The Toronto Symphony’s new year begins on tour in Florida.
It’s tough enough when a hundred well-rehearsed players take the stage at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, where we all presumably eat & sleep; quite another to undertake playing Beethoven or Chopin or Tchaikovsky, having lugged all those instruments & people & music-scores & a miscellany of equipment to a variety of concert halls in another country.
I am in awe of such an enormous undertaking. Just thinking of the possible difficulties makes my mind boggle. This is another one of those complex endeavors resembling an iceberg, where the efforts of support staff ‘beneath the surface’ are invisible. In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, I wanted to find out more from the TSO’s production manager Chris Walroth: himself someone who insists that he’s just “a small part of a large effort”.
I asked him ten questions: 5 about Chris and 5 more about taking the big show on the road. Forgive me if I sometimes address him as though he does it all, when he’s often speaking for the team.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
Physically I am my father’s son. When I compare photos of my dad in the 40’s and me in the 70’s if you ignore the hairstyles we are the same man. My dad could always find something to keep him busy. I’m a lot like that, I can’t go more than three days at the cottage before I’ve got a project to work on. Dad was very outgoing, the life of the party. In that respect I am more quiet and reserved like my mother. Mom also instilled in me a love of the arts and made sure I saw live theatre, music and dance at an early age. Both parents taught me the value of hard work, how to live happily within my means and the compassion to help others. Performing artists need to get their energy up for a performance, production and technical people who support them need to find their quiet and calm centre so that they can keep things running smoothly behind the scenes. My family tell me I am most like my maternal grandfather: the quintessential calm quiet man.
2-What is the best thing about working with the Toronto Symphony?
Really I have to say the music and the privilege of getting to know the people who make it. As a lifelong fan of classical music, being able to get this close to the music and the people who have been so welcoming to me, it is really the best part of my job. My desk is about 20 feet from where the conductor walks on stage so the music is always with me, some times I get the privilege of having Jan Lisiecki @janlisiecki practicing within ear shot of my desk or Jeffrey Beecher @jeffreybeecher working out a tricky passage on his bass, and it’s like my own private concert. I also get a free pass to sit in the auditorium and hear the orchestra work at any rehearsal. My favorite seat is in the Harry Belafonte section at Roy Thomson Hall, a block of seats main floor centre dedicated or donated in honour of Harry Belafonte.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I’m all over the spectrum as far as music goes. With so much live classical music in my life when the orchestra is working I tend to have less of that in my playlist. Lately I’ve been going way back to some of my early influences from the coffee house scene of the 70s. David Wiffen, Doug McArthur, I recently found a copy of Raffi’s Folk album “good luck boy” from the days before he started to write kids songs.
New artists in the same vein like the Good Lovelies are also on my current play list. In the summer during the orchestra’s ten week hiatus I play a lot of classical music. Clearly I miss them when they are gone. I watch mostly drama, not a lot of situation comedy grabs me. Early in my career I worked as the technician for the Frantics comedy troupe, and lighting director for their CBC radio show. (Chris recalls The Frantics)
Perhaps my close association with them makes me more critical of the laugh track driven sitcom. I have to say within living memory TREME, House of Cards, Jessica Jones are among my favourites. I also enjoy quirky reality TV like Time Team: a bunch of British archeologists digging gleefully in mud and rain looking for a bit of pot shard.
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
That’s hard there are so many things I can’t do, I’m barely fluent in one language despite all the big words I am abusing here. I’ve never been particularly athletic. I am surrounded by such great musical talent and I can’t carry a tune or play an instrument. Sometimes I wish I had the discipline and dedication to train not for a professional career but just to play music as recreation.
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
I am never happier than when I am on the water. My first taste of freedom was being able to take a canoe out on my own any time of the day or night. I was a proficient paddler long before I learned to drive. I learned to sail in high school and added Kayak skills more recently. These remain my most relaxing activities. Put a paddle in my hand and you can almost see my blood pressure lower and my shoulders relax. As they say a bad day on the water is better than a good day ashore. The other place you will find me happy is in a woodworking shop, I spend so much time making; plans, phone calls, budgets, that making something out of wood, that is made to last is a great antidote to the stresses of work.
Five more about being the TSO’s production manager, and the orchestra’s upcoming tour
1-How long have you been Production Manager, and please talk about the career pathway.
I’m currently in my eighteenth season with the TSO, barely out of rookie status compared to the 40% of the orchestra who have been here for over 25 years. I am however seventh as far as staff seniority goes. I started out in the theatre as a jack of all trades technician and stage manager. I mostly worked with smaller companies and most of my work was freelance so I was never in one place for very long and I took on a variety of jobs: lighting tech one week, audio the next, a few weeks of carpentry etc… I took a turn into the world of planning corporate and trade shows for awhile, Mary Kay gave me a masters education in people motivation, I also got to play with the latest audio visual toys and special effects before they became more affordable for the arts sector. With a few exceptions most notably Technical Director for Mary Lou Fallis in a variety of her one woman shows, and Elyakim Taussig for his Taussig and Enemies show in which he played the piano and I played most of his enemies. (Me in the check shirt).
I had little work experience with musicians and almost none with orchestras when I joined the TSO. It turns out if you are motivated the basics of orchestra is pretty easy to learn. And I had a lot of mentors in the orchestra who brought me along. What the TSO needed was someone with strong skills outside their comfort zone of overture, concerto, symphony in the same hall every night. So far I seem to have proved up to the task.
