Back in 1999 I played on several tours in the USA with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra featuring James Galway and The Three Irish Tenors. Most of the venues were sports stadiums with a huge seating capacity, 15, 20 thousand seaters were not uncommon although I have to say that these events weren’t a complete sell outs. One of the more memorable venues we played was Madison Square Garden, New York where we received positive reviews from the NY press. The repertoire was traditional Irish folk music so was mostly quite and slow, defiantly no loud heavy rock guitar was called for, just soft gentle acoustic guitar. Playing in an orchestra requires a completely different set of disciplines than say a rock band. Listening and blending in are extremely important as well as following a conductor as there is often movement with the time so no drummer to lean on. Many guitarists never get the opportunity to work with an orchestra as there are limited situations where the guitar is included except of course if you are the featured instrument, for example a classical guitarist performing the Rodrigo guitar concerto.
It has been my experience that playing guitar in a larger ensemble like a big band (20 piece or more) or an orchestra (around 70 piece) usually consists 95% of the time having nothing to play and the remaining 5% pure fright. Typically you end up playing rhythm guitar in the background which can hardley be heard for most of the time and then suddenly you’re the featured instrument. On this tour the guitar wouldn’t have been missed but for the fact that it was the solo accompaniment for one of the Singers on Danny Boy. It was as much as I could do to stay awake through the first half of the these concerts as these gentle Irish folk songs played by a large orchestra heavily arranged for string section had the regular effect of making me feel very sleepy. Also there was a lot of time spent travelling from one state to another so by the time you’d checked into your hotel room, got to the venue and done the sound check we were all pretty tired anyway.
I remember the frustration of having to play these arrangements night after night very slowly, quietly and with no grooves unbearable in the end. By the end of theses tours I desperately wanted to play some music with a strong back beat and a fast tempo.The reality of being a freelance session player though is that one day you’ll be required to play a loud rock style program and then the next day you’ll be asked to play quite Irish folk songs with an orchestra.