Concert production is one of the key responsibilities of the Orchestra Operations department. The Operations Manager, Personnel Manager and stage crew (lighting, audio and stage management) work together to satisfy the needs onstage for repertoire and musicians, while ensuring the performances will run smoothly and be in compliance with the work rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
What production needs does orchestral repertoire have?
Instrumentation is the number one factor in an orchestral program that determines set-up needs onstage. Instrumentation should be carefully considered in all pre-planning of a concert season. Maximum instrumentation of a program is a very useful tool in determining the space onstage required for a program. Differences in instrumentation within a concert program should be looked at closely in order to determine stage changes required during a performance. The biggest stage changes should be planned for during intermission as you will want to minimize adding to overall concert length. Creating stage plots for every work in a program is essential in gaining an understanding about stage space. Work closely with the stage crew if you are the one developing the plots so that they are accurate and to scale.
Some repertoire will require special auxiliary instruments for the musicians of the orchestra to play such as Wagner Tubas, bass oboe, alto flute/bass flute, bassett horns, bass trumpet, any number of percussion instruments, portative organ, concert organ, etc. It will be very important to identify if your orchestra owns or needs to rent/borrow instruments and where you will get the instruments from. Start this process as soon as a program is confirmed on the schedule in case it might take several months to track down a source. Asking the musicians who will play the instruments if they have a preferred source is the best first step. Sources can include commercial vendors, other orchestras, colleges and universities. Guest artists performing on specialty instruments (such as an Ondes Martenot) often will have their own instrument but the orchestra will need to pay and arrange for shipping.
Electronica is a term used to describe electronic sources of music in a symphonic work. Electronic sources of music can include CD playback of sound samples, synthesizers with or without custom samples, live sampling through laptops or effects pads (Mason Bates does this when he performs) and many others. If you see the word electronica in instrumentation, try to talk to the composer or another orchestra that has performed the work to understand specifically what the source was, who played it and if the equipment was provided or rented. I recommend starting these conversations as soon as the piece is being considered for a program.
Offstage instruments are exactly that – instruments not played on the stage. Each composer, musician and conductor will have ideas about where instruments should be played from for any given piece. Be sure to have a conversation with at least the conductor and ideally also the musician, in order to determine where the proposed location is. Depending on the location, the musician might need an escort (if they have to travel to get to seats in the theater), conductor, audio and video monitors, music stand and light. You might need to propose alternatives based on any of the factors. I’ve seen offstage instruments played from stairwells, loading docks, balconies and catwalks. Most importantly, make sure the musician is comfortable and can perform their best.
It is not unusual anymore to perform a standard orchestral work in a new way by augmenting the presentation with video, slides, special lighting, actors, animals(?!), scenery and beyond. The sooner you can ask questions (even when an idea starts small), the better. If you can be a part of the development, noting implications and proposing solutions along the way, the higher the probability that the end result will meet artistic vision, logistical constraints and budget goals.
No two concerts are the same in a symphonic concert season and that is exactly what has kept me engaged for over a decade. Enjoy the variety but also know that you can apply all of your knowledge to new ideas, building a foundation of analytical, critical thinking and problem solving skills.