»Okay, ready to go!« The heavy wooden doors swing open and a hundred musicians walk out on to the concert platform of the sold-out Grand Hall. It's exactly 20:00, and a completely normal Thursday evening at the Elbphilharmonie: a symphony concert performed by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra. Backstage, Antje Kunz puts down her walkie-talkie as the concert begins. For the technical supervisor it's a chance to take a breather before the next fast responses are called for.
The everyday concert routine at the Elbphilharmonie is closely synchronised, and the technical staff get hardly any chance to take a quick break. The applause at the end of a concert often marks the start of preparations for the next event. But the daily challenges of their work have welded them into a perfectly-tuned team that can cope with even the largest-scale production, and even the longest nocturnal refitting session comes to an end at some point.
»It doesn’t matter whether it’s a world-famous artist or not: if a grand piano is in the way backstage, it’s got to be moved.«
In the control centre
At tonight’s concert with the Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in Residence, Antje Kunz is sitting at the supervisor’s desk. This is one of the shifts that she regularly takes. »In this position on the evening of the concert, I am the interface between the stage, the technicians and the audience, and in the end it’s my responsibility to make sure that everything runs smoothly.« That’s a job that calls for expertise in every area. »Basically, all our technical staff have to know their way around everything here: sound and lighting, video and stage technology. In addition, everyone has his or her special field – my speciality is lighting; but as supervisor I have to be able to move platforms or set up a microphone as well.«
Before and during the concert, the supervisor’s desk is the technical control centre. Countless controls, buttons and monitors are lined up here next to each other. »From here, for example, we regulate the light in the foyers and the auditorium, play the concert gongs or switch the signal of the auditorium cameras to individual monitors in the building, of which there are over 200, – for example, to one of the soloists’ boxes. The supervisor is also responsible for safety issues connected with the concert: »It doesn’t matter whether it’s a world-famous artist or not: if a grand piano is in the way backstage, it’s got to be moved. By the same token, when the platform is still being brought into position, you sometimes need to tell an entire orchestra that they can’t go on to it yet.«
Chatting to international stars
That’s no problem for the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra’s attendants: »We all know each other and have a good working relationship.« And if the outside technicians understand this as well »then we can have some delightful evenings together« – and get to know one or two international stars along the way: »I’ve had several conversations with Patricia Kopatchinskaja here, and with Yo-Yo Ma– he was super as well. When he went out to take a bow at the end of his concert, he said ›Can you hold this for me?‹ and handed over his Stradivari cello. Amazing, the things you experience in this job!«
»The Elbphilharmonie is a building that can and indeed has to set high standards.«
22:00. The concert is over. As soon as the audience has left the auditorium, it’s time for the attendants to get busy: the instruments, scores and chairs all have to be collected and carefully put away. Scarcely has the last music stand been folded up than a truck reverses with meticulous care towards the narrow loading ramp on the south side of the building. The tailgate is opened quickly and heavy black flight cases are rolled towards the elevator. The next consignment has arrived.
Up on the twelfth floor, Matthias Baumgartner is waiting for the new material in front of the big freight elevator. The delivery consists of loudspeakers, crossbars and additional spotlights for a big amplified concert the next day. As technical project leader, Baumgartner is responsible for planning larger-scale events like this one. Unlike the concerts without amplification, which generally run according to a predefined standard, here the technical staff has to stipulate in advance precisely what additional equipment will be needed. »We clarify early on what we can actually put into practice, and how high the costs will be. Then we book any extra equipment we need from outside, and draw up a detailed schedule for setting up and dismantling everything.«
In the case of a big production, such as the gala for the German Radio Prize last autumn, the Elbphilharmonie starts discussing arrangements with the different tradesmen and outside service companies weeks in advance – and Baumgartner has to keep track of things: if the sound system is delivered too late or the broadcasting truck is parked in the wrong place, things are likely to get tight. »For this event alone we had more than 500 spotlights in the Grand Hall, and at any other venue it would have taken several days to set everything up.« But the time slots are tight in the Grand Hall: for large-scale productions, we bring in extra technicians from outside.
