Even in a ‘classic’ art form like music, one that existed well before the advent of electricity, we performers now completely and utterly depend on the power grid for our performances. While hospitals and other such foundational services may have emergency generators, I’ve certainly never seen a concert hall with one. When the power goes out (and trust me, it does go out), the results can be quite humorous.
I was recently playing an Elgin Symphony concert when, in the final bars of the slow movement, everything on stage started to dim. While this strange dimming of the lights was so perfectly timed as to seem like part of the concert (we played so beautifully that our music took control of the electrical system), this sort of thing always fills me with panic, as well as just a tiny bit of shame that we acoustic musicians are so dependant on both electricity and sheet music to do our job. I like to think that I am enough of a professional that I can play my instrument regardless of whether or not there is light. Lights. Ha! We don’t need no stinkin’ lights!
The problem, I guess, is that an 80 piece orchestra can’t really just…well…..go on playing without light. Maybe we need to be taught “in case of emergency” music back in music school. Lights dim? No problem! We’ve all got Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in our back pocket, right? One, two, three, go! “da da da duuuuh”!
The lights came back up quickly at this Elgin concert, causing a slight ripple of chatter to go through the audience and an uneasy glance upward from the conductor, who shrugged it off with good humor and continued the performance.
A similar situation with the IRIS Orchestra in Memphis, Tennessee did not go so smoothly, unfortunately. We were doing a live radio broadcast (!) when, all of a sudden, total power loss.
Imagine being in the middle of playing, with microphones trained on you from all angles, when suddenly [eeeeeeeeeeew….] all the lights go out…and stay out! A feeling of panic quickly ensues as one realizes that they are trapped in inky blackness onstage with dozens of other musicians, holding valuable instruments in the middle of a gaping black void. The radio station must have been quite surprised at the sudden loss of signal from IRIS, and must have had to do some quick thinking to smooth it over for the listening public.
Sometimes the power doesn’t go out, but some other weird thing malfunctions backstage, causing mass confusion and quick scrambling for both ensemble and staff. Strange, random malfunctions seem to crop up quite frequently in pit orchestra gigs. One performance of the Milwaukee Ballet used this gigantic tubular gargoyle of a machine to belch out dry ice over the stage. Big, ugly, and noisy, this thing inspired a lot of comments from pit musicians, especially considering how it was eating up our already cramped quarters down below.
One show, it just up and exploded, making a huge bang and causing us pit musicians to jump halfway out of our skin. A sound like three or four cars revving their engines without mufflers emanated from this thing, causing a flurry of frantic activity from some black-clad tech guys to shut it down. That was the end of the dry ice belcher for the remainder of the run, and good riddance–that thing was extremely annoying.