ETC and a Tale of Two Orchestral Venues

Date Posted: 2/1/2024

Written by Marshall Bissett

ETC fixtures light the Cleveland orchestra at Severance Music Center

You might be excused for thinking that there are few challenges to lighting an orchestra. You would be wrong, according to veteran lighting designer Chris Shick. “Orchestral musicians are extremely sensitive – you have to strike the right balance so they can read their music, see the conductor, and not be blinded by front light.” When it was time for his long-time client the Cleveland Orchestra to update their lighting he reached for ETC thanks to their balance of power and artistry. 

To start the conversion, Shick, Orchestra stage manager Joe Short, and Paul Vincent of VLS got together with Gabe Rice of CLI Lighting, Rigging, and Controls. Together they designed their ideal new rigs for the orchestra’s dual (and very different) venues: Severance Music Center, a historic neo-classical structure; and Blossom Music Center, an outdoor amphitheatre that is the summer home to the orchestra.

“First we did an energy survey to convince the client that their old incandescent system generated too much heat and was costing a fortune to maintain,” says Rice. “Especially since an orchestra rehearses under full stage lighting for up to twelve hours a day.” That done, they field tested ETC fixtures that met the criteria of good color rendition and silent operation. Color rendition is important because for holiday events the orchestra breaks out of its monochrome mode and adds some color washes to the stage lighting. “For front of house positions, Source Four LED Series 2 fixtures with the Lustr array have the perfect punch,” explains Shick. “We use about 26 of them with 10-degree barrels as front light in Severance Music Center.” 

ETC color-changing fixtures give the Cleveland Orchestra holiday shows a festive touch

“Over the course of several months, we substituted one or two of the existing incandescent Source Four Pars at a time with an LED fixture to see what, if any, feedback we got from the musicians,” adds Rice. They used a mixture of ETC Desire D40 Studio wash fixtures with the Tungsten LED array and Source 4WRD II engines to replace the incandescent fixtures. “When these upgrades went unnoticed by the musicians, we knew they were the right choice,” says Rice. 

The orchestra, having grown used to light levels around 300 foot candles (fc), had to adjust to the more video friendly levels closer to 80 fc. “At first they were resistant, but seeing themselves in the warm glow of the new lighting soon changed their mind,” jokes Shick.  

Blossom Music Center is the orchestra’s summer home – a venue it shares with touring rock ‘n’ roll bands, who typically bring in their own lighting. There, Shick was able to use fewer fixtures in the new design which was centered around the ETC fos/4 Fresnel fixtures. “I am totally in love with the fos/4 – it is hands down the best wash light ever for color and flat field. The local stagehands were knocked out the first time we turned them on.” 

ETC fixtures light the Cleveland orchestra at Blossom Music Center

At first Shick was skeptical LED ellipsoidal fixtures would have the power necessary for the long throws in the outdoor venue, but he was won over by ETC’s Source Four LED Series 3 fixtures with the color-packing Lustr array. In fact, he has to dim the lights to achieve correct levels. 

Joe Short, the Orchestra’s stage manager, has worked with professional classical musicians for his entire career, and is very pleased with the lighting upgrades. The new system is not only more efficient but has eliminated the need for sub rentals for special Holiday shows. He, too, stressed the importance of light quality in allowing the orchestra to read their scores at a lower foot candle level than they were used to. With ETC, they got the combination of color temperature and punch they needed. “Our goal was simple,” Short says. “When the orchestra walked in for the first rehearsal, we wanted them to not notice the difference between their old incandescents and the new LED fixtures and in this we succeeded,” he explains, with more than a touch of pride. 

Photos courtesy of Roger Mastroianni