Baumgartner used to work as a freelance technician himself before he joined the Elbphilharmonie team in March 2016 – working for a project office, he helped make the final technical preparations for the opening. »So I got to know the building when it was still surrounded by scaffolding and the floors hadn’t been put in yet. That’s something quite special, having been on board from the outset. The Elbphilharmonie is a building that can and indeed has to set high standards – and we do everything in our power to fulfil these high expectations.«
»34 chain hoists – each hoist can lift up to one metric ton in weight.«
22:40: Everything is going according to plan today, and it’s time for Baumgartner to sign off after a long day’s work. He passes the baton to Thomas Sebescen, the stage technician who is in charge of the installation work.
Thomas Sebescen is pretty relaxed tonight: »At the beginning, things always took a bit longer, but we work together with the same firms on a regular basis, so in the meantime we’ve got used to one another.« When there is work to be done on the stage, the back wall can be pushed to one side in just a few moves, creating a passageway three metres wide. This leads directly under the rows of seats to the backstage area and the big freight elevator. There is plenty of space in the elevator cabin – it’s six metres across, so you could even park an SUV in it. But it’s nonetheless a chokepoint when transporting material.
Putting on chains
Most of the material has arrived on stage in the meantime. The individual sections of the big aluminium crossbars are fitted together and fixed with loud hammering. From his mobile control desk, Thomas brings heavy iron chains down to the stage from the ceiling. »We have a total of 34 such chain hoists here in the Grand Hall, and each hoist can lift up to one metric ton in weight.« The crossbars are hung in place and pulled up to a height of 1.5 metres – the ideal height for the big loudspeakers. When everything is in place, he brings the crossbar construction into its final position, 13 metres above the stage. Now it’s time to repeat the procedure for the lighting system.
Through the night
»It doesn’t take long to set up the rough scaffolding, but the fine tuning is always a bit more time-consuming«, Thomas explains. Here, you need staying power. »But I almost prefer the night shifts. Then I can sleep longer the next morning and collect my child from the kindergarten at 3 o’clock. My wife comes home a bit later, and we can spend some time together: that works quite well.«
Setting things up at night has practical advantages as well: there’s no-one standing in the way, blocking access to the elevator or waiting with urgent questions. When the last concertgoers and tourists, the last musicians and colleagues have gone home at the end of the evening, silence reigns in the Elbphilharmonie: »All of a sudden, you have the entire building to yourself – a very special atmosphere.«
»All the different technical equipment is extremely well linked.«
The next day, all the technical equipment is in place and ready for use. Katrin Irretier starts making the preparations for the light show that evening.
The big light-mixing desk is Katrin Irretier’s workplace today. »As soon as the artists arrive, I talk to them to find out what their ideas are, or make suggestions of my own. One special feature for the lighting and the sound alike is that the circular shape of the auditorium means we have to think everything out in 3-D – that takes some getting used to«.
This is something of personal importance to Karin: »I’m a lighting engineer through and through. I believe that good lighting makes a central contribution to the atmosphere at a concert.« This passion of hers was born twenty years ago in the drama group at school: »I was standing on the stage as an actor and realised this wasn’t my thing at all. So the producer suggested I do the lights instead. That’s where it all started.«
Patching and soldering
Like her colleagues, Karin does several other jobs at the Elbphilharmonie in addition to the lighting: sometimes she’s in charge of a concert, sometimes she solders cables in the warehouse, and sometimes she can be found clambering around between the outer and inner skin of the Grand Hall, which are acoustically separate, to deal with out-of-the-way spotlights. She also regularly has to »patch« light, sound or video signals, i.e. to set up new connections in the building. More than 300 offset boxes and connection points all over the building help her.
»All the different technical equipment is extremely well linked. If I hook up a spotlight under the ceiling to an offset box, I can operate it afterwards from pretty well anywhere. If there is a film team in the auditorium, you can receive the video signal almost anywhere in the building, without having to lay down miles of cable first. That can get very complex – sometimes it’s a bit like a paper chase, but it’s a lot of fun. Technically, too, the Elbphilharmonie is state of the art: loads of things are possible, so we certainly won’t suffer from boredom!«
text: François Kremer (13.12.2018)
Dieser Artikel erschien im Elbphilharmonie Magazin 01/2019.