Bayreuth Festival experience by Randall Malmstrom

Posted on 12 January 2018

Bayreuth Festival

I have been a student of Richard Wagner’s music all my adult life.  One of my first memories of definitive contact with his music was during the 1969 moon landing during which CBS television used the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde as the accompanying music; my father asked me if I could identify it - I was wrong in guessing it was a Mendelssohn “Song Without Words” – ironic though, given Wagner’s anti-Semitic streak.  Since that time, I became ever more immersed in the beauty of the music and the tragedy of the man and the legacy left by the historical record of he and his music.  I have been especially taken by his late work and by far most interested in “Der Ring des Nibelungen”.  During my career as a professional trombonist, I had the opportunity to play Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, Tristan und Isolde, Der Fliegende Holländer (Flying Dutchman), and Die Walküre, and have written many arrangements of Wagner’s music for trombones and/or brass ensemble.

I began planning my pilgrimage to the Bayreuth Festival as early as 1990, but did not pursue the 10-year ticket ordering ordeal at that time.  But in 1999, I made my first trip to Germany which included a visit to the Bayreuth Festival, which was closed during the off-season and as a result was able to take a German-language tour of the theatre. 

I then began the 10-year wait for tickets, diligently re-ordering every year, and finally, 2011 was the year to go – but there was no “Ring Cycle” that year.  I obtained mid-theatre tickets for Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – in that order.  Hearing the Parsifal prelude as the first notes from that theatre was incredible (Parsifal was written with the acoustics of the Bayreuth theatre in mind).

The acoustics, so well documented in print by so many, simply cannot be adequately described but rather have to be experienced, and no recording can properly do justice regardless of how well done.  And there have been various theories as to how to get the most accurate recording – everything from 1 or 2 microphones to a battery of them.  Just consider the description given in an interval during the 1983 Solti/Bayreuth “Ring” broadcast via WFMT radio in which a general history of recording technology at the theatre is given as well as a listing of all the various microphones used for that production (I provided audio clips on YouTube) here”

In 2011, in addition to the 3 productions I saw from my seat in the theatre, I had the opportunity to obtain a ticket (via one of the trombonists in the orchestra) to sit in the orchestra pit (referred to as the “mystic abyss” at Bayreuth) next to the low brass for Act I of Lohengrin.  Absolutely incredible orchestra, which is hand-picked from (almost entirely) German orchestras.  The festival engages nearly 200 players – there are at least 100 in the pit at any given time, and during some of the longer, more taxing works, rotate some of the players between acts – in particular the horns in the “Ring” for example – and some rotation goes on from opera to opera.  And the orchestra has such a glorious, passionate, technically great and musical sound as exists anywhere.  The orchestra pit is huge, and the orchestra is arranged on seven levels descending back and down under the stage with partial covers in front of and over the orchestra.  The string basses and celli are split in half on each side of the orchestra, and the first violins are located to the right of the maestro so their sound emanates up and back, away from the partial cover over the front of the pit.  The sound from the pit is actually deflected back to the stage and comes out to the audience with the voices on stage – in this way, the singers can be heard under most conditions even with the orchestra at full volume.  The orchestra is not visible to the audience, so the members of the orchestra dress very casually – shorts, T-shirts and thongs in some cases.  One hears about how hot and loud it is in the pit, but as a pit musician myself, I loved it, and it actually felt cooler than the theatre during those hot August days.  The top of my “bucket list” includes a return to Bayreuth to hear the “Ring.’

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