Every summer I conduct the Victoria Symphony in what has to be one of the most incredible concerts of the world. Victoria has a beautiful harbour on the ocean off of British Columbia in Canada. Every summer thousands and thousands of tourists come to enjoy this beautiful place. And now, for the 26th year in a row, the Victoria Symphony is performing yet another Symphony Splash concert from a barge in the harbour for an audience of 40,000 enthusiastic people.
Getting ready for this event is completely different from conducting a normal concert in the concert hall. First, I have come to understand how important the atmosphere and the mood of this unique concert is for the people that are there. Music has the ability to capture that mood, and to transition it into a collective variety of moods. It moulds and changes the audience into one massive connected and unified group that is all sharing the experience of the highs and lows, the rhythms, colours, and stories of the music.
The music’s power and ability to communicate is felt so tangibly in the harbour with the excitement and energy starting out the evening in the full sunlight of the early summer evening and transitioning in the latter half of the concert into the nostalgic hush of night. The lights of the Legislature and harbour twinkle as the mood changes from charged to reflective and from excitement into sentimentality.
My first job is to get the music right. Several months ahead of the concert I choose the music. I have the atmosphere in my head as I choose the program and work hard to make the music all work together. I think about the massive and restless crowd that needs excitement, directness, clarity and power to stay focussed on the music in the outdoor setting. There is an enormous distance between the orchestra and the audience so I need to keep the music specifically intense and robust. Anything in the music that is quiet or not of considerable interest will be cut out of the music for this special performance.
Young soloists are chosen for this concert from our community and across Vancouver Island. They have to be 18 or under to compete for the opportunity. Auditions happen in the spring, and competition is fierce. Some kids audition year after year hoping to finally get a Symphony Splash performance spot. I’ve had some kids audition up to eight times. Some make it and some never do.
The orchestra rehearses in an intense way for this concert. There are lots of pieces to play, and not very much time to rehearse. Yesterday we had our dress rehearsal (the second of two rehearsals), and we played until the last second of time. The last piece to be rehearsed was the famous 1812 Overture and I had to conduct parts of it at almost double speed in order to finish by the time the ‘clock’ ran out. A wasted moment might mean that we run out of time to rehearse every piece and that could mean a disaster for the orchestra in the concert. Special changes in the music have to be understood by everyone or it might cause a huge crash if someone goes in the wrong direction.
For me, the most incredible part is the audience. I want them to have a great time and more than anything to get inspired by the music. When I talk to audiences from the regular concert hall stage, I can usually see their faces, and I can talk about the music in a serious way. When I am on the Splash stage in the harbour, I want the experience to be relaxing and fun, and I talk about things that will connect to everybody. Sometimes this is a challenge for me. I’m not an extrovert actually, and if someone told me that someday I’d be talking to audiences in the thousands I would have laughed at the ludicrous thought. And somehow in this profession I have now found myself on stage, talking through a microphone to 40,000 people, my voice echoing off of the buildings so that every time I speak I have to wait until the echoes subside between each new sentence. It’s a strange experience, and used to be a terrifying one. But now, I’d say that I love it. I’m nervous of course, but I know what to expect and understand the energy of the event. The crowd cheers and claps, but I can’t see their faces, and I have to trust that what I am saying reaches them because I can’t read or hear most of their responses. Now I don’t need to hear laughter at my jokes in order to know whether things are going well or not! I guess I just have to trust myself. I think about everything that I am going to say because I want the audience to feel the whole concert and experience weaving itself together through my stories and introductions.
Before the Symphony Splash, the orchestra and I weave through the crowds and wave to them while they all honour us with their clapping. It is a great experience for us to be there, right on the lawns where everyone is hanging out, and feeling the experience from their point of view. The clapping always follows us all the way to the barge as we walk through the streets, down on to the dock, and up into the barge.
The barge has Porta Potties (how glamorous!), a makeshift ‘conductor’s room’ made out of strung curtains (I think they thought that the audience shouldn’t be able to see me pacing on stage before the concert), and lots of cables and boxes to support all of the sound that is being produced from the amps and microphones. It’s crowded and extremely rustic – exactly what you would expect from a barge. The musicians have the added challenge of performing in the outdoors. Wind and cold changes the tuning of the instruments and can make them flat. Wind ruffles the pages and can blow them around, so we all have clothes pegs holding the pages on the music stands. I especially worry from the conductor’s podium because one wind gust could mean music flying into the water!
I pace around backstage thinking about the music and the things I want to talk about. I feel a little bit like I’m getting psyched up for a big race. I’ve got an adrenalin rush that I’m trying to channel into energy instead of into nerves. Only with focus can I do this. If something becomes stressful it can tilt things into nerves so I try to stay calm all day (and not let my children get into too many fights!). Usually all it takes is the emotional pride of conducting the national anthem at the beginning of the concert with the entire crowd standing and singing ‘O Canada’ to get everything focussed and on track in my mind. My voice booms across the harbour as I talk to the audience, and I hear the cheers and especially the happy faces of all of the hundreds of boaters in front of me, and soon the beautiful music of the Victoria Symphony starts to take over the harbour as we perform piece after piece.
The best part is the music. It changes all of us. We are all fortunate to experience the power of classical music in a place as special as the Victoria harbour, and with 40,000 people that, in that moment, all feel like great friends. It sounds strange to say that, but when you are there, the spirit of the place makes it feel that way. I’m looking forward to the concert tonight.