Valdosta Daily Times

July 11, 2013

Noises Off!

PSST! orchestra keeps the music real

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — At the start of each Peach State Summer Theatre show, a man walks across the stage to audience applause. At the end of each show, as the cast takes its bows, the on-stage performers turn in salute to the back curtain.

Invariably, some audience members have no idea who that man is and why the cast points to what appears to be the emptiness at the back of the stage.

That man is Matthew Mainella, this season’s PSST! musical director, and the cast is pointing to the live orchestra which Mainella conducts for each show backstage.

The stage performers are not singing to taped instrumentation. Live music plays for each show, with an orchestra of professional musicians playing backstage.

However, Mainella takes no insult whenever someone mistakenly believes the instrumentation has been recorded.

“We strive to present an experience that is as near perfection as possible. Usually, only in the recording studio can an orchestra perfect its performance,” Mainella says. “Being told that we sound like a CD is a high, high compliment! The advantage of having a live orchestra instead of a recording is our sensitivity to the nuances of each performance. Our ability to adjust and respond to whatever situation arises on-stage is irreplaceable. Having real, live musicians is crucial in theatre.”

Mainella is the Valdosta Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor as well as the assistant conductor of the Valdosta Symphony Youth Orchestra. After serving as the assistant conductor of the Wesleyan University Wind Ensemble in Connecticut, Mainella joined the Valdosta State University music department in 2010. In 2012, he earned his master of music degree in orchestral conducting from VSU. Earlier this year, he conducted the live orchestra for VSU Theatre & Dance’s presentation of the musical “Pippin,” which prepared him to conduct the orchestra for this summer’s PSST! shows of “The Sound of Music,” “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” and “A Little Night Music” which all conclude this weekend.

Mainella leads musicians Vicorie Brown on keys I; Sarah Cain, reeds; the rotation of Sarah Carter-Sweatte, Donna Farwell, and Tyler Walker, keys II; Teal Ewer, trumpet, guitar; Zach Jones, trombone; David Morris, percussion; Joshua Weathers, bass.

In selecting this orchestra, Mainella says PSST! was fortunate to collaborate with musicians who have worked with the professional theatre organization in the past.

The musicians must be able to work well together. Not only have they spent much time together during the past two months, rehearsing then performing, they do so in a small space backstage, behind the curtain.

“We have minimal space,” Mainella says. “We fit seven people and their various instruments in the square footage of a small bedroom. It’s a tight fit, but necessary to allow room for the actors to get on and off stage around us.”

Perfecting the balance of sound that allows the actors’ voices to be heard over or in symphony with the orchestra, as well as timing numerous musical numbers for three shows blindfolded by a backdrop curtain also takes fine-tuned coordination.

Mainella says cueing the songs with this arrangement is difficult.

“In a conventional theatre space, the pit would be just that — a space below and just in front of the stage where the conductor stands facing the band and actors,” he says. “This arrangement is ideal, allowing the actors and conductor direct and constant visual and aural contact.”

In Sawyer Theatre, the relationship is different. Mainella says, it is entirely one-sided.

“The actors are literally blind to my conducting motions. The orchestra is tucked away backstage in the woodshop behind the hall,” Mainella says. “As you can imagine, this can bring up some major performance issues. The actors must be confident of all entrances, transitions, and tempos. This requires them to acquire extensive knowledge of not only their lines and music, but those of their colleagues on stage with them at any given time. From my perspective backstage, I have the advantage of audio and video monitors that give me a birds-eye view of what is happening on stage. The vital difference lies in who leads who.”

Traditionally, the conductor initiates all vocal and instrumental entrances. With the actors unable to see Mainella, they must wait to hear the musical number begin and he must wait for them to begin singing.

“Everything relies on being able to hear each other. The actors have on-stage audio monitors to help them hear the band,” he says. “The backstage audio and video monitors are my most crucial tools. The actors do their best to moderate their slight pushing and pulling of tempos — what musicians call rubato. Repetition in rehearsal helps me to anticipate the actors’ inflections and habits, the characteristics that make them unique, living artists. There is a lot of adjustment that goes on in every performance, regardless of how many times we’ve done the show.”

To prepare the synthesis of voices and instrumentation, Mainella spent rehearsals often rotating between visiting the auditorium to hear the mix of singers and musicians from the front and relying on direction from others while he’s backstage with the orchestra. Sound Engineer Ryan Ponsell “has great ears and does an excellent job fine-tuning the sound of the band. We wouldn’t be anywhere without his fingers at the soundboard,” Mainella says. “Since in a performance I cannot hear what the audience hears, we rely a great deal on Ryan to help us sound our best.”

As for the 2013 season’s most challenging show, Mainella says it has been “A Little Night Music.”

“Not only is it the most technically demanding of the band, but it is the most operatic in its scoring,” he says. “Opera demands even more reliance on visual cues, and there is definitely a learning curve in adapting to not having them.”

PSST!’s “The Sound of Music,” “The Marvelous Wonderettes” and “A Little Night Music” continue today through Sunday, Sawyer Theatre, Valdosta State University Fine Arts Building, corner of Oak and Brookwood. Specific times, dates, more information: Visit www.valdosta.edu/psst Box office: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., call (229) 259-7770.