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Behind the (concert) scenes: Q+A with Chris Walroth, TSO’s Production Manager

Behind the (concert) scenes: Q+A with Chris Walroth, TSO’s Production Manager featured image

John Rudolph, TSO percussionist (left) receives assistance from Chris Walroth (right) looking for instruments in a scrap yard for a new music work!

 

This week, I’ve been posting a five-part web feature about the folks who work behind the scenes of the live concerts you enjoy. What you see as an audience member – the performers – is a mere fraction of the number of people it takes to organize the travel, ticket buying process, promotions, costumes, and staging that lead up the magic you see and hear on stage.

Behind every symphony concert, there is a carefully timed schedule of when chairs are added and taken away; when the grand piano is rolled out or back in; and when the conductor or soloist is cued at exactly the moment he or she wants to be cued to walk on stage. The last in a five-part series this week, please meet Chris Walroth, Production Manager, Toronto Symphony Orchestra. www.tso.ca

Q: Whether at Roy Thomson Hall or on location, or on tour, you’re the guy who ensures all the instruments, wardrobes, and personnel make it from A to B. This must cause sleepless nights. How do you deal with the stress?
A: Well first let me say personnel is somebody else’s challenge, but if the goods don’t arrive the people don’t have what they need to put on the show. From the time we pack for a trip until everything is unpacked safe back at home, I never sleep well. We plan for as much contingency as possible and hire trusted professionals to move and oversee our shipments. We also have regular check-ins, messages when goods hit or miss a schedule point, like a text at 3:00 am saying the shipment cleared customs into the EU, and a few hours later, goods were transferred to truck, and en route. It’s a lot like boarding an airplane for a trip. Past a certain point you are trusting your safety to others, and you have to assume they are pros and will get you there, safe and sound.

Q: Walk us through the behind-the-scenes procedures when an artist cancellation happens.
A: With an artist cancellation most of the heavy lifting is done by others, often long before I even hear of a change. For most artist substitutions the first objective, for many reasons, is to keep the same repertoire. So if Pianist A was playing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, the Artistic team will move heaven and earth to get another pianist who has “Emperor” in his or her current repertoire. Once the new artist is locked in, it’s over to the marketing team to craft a message that is both respectful of the artist who had to cancel, and promotes whomever the replacement is. To me, if the content is the same it’s simply a new name on the dressing room door. What is more tricky is the cover or understudy position. More often than we would like to admit, especially in winter, a singer will get a tickle in the throat when boarding the plane. By the time the singer arrives, it’s a full blown cold or flu. Most will try to sing through with liberal doses of cold remedy. Sometimes we will quietly hire an understudy in case the main singer completely loses the voice. Rarely have we had to send the backups on, but they are often ready.

Q: Wow – so much going on in the lead up to the concert! What is the weirdest musical instrument you have ever had to rent, find or build?
A:
There have been quite a few especially during our New Creations Festival, which has been a regular feature on the Orchestra calendar since 2005. In March 2013, for Mason Bates’ Alternative Energy for orchestra and electronica, the composer required a percussionist to play a drum set built of car parts. So on a cold winter’s day, mid-February, I found myself with then Principal Percussionist John Rudolph at an auto scrap yard somewhere on the outskirts of the 905 trudging through snow, whacking mufflers, gas tanks and fenders among other bits of scrap metal in order to cobble together something he could play as a drum set. There are a lot of mid- to-late 21st-century works where composers wrote for certain electronics that were popular at the time and now no longer available. Those things are tough to source but we have a pretty tight community among orchestra production people, so someone in the network can usually help with advice or a lead.

