching the players respond, and it is apparent how much skill is involved in taking in the view from the stage with the top of one’s eyes, then translating and guiding the movement of the orchestra below. I imagine it is somewhat like wearing bifocals: the devil is in moving from one to the other without losing one’s balance. I could feel deeply the beauty of the movement alongside the beauty of the music, without even seeing the stage.

When we resume for the final piece of the puzzle – the Reich – the pit has undergone a total transformation. Two identical sextets have appeared, like an orchestral Rorschach inkblot. Two grand pianos (lids removed – guts on display) sit side by side, flanked by golden vibraphones. Ahead of each are a clarinet, flute, violin and cello. Nicolette holds a baton aloft, for the first time tonight. The auditorium flashes bright as the set is revealed, and with a sharp intake of breath the music starts, the tension palpable. Without thinking, I’m sitting bolt upright, willing the ensemble to succeed. I have loved this piece of music ever since I first heard it, and I allow myself to be pulled along with its metronomic force. I want to look at everything at once. Eventually I settle on the point of the baton and Nicolette’s steely gaze. Before I know it, the audience is applauding. I feel like I’ve just come off a rollercoaster, and I want to run back to the start for another ride.

I could describe for you much more of the sublime string passages, of the exquisite sounds of the mandolins, the oboe or the timpani, the intricacies of the Reich. But you can experience that yourself from the other side, if you are lucky enough to come along to a performance. Aside from that, you’ll want to hear it with the full force of the music directed outwards, at you, into your eardrums.

But I must share my most treasured memory from the pit – strangely, it is one without music, a moment frozen in time. As Bella Figura comes to a close, the orchestra retreats into silence. The pit lights dim to darkness. We hear the crackle of flames, the tension of breaths held. Firelight flickers and casts a glow across rapt faces, eyes shining in the dark as the collective gaze is held by the two figures onstage. Slowly, gently the light recedes, flames are slowly extinguished. In the darkness, surrounded by the warmth of the orchestra, I think about the transient and ephemeral alchemy that is live performance. I take a breath and bask in the afterglow of magnificent music.

Hear AND see Vanguard in Melbourne from 6 – 17 June.