What Happens When Musicians Can’t Gather to Make Music?
Symphony orchestras of all sizes have had to cancel, postpone, re-imagine, re-group as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world. For all the devastating effects of the crisis, it has also ushered in a new level of experimentation and innovation as orchestras seek ways to stay connected to their audiences. The Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia is no exception.
Motivated by concern for the health of its musicians, staff and audiences, the Symphony cancelled 56 events in the final months of the 2019-20 season, including Masterworks and Pops concerts, in-school programs, the annual Benefit Gala, Tunes and Tales at the Barrett Early Learning Center, Conduct Us on Charlottesville’s Downtown Pedestrian Mall, donor stewardship and community engagement events, and a summer music camp at the James River Boys & Girls Club in Scottsville.
All live concerts and in-person events have also been cancelled for the 2020-21 season, meaning that orchestra members haven’t played together in almost a year. But just because musicians are stuck at home doesn’t mean they stop sharing their passion for music!
Principal players in the string sections plus Music Director Benjamin Rous videotaped a masked, outdoor performance of the Intermezzo from Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat Major for UVA President Jim Ryan’s weekly “Arts on the Hill” digital program. Principal musicians recorded their own unique versions of “Happy Birthday” to share with major donors and have taken to WTJU’s airwaves to talk about their career paths, favorite orchestral works, and more. Benjamin Rous interviewed renowned film score composer Thomas Newman in a collaboration with the Virginia Film Festival and introduced Tchaikovsky’s beloved “Nutcracker” ballet as part of the Charlottesville Ballet’s Virtual Nutcracker Gala in December. He also hosted three virtual “behind the scenes” Q&A sessions for invited guests last summer.
Using both archived and new performances, a Virtual Family Holiday Concert co-produced by the Charlottesville Symphony and the UVA University Singers generated over 27,000 views on YouTube, making it possible to share this popular annual tradition with a much wider audience.
An extensive K-12 education program has also been re-tooled to meet the needs of music educators who are, for the most part, teaching remotely. Charlottesville Symphony Society Director of Youth Education Elizabeth Roberts compiled a treasure trove of online music education resources that can be found on the CSS website. Lecture-demonstrations and coaching sessions on individual instruments, totaling nearly 100 each school year and usually presented in classrooms, have gone digital. Tunes and Tales for very young listeners, offered in partnership with the Virginia Discovery Museum, are now offered only in a digital format. And the Symphony is also supporting a gifted music student at the Virginia Institute of Autism, enabling them to thrive in circumstances that are even more challenging than usual.
As people spend more time “nesting” at home, donations to the orchestra’s “Play It Again” program have increased. Gently used instruments are refurbished and given to schools and families in need. Recently acquired instruments that have found new owners include a trombone, a violin – even a ukulele!
Meanwhile, Orchestra as a UVA course is still being taught, albeit remotely, on Wednesday nights as usual. Live rehearsals have been replaced with analysis of great symphonic works and guest speakers who have discussed techniques for overcoming audition jitters and the history of racism in American orchestras.
Plans for the 2021-22 season remain fluid, pending the success of vaccination programs, containment of Covid-19 variants, the safe re-opening of concert venues, and public health mandates. In the meantime, Charlottesville Symphony musicians will continue to embrace a new digital “normal” and find ways to keep the music front and center!
- Janet Kaltenbach