Over the past nearly four months since the world changed, musicians have found various ways to play together in isolation. While it’s entirely possible to livestream concerts from homes with performers who are living in the same house, and while recently a few chamber concerts have been streamed from empty concert halls for small chamber works, for larger ensembles, there is no current practicable way to bring even a few individual performers together because of synchronization problems.
Enter the wonders of technology. I’ve shared a number of these virtual ensemble pieces over the past months, starting with the Toronto Symphony’s performance of Appalachian Spring. Other highlights have been the Baltic Sea Philharmonic’s performance of a substantial chunk of the first movement of the Shostakovich 7th Symphony, virtual choir performances for both the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings and for Juneteenth a couple of weeks ago, a wonderful Tafelmusik performance a couple of days ago, and yesterday’s CBC-commissioned world premiere piece played by musicians from numerous orchestras across Canada (which I’ll get to in a second).
I never thought I’d get a chance to participate in one. But the Detroit Symphony put out a call for videos for a “Symphony of the People” playing an excerpt from the ‘Jupiter’ movement from The Planets by Gustav Holst, partially as a way to show support for the people of Detroit–in particular, its Black residents. There was no requirement to actually be from Detroit to participate. Sheet music for the various parts could be downloaded in original and simplified versions for instruments and voices, and tracks to play along with were provided. “I might be able to do this!” I thought. I figured I’d look at the original viola part first, figuring I’d end up with the simplified version –after all, I’ve only been really playing the viola for less than four months. But to my surprise, the part was within my abilities–a stretch goal, albeit, as it required position work, which I hadn’t really started yet, for the last few bars. So Monday, I started practicing. And tonight, I recorded myself. It’s not perfect, but it’ll do.
What I learned along the way is a bit of a sense of how challenging these virtual projects are. I was playing along for less than two minutes listening on headphones to another musician performing the excerpt. I had to keep re-recording the piece every time I made a flub, and I had to do it without much sense of what the entire piece actually sounds like together (although it’s a familiar enough work). I had to work the camera as well as my phone (to listen to the excerpt). It was only possible because I just invested in a tripod for my tablet with a remote control to start the recording that works via Bluetooth, so at least I wasn’t having to kludge setting up my tablet on some ersatz stand to record, or to actually subject my husband to my not-yet-very-accomplished musicianship. I do suspect a pro would have an easier time of it, but I also know how important it is in performing an orchestral work to feel in sync with your section, and you simply cannot do that as an individual playing along with just one other player.
That’s what makes one particular work –the world premiere mentioned above–so impressive. This is a brand-new piece–a fairly challenging, contemporary work, not repertoire these musicians would have ever played before. I suspect the conductor was recorded first, and then section leaders for those parts involving multiple players to use as a guide, as well as the parts for single instruments, following his lead.
My own isolated performance has now been uploaded. Soon, I’ll be able to say I performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.