2-What’s the best thing about your role with the TSO?
Well since I already talked about the music above, I have to say all the people I interact with every day. I am mostly a pessimistic introvert. So work at the TSO is like a giant therapy session for me. First the ninety musicians, sixty staff, and countless volunteers, venue staff and vendors are all in their way my customers. I have a small bit critical role in co-ordinating and facilitating everyone’s efforts on the concert. Production management is really all about fixing what might go wrong before it happens or before anyone notices. We are always looking for what’s wrong and don’t pay attention to what’s going right. I have learned that most people don’t respond well to a constant barrage of negative so I have tried to retrain myself to notice success occasionally and comment on those things.
3-Orchestras tour so much nowadays that it might appear routine, yet I suspect there’s also a part played by Murphy’s Law: which states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. What kind of things can go wrong?
Indeed, “Murphy was an optimist” is the first rule of touring (here’s the “TSO rules of the road” video from a previous tour).
“Eat like a hobbit” is the second rule.
The most important rule of tour stories is you have to tell your own personal most embarrassing story first. So here is mine.
The last thing you do in any venue is called the idiot check, one final look everywhere at everything because if you forget to take it from here you are going to feel like an idiot when you get there and don’t have it. Years ago we were just leaving Quebec City heading for Montréal when I got a call from a colleague who was on tour with us. She told me the venue staff called her to let her know someone’s wardrobe was left behind in a dressing room, she just wanted to let me know that she could swing by and pick it up and bring it to Montréal. Well that’s great I said thanks. She said by the way they told me there was a name on the garment bag. Curious I asked oh whose name? Yours, she replied.
I was also guilty of inadvertently stealing a harp dolly from the National Arts centre. I returned it as soon as I realized we had packed an extra one on the truck at load out but ever since then the NAC crew hide their harp dolly if they know I am coming by.
Seriously I never sleep well until the whole tour is over and the truck is unloaded for the final time. Once all the instruments and people are home safe I can really relax. On our European tour we shipped over $6.4 million in “professional Equipment” instruments music and wardrobe.
What I have come to realize is the intimate relationship between a musician and their instrument especially for string players is far more important than the monetary value. Loss of an instrument for some of these players working at the highest skill levels can be a huge career challenge.
4- How long have you and the team been working to plan the current tour?
Tour Planning starts way in advance, easily two to three years out with the artistic team led by Peter Oundjian and Loie Fallis working out repertoire and confirming soloist availability. At the same time operations starts to look at budget and logistics and since the fees we earn on tour don’t cover the cost of putting 120 people on the road for a week or two our development and sponsorship team start to identify people or companies that may be willing to underwrite a portion of the cost. The actual booking of the dates is handled by an agent or manager who is familiar with the area we are touring to. They sell our program to the various presenters and try to arrange the dates to maximize the number of concerts per week and minimize the travel hours between locations. I provide a tour rider to the agent, mostly boilerplate stuff every orchestra needs, load in crew, x number of orchestra chairs, music stands, two large dressing rooms etc. There are a few things that vary per show for example on this tour we are asking for two concert grand pianos one for the soloist another for the orchestral overture. If we are touring to a new region the operations team tries to get in an advance tour about a year out, to look at the venues, hotels, restaurants and other amenities, also to travel the same routes the orchestra will take to check drive times available rest stops etc.
If it’s a cross border or overseas tour we start to make the general arrangements for shipping, based on previous tours I can make a fairly good guesstimate about how many pallets and weight for air freight, it’s only about sixty days out I start looking at a more final list of what we need to ship including how many musicians want us to ship their personal instrument.
At the same time I am contacting all the venues to confirm they have our rider, when we can load in, and all the other little details. Our Assistant Production Manager Alaina Viau oversees the tour book we publish for the orchestra with schedules bus calls and a variety of other useful information on each city. Then we pack everything push it into a truck and head out on the road.
Once everything is on the truck it’s in the good hands of our long time Sponsor Tippet-Richardson. Their staff is so great I really don’t have any worries while the instruments are on the truck.
5- Who is the most important mentor or influence you’d care to name that led you to where you are today?
This is the hardest question yet. There have been so many people along the way who gave me opportunity to prove my worth and work beyond my comfort zone. So many mentors and friends over the years, production people are very generous with their time and advice, I guess we all feel it’s a small community and we are all part of the same team. It’s hard to pin down just one. I guess if I take the question literally, there is really only one answer: one of my oldest friends, Fred Bunting. We met over thirty years ago when I brought a touring production of ‘beyond the fringe’ into the Oakville centre. We became friends that first day and worked together off and on ever since. Fred was in this job before me and when he decided to move on he was asked if there was anyone he would recommend. He said only one person and if they could convince me to move back to Toronto from BC they should just give me the job don’t even bother posting it. He then spent the next month browbeating me into sending a resume.
It was a job I felt totally unqualified for having no experience of orchestras. Fred was persistent countering every objection I made, and I guess almost eighteen years later he has been more than proven right. I have to add only that I could not have been a success without the trust the orchestra placed in me. From day one at the TSO I have felt a welcomed member of this large diverse extended family.
For anyone curious about how our tour is going you can find most everything on Twitter #TSOFlorida.
Chris Walroth and untold helping hands make it possible for the TSO to tour abroad, this time in Florida, January 2-10th, performing six concerts. You can hear Chris five minutes into this TSO podcast where he talks about touring.