The first thing I encountered as I entered the orchestra pit at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall last night was a music stand with a sign-in sheet and two bags of bright-orange disposable ear plugs. They looked just like Cheetohs, and I stuck a pair in my pocket, just in case.
I was at the Hult to hear Orchestra Next in its first rehearsal for this year’s “Nutcracker,” which will be performed on the Silva stage this weekend by Eugene Ballet.
Now in its third season, Orchestra Next – a training orchestra that allows student musicians to play alongside professionals – started off by providing live music for the ballet’s traditional holiday show, which had been done in some previous years to taped music.
The orchestra was founded by trumpeter Brian McWhorter, a high-energy musical madman who conducts the musicians, and by trumpeter Sarah Viens, who handles administration.
McWhorter kept, and used now and then for emphasis, a slapstick by his side on the podium at Wednesday’s rehearsal.
“Play like you know there is some kid out there in the audience hearing ‘Nutcracker’ for the first time!” he exhorted the 52 musicians, about a quarter of them professionals who play with groups such as Eugene Symphony or the Oregon Mozart Players.
I had arranged to hang out at the rehearsal in part because I wanted to know more about Orchestra Next, but also because I had never before been in an orchestra pit while musicians were playing.
That’s an experience worth going out of your way to have, as it turns out. The music is not just full-bodied, it’s like rock and roll volume (yes, those earplugs, though I forgot to put them in). As I wandered through the orchestra photographing the players and watching them in action, the music came at me from all sides. The woodwinds were definitely here and the violins were absolutely over there, a surround-sound effect you miss entirely from the audience.
The pit itself is dark and industrial, with lots of electrical fixtures, and walls and floor painted in well scuffed dark hues. The stage floor reaches out like an overhead shelf, making a low ceiling above half the orchestra’s heads, and, with no dancers performing during this rehearsal, a rope was stretched across the stage front with a couple red, white and black industrial signs, the kind that often say “high voltage,” warning: “Open pit.”
(When I went up to watch from above, I noticed the rope was just about high enough off the floor to trip on.)
Rehearsals offer an interesting mix of casual atmosphere and honest hard work. At one point, as the rest of the orchestra played feverishly, the keyboardist was reading a book (pianist Leon Fleisher and critic Anne Midgette’s “My Nine Lives,” as it turned out); one of the two harpists was knitting; a bass player was checking his phone; and percussionist Crystal Chu was quietly tapping out rhythm on her stomach.
A doctoral student in music at the University of Oregon, Chu, who is from Hong Kong, was playing for the second year with the orchestra, which meant she occasionally reached, as the score required, for a triangle to ding or a tambourine to shake to add a bit of rhythmic color to Tchaikovsky’s lush melodies.
Next to her, Adam Dunson, a master’s student from Las Vegas, awaited his moment to pop a wooden box with a mallet. “Nailed it!” he said, having done his part on cue. “I enjoy playing here a lot. It’s fun to be able to play with professional musicians as well as my contemporaries.”
McWhorter kept up a zany pace, delivering direction and criticisms in a stream of sometimes-profane consciousness. “It’s a Christmas ornament,” he said of one stretch of music. “It’s a fucking Christmas ornament on a fucking Christmas tree.” The musicians laughed, and poured more Christmas into their music.
Or, again: “Look: In this section I don’t care what notes the strings play for those 16th notes. But it’s a storm. I want it to be wild! I want your violin strings to pop and hit you in the eyeballs.”
Then he turned his attention to the violinists in the back ranks. “I want to have someone do that in the back like they’re vying to get up front. Got that?”
During a 20-minute break in the middle of the three-hour rehearsal, McWhorter laughed about his over-the-top persona. “I used to think I had to tone things down,” he said. “Now I’m more myself, and it works.”
McWhorter enjoys the raw energy he gets from working with students, who he says are more likely to reflect his own enthusiasm for any given musical approach than jaded pros might be.
But Michelle Stuart, a sometime-professional horn player from California who is a fellow, or student member, of Orchestra Next, likes the high-energy approach. “I have worked under a lot of conductors,” she said. “The first time I saw Brian I was blown away. He is so genuine and authentic!”
“The Nutcracker” has become a holiday favorite for ballet companies across the country because, among other more-artistic reasons, it features a lot of roles for small children who are just learning to do ballet.
Multiply all those baby mice and party girls by several parents, friends and relatives each, and that adds up to a lot of tickets sold to each production.
And McWhorter will be among this weekend’s proud parents, as he announced to the musicians at rehearsal. “At the beginning of this movement on Saturday night my daughter is going to be up there on stage for the first time,” he said. “And I’m going to lose my shit. She’s a mouse. So I won’t care what you guys are doing right then. I’ll be standing here taking pictures.”
Eugene Ballet does the Tchaikovsky Christmas favorite, with live music by Orchestra Next
7:30 p.m. Friday, December 19
2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 20
2 p.m. Sunday, December 21
Hult Center Silva Concert Hall