Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bayreuth Festival: Deep inside Wagner's 'mystical abyss'

Lining the walls of the tunnel that leads into the beating, pulsating heart of Bayreuth's Festspielhaus are mug shots of all the conductors who have ever conducted there, from Hans Richter in 1876 via Richard Strauss, Siegfried Wagner, Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Carlos Kleiber to more modern-day maestros such as Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Thomas Hengelbrock and Christian Thielemann.

The most recent in the line-up is Philippe Jordan, who made his debut on the Green Hill in 2012 in the final run of Stefan Herheim's Parsifal.

Two nails have been hammered into the white-washed wall where the portraits will hang of this summer's two newcomers -- Kirill Petrenko, who is in charge of the Ring, and Axel Kober, who has stepped in to conduct Tannhäuser.
But somewhere like the Festspielhaus has its many rites and rituals.
[For example, the generations of musicians who have played in the orchestra always sign the back of their individual parts at the end of each season, which must also make for some fascinating reading.]
And, according to a similar tradition, Petrenko's and Kober's photos will be unveiled only once the season is over.

It was under the eyes of some of my greatest musical heroes, then, that I made my way into the very heart of Wagner's Green Hill and the Festspielhaus's fabled orchestra pit for the third and final performance this season of Götterdämmerung.

I sort of knew what to expect.
With more than 100 musicians squeezed into a small and cramped space, this wasn't going to be anywhere for claustrophobics. It could also be deafeningly loud and, depending on the weather outside, stiflingly hot.
And clearly I wasn't going to be able to see anything of the stage or hear the voices.

But it was an unmissable opportunity and a privilege that only a few outsiders ever come to enjoy.

I was collected at the artists' entrance, which is situated just below the Festspielhaus, out of sight and largely unnoticed by many of the audience.

We made our way along the Ahnengalerie of conductors, following the tunnel that sloped upwards slightly until we came to a door which sternly forbids entry to all unauthorized personnel, "before, during and after guided tours, rehearsals and performances."

A second smaller door to the right leads a few steps down to where I was to sit, bang next to the Wagner horns or tenor tubas.

There are six levels to the pit in all, ascending from where I was seated.
Alongside the Wagner horns were the heavy brass -- the trombones and bass tuba, the timpani and percussion.
Next step up sat the French horns and the trumpets.
Then came the lower woodwind, the bassoons and clarinets, followed by the flutes and oboes, then the celli and violas. The violins were at the top, seemingly a long way away. (There must be a difference in elevation from the top of the pit to the bottom of at least five or six metres).
On each side were three harps (six in all, we were, after all, in Götterdämmerung) and the double basses.

A square box entered by a small ladder was suspended immediately above the heads of the bassoons, which I realised was the prompter's box.

The musicians were still arriving when I got there.
They were chatting, reading or playing with their smartphones.

But the space quickly filled up and the decibels rose as the musicians warmed up or went over some of the trickier passages.

Because the Bayreuth pit was conceived by Wagner as being invisible to the audience, there's no dress code and the musicians play in T-shirts, shorts and sandals.

Petrenko was briefly there, too, to shake hands and say hello to the 1st flautist, who I'd been told was stepping in at short notice to cover a colleague fallen ill.

Perched at the very top is the conductor's seat so that he can see what is going on onstage while at the same time having eye contact with every musician in the pit.

Three large lights hang next to him, green, amber and red. Amber signals the start of the tuning, red commands absolute silence as the lights in the auditorium go down. Green is for when the performance is underway.

Petrenko, compact and muscular of frame, is a meticulously neat conductor, endlessly calm and precise, avoiding grand gestures.

When he was happy with the way the orchestra was playing, he frequently smiled and gave them the thumbs up.
Only at one point did he scowl and seem to become impatient with the lower brass, motioning them to speed up and shaking his head vexedly afterwards.

Seated at the very bottom of the pit, you  have no sense of the balance of the sound and the voices onstage are barely -- or only rarely -- audible at all.
Alongside the heavy brass, the din was ear-splitting at times and the beating of the timpani almost visceral.

I frequently had to move aside for the brass players, too, as they sneaked out for some air when there were long stretches of nothing to play.

My two hours in Bayreuth's legendary covered pit raced by and all too soon my contact came to collect me at the end of the act and take me to the canteen for an ice-cream, the light of day and some fresh air.

Many of the musicians have been playing in Bayreuth for years.
Whilst the prospect is a daunting one at first, even for Germany's best orchestral players, once they get used to the cramped space and noise levels, the experience also becomes a drug to the players, just as Wagner's music is for the thousands of opera aficionados who who traipse to Bayreuth every year, one player tells me.

Some of them are in Bayreuth for as long as two months including rehearsal time.
The pay isn't great and they get a fixed fee for the entire season, rather than per performance.
So jumping in for a sick colleague doesn't get them any extra pay.

But they regard it as an honour to be invited and the musicians often get hooked, returning year after year, another player explained.

I understand how they feel.
I can certainly say that my time in the pit in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus must count as one of the most memorable in my entire musical life.

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