Halls are hazardous workplaces

Among other problems, you could fall into dark holes and break things:

A Florida Panhandle conductor is recovering after falling 14 feet into the empty space below a moveable orchestra pit on the opening night of an opera he had written.

David Ott fell Friday after the debut of “The Widow’s Lantern,” an original work written for the Pensacola Opera. Ott told The Associated Press he fractured nine vertebrae, dislocated his shoulder and may have broken an ankle.

It happened when the lights were off and he went to retrieve his music, not realizing the Pensacola Orchestra pit had been raised to stage level. He says he landed flat on his back on the concrete basement floor below and that he was lucky he did not injure his spinal cord.

He was recovering at home Monday and hopes to conduct again soon.

Something like this happened to a friend of a friend about 20 years ago in New Jersey, except that it was more like 30 feet and the fall pretty much ended her playing career. I know other people who’ve been badly hurt in pits, including a current AFM staffer who was nearly killed when a bunch of (real) logs rolled out of a cart on stage and onto her head in the pit.

Our hall has a very special version of this hazard: a pit at the back of the stage in which the organ is stored. A fall into that would lead to a very messy and almost certainly fatal impalement. Fortunately the hall management is well aware of this, and the pit is almost never lowered or raised when anyone is around. But even just thinking about the open pit with all those pipes looking up hungrily gives me bad dreams. This job is tough enough without nightmares about walking on stage and ending up in a real-life slasher movie.

And then there’s the occasional exploding lightbulb in the overheads, and the mics flying around, and all the lovely unlit areas backstage with things to trip over, and the low-hanging pipes in the basement hallways. It’s enough to make conductors seem positively harmless.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • I can’t believe this is still legal to have such unsafe workplaces. If there aren’t laws protecting workers in these pits, then the local politicians need to be brought onside and urged to lobby for them. What about netting across the pit to protect musicians from falling debris? In the case of a movable pit, how hard would it be to have barriers placed between the hazard and the pit before any people are allowed near it? A piece of wood nailed in place would probably do the trick, or a railing that could be bolted into place.

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