Q: Who’d have thought your job entailed visiting a scrap yard! You’ve seen a lot of guest artists moments before they take the stage. What are some of the rituals you’ve witnessed? (No need to name names but we won’t object if you do.)
A:
After 20 years with the Toronto Symphony I still stand in awe of what our soloists and conductors do on stage, often with little time to come together as a group. So I accept and ignore any odd rituals and give them their space unless they need something specific from me. There are the things you might guess like pianists wearing gloves to keep their hands warm until the last second. Women, especially in dramatic gowns, arrive backstage bundled in shawls and overcoats to protect against a chill and unwrap at the last second to reveal the gown. Men checking they are zipped and their hair is immaculate. Sometimes a ritual develops over time. One of the concert series I did with conductor Alain Trudel was The Hockey Sweater, by Composer Abigail Richardson-Schulte, narrated by Roch Carrier. Alain had to carry a whistle to referee a match between two musicians so he asked me to always check he had his whistle before he went on stage. To this day I can’t bring myself to send Alain on stage without the question “Got your whistle?”. Jukka-Pekka Saraste (former TSO Music Director) hated to wait backstage. I had to time the start so that I knocked on his door just as the concertmaster started the tuning then we had a brisk walk through the backstage such that he never had to break stride and pause before entering. Peter Oundjian sets the tone for a light and low-key backstage. Usually “Ok, Peter” is all I need to say to get him heading for the door.

Q: Ever see any meltdowns backstage?
A:
True meltdowns are rare. I have seen a lot more courage in the form of “suck it up and get out there.” I have seen musicians perform while hurt or sick more often than I can count, with rarely a complaint. I try to run a calm, steady, and quiet backstage. Any performer “crisis” is usually something mundane like “do I have time to run and get my other glasses?” or “can I borrow a pencil?” or “do you have an extra stick?” (baton). The era of the autocratic conductor is largely over and while I have seen some yelling and cussing from a few old-timers it seems long ago.

Once many years ago – I think it was a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 – there was a beautiful English Horn solo right near the end of the work and just then we heard a single loud sharp yelp from a dog. The conductor, a man of few words at best, came off stage at the applause and growled “How does a dog get into a concert hall?” then turned on his heel to go back out and accept the thunderous applause. I assumed the question was rhetorical and never investigated on the presumption that it was a service dog and probably someone gave it an accidental nudge.

Q: Chris, you have a serious “basso profondo” voice. Before every concert, the audience hears “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Please take this time to turn off or mute your phones. Thank you, and enjoy the concert” …. though I’ve had the privilege of being backstage for many concerts, to hear, “Ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra, this is your five-minute call.” Seriously, with a voice like yours, you could be the one announcing “This is CNN.” Why didn’t you pursue broadcasting?
A:
The short answer is that “luck is preparation meeting opportunity” and I was not lucky enough to follow that path. I have worked with many great voices over the years and like most people I’m hyper critical of the sound of my own voice. You only have to stand beside broadcaster Eric Friesen at a sound check once to know how high the bar is set. Full disclosure: I no longer announce the pre-concert announcement live. That task has been given over to a recorded voice. Our current recordings were made by a New Classical FM on-air personality. Can your listeners, who are also Toronto Symphony patrons, guess who made the recordings? (Answer: Kathleen Kajioka!)

I did attempt a self-produced spoken word thing a few years ago. I decided to try storytelling, something I do naturally in person. I wanted to set down some of my all-time favourite true stories. So far my first attempt has 22 listens. Readers can judge for themselves at https://soundcloud.com/chris-walroth/ron-nipper-and-the-queen

I can also be heard on a couple of the TSO Podcasts available on SoundCloud, recorded at your studios at The New Classical FM. These are mainly focussed on our tour activities so I recommend them to readers who want more on your first question.
https://soundcloud.com/torontosymphony/tso-podcast-102-production-team-peter-oundjian

For those who want to know more about backstage at the TSO, my colleagues and I run a series of backstage tours for donors.
https://www.tso.ca/give-tso/donate-tso/friends-tso
You get access to open rehearsals and other benefits. On the backstage tour you can ask me anything you like.

To read Monday’s post about Rade Sekulic,
Manager/Owner of Hospitality Tours:
http://bit.ly/2FrIq0U

Tuesday’s post about Chris Dorscht,
Sales Director for Mirvish Productions:
http://bit.ly/2no0qTk

Wednesday’s post about Cassandra Spence,
Costume Co-ordinator at the Canadian Opera Company:
http://bit.ly/2nx0Xl0

Thursday’s post about Luisa Trisi,
publicist, Big Picture Communications:
http://bit.ly/2BJqTiE

Thanks to all participants for the interviews and the publicists who assisted in coordinating them!

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