How the Music Is Made
Behind the Scenes of a Rehearsal with The Florida Orchestra
Images by Daniel Veintimilla
It may be classical music, but the day kept a punk rock pace.
After not a small amount of effort, I emerged from down town Tampa’s crowds and traffic, the result of a bevy of events, and landed at the side door of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. Met by the Florida Orchestra’s public relations manager Kelly Smith as well as photographer Daniel Veintimilla and writer Julie Garisto, we quickly walked inside. The first order of business was to sign confidentiality agreements in case we took a peek behind the wrong scenes – the Orchestra shared the Center with high-profile magicians The Illusionists that day. Of course, we were there to see how a different sort of magic is made.
Otherwise expansive, we were ushered into a rehearsal space that would become intimate filled by an entire orchestra. Rows of chairs paired with music stands fanned out in a semicircle around a small platform. Seeing the seating arrangement gradually fill, the import of the Orchestra’s breakneck pace of work began to settle in. Stagehands had carefully set up the chairs and music stands for today’s rehearsal and would soon set up a similar configuration for that evening’s outdoor performance at Tampa’s Water Works Park. In fact, that week, the stagehands were setting up such arrangements for 15 concerts in four days. No, not only did I not get those numbers wrong (seriously: it’s an average of four concerts each day), but that also does not even count rehearsals such as the one I attended.
A pleasant wash of musical sound bubbled up as musicians individually played their instruments before rehearsals began. As the orchestra seats gradually filled, the sounds of various instruments grew louder. The conversations and monologues of instruments playing musical phrases and scales grew with each musician that took their seat and unpacked their instrument. Soon, save for a handful of musicians chatting with their neighbors, every instrument in the orchestra was producing its unique sound, adding to the distinctly pleasurable cacophony of an orchestra warming up. And then in an instant, in the time it takes for you to drop a stone and for that stone to hit the floor, the orchestra went silent. Rehearsal had begun.
The orchestra was warned of the presence of the media. Announcements about that evening’s performance—times, locations, parking information—were made. Finally, Music Director and Conductor Michael Francis took the platform. A single harmonius note began and built like a growing ocean swell through the orchestra, died out, and returned stronger yet until nearly every instrument contributed to the wave. At the peak of the orchestra’s tuning I realized: this is loud. Very loud. At a time before electricity, amplifiers and speakers, at a time when most of the Orchestra’s classical repertoire was originally written, this must have been the loudest thing many people would experience in their lives. A night at the orchestra would likely be the most powerful music they would ever experience. After a few seconds, the rehearsal space was once again silent.
“Alright,” Francis spiritedly declared, “let’s play Boléro!”
A quick shuffle of papers on music stands, and Maurice Ravel’s Boléro softly began its march out of the orchestra. Francis’ hand swayed in time to the music.
“Conducting can be very hard,” he jokes for the benefit of the Orchestra’s board of directors and media sitting to his left. Francis has a very rigorous manner of conducting the orchestra, yet maintains a sense of humor. Jokes delivered quickly and with his English accent are charming and disarming.
As the piece progresses, Francis’ hands occasionally break from moving to the tempo, subtly signaling to an individual musician or group, as if beckoning them to join the music. Though I have heard the piece many times in the past, it sounds new as I stand just behind a group of violinists. The harpist suddenly presents herself in a way I had never noticed, steadying the speed of the piece alongside the strings, plucking precisely in time, in contrast to a saxophone that seems to sashay through the melody. Francis’ hands cut graceful curves through the air as if painting or sculpting the music from the orchestra, intermittently punctuated by a specific gesture of instruction.
About two-thirds through the piece of music, the orchestra sounds as if it is marching slowly in our direction and has turned a corner around a hill. The music steadily approaching its crescendo, loudening and somehow clearer. The bows of the violins bobbed up and down in near formation. The rack of music stands I was leaning on shook with the strike of each gong and bass drum. If I was listening at home, I would’ve turned down the volume at this point, but the orchestra persisted irresistibly toward the music’s climax.
Immediately after the conclusion of Boléro, there was no time for applause – the end of the music signaled the beginning of Francis’ notes on its performance. This is something Francis did repeatedly throughout the rehearsal and amazed me every time. Like picking out a single voice in a crowded party, Francis would zoom in on the intersection of a specific set of bars, musicians and instruction – at times, focusing on a single instrument performing a segment only seconds long in the middle of an orchestra performing a piece a quarter of an hour in duration. Fascinatingly, in turn, the orchestra would match their conductor’s precision. They replayed fragments as easily as a needle dropping on a record and picking it back up again, refining their performance further each time.
The quick pace of performing and refining repeated and continued for eight more pieces. Musicians quietly packed their instruments and shuffled out of the room. Ending precisely at 5:00 p.m., the orchestra was left with just enough time to grab a bite to eat, perhaps change outfits before the evening’s performance.
It became clear that performing is a pleasure, the music is moving. However, this is also a full-time job, not just in terms of hours punched on a time clock, but also in regards to physical and mental effort. The orchestra is continually on the move – as it refines each piece, so it refines each year’s schedule of performances toward reaching more people and reaching them more deeply.
The orchestra is also continually on the move in a very literal sense: In addition to the many nontraditional performance spaces in which you can see the Orchestra throughout the season, it has no single venue to call home. Instead, weekend’s often find the organization traveling between the Straz Center, the Mahaffey Theater and Ruth Eckerd Hall. In a way, however, this makes the entire Tampa Bay area the Orchestra’s home and may be counted as a blessing by music lovers. It is one of the only (perhaps the only) arts organizations that is so directly shared by multiple communities: it belongs as much to Clearwater as to Tampa or St. Petersburg. The Orchestra seeks out the communities that would benefit most from their art, packs up and travels to them. With that in mind, as the rehearsal space empties, the day’s punk rock pace makes sense.