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Early in the pandemic, my phone calls and emails regarding any type of logistics were liberally sprinkled with CDC-speak regarding risk reduction, infection control, and changing health guidelines.
Now I just say "because COVID...."
What follows is the keyboard player log of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra's first pandemic rehearsal and recording session with a group of any significant size. No, I don't usually keep a log, but I wanted to share with our readers how so many parts of music-making have been profoundly impacted, what we are doing to keep the music alive (without killing anyone), and offer a little glimmer of hope for the future of live music.
February 1, 1:24 PM: The Waddelows, like so many parents, are currently working primarily from home with the "assistance" of our adorable, miniature Godzilla toddler. Jim Waddelow, RSO's conductor and my taller half, teaches an in-person class at Meredith College on Monday afternoons that coincides with our tiny human's naptime, so I am in luck. Nobody likes practicing with the conductor listening, and that reality doesn't change after you marry the conductor.
February 1, 1:28 PM: After hearing a suspicious clicking from an F-sharp, I waste far too much precious practice time fishing a black dry erase marker cap out of the mysterious inner workings of my "pinano." See above note about Godzilla toddler.
February 1, 1:49 PM: While my daughter somehow, thankfully, continues to sleep, I focus first on "Ambient Music 1" by Kees Schoonenbeek. It's so minimalist that any awkward fingering or unbalanced phrase is going to be painfully obvious. I grumble over the luscious major seventh chords in the Vaughan Williams prelude, because while it is a lovely harp part, playing it on a piano feels like wearing shoes on the wrong feet. I glance over the Scarlatti. My part is a mediocre realization of the original figured bass with awful voice leading. (Translation: Baroque orchestral music does not dictate exact notes to keyboard players, instead requiring them to extemporize on a harmonic structure recorded in an archaic form of notation, and the guy who wrote the modern transcription did a shoddy job of it). I don't like the piece enough to devote 10-12 hours I don't have to rewriting my part, so I'm just going to avoid practicing it as much as realistically possible. The Mozart is a special challenge, since no clavichord part was shipped when the orchestra bought the piece, but Jim wants me to play anyway. I'm reading from the full score and creating a simple arrangement that is mostly oboe and cello parts with some horn thrown in.
This may sound like a typical practice session for me, but it isn’t. The repertoire for this concert has been selected based on specific criteria: 1) No orchestration that involves a mouthpiece or unfortunately-named spit valve, 2) can be rehearsed and recorded after about 90 minutes of rehearsal, and 3) should appeal to an online audience captive by curfews and frequently nasty winter weather. I'm inventing music to cover for instruments that should – but won't – be there. Because COVID.
February 1, 6:37 PM: We are not allowed to rehearse in our usual space, even though the rehearsal is work-related for most orchestra members (though some, including myself, volunteer) and therefore, technically allowed to exceed the current gathering limits and 10 PM curfew. Fortunately, Risa Poniros, one of the RSO board members, is the music director at Crabtree Valley Baptist Church, which has fewer restrictions on gatherings. I like having this additional form of connection to our local community and am very grateful that they are allowing us to use their space.
Our executive director zaps me with the temperature scanner (one of many responsibilities that don't make it into arts management job descriptions), and Jim and I set up our keyboard so I can warm up. The chairs are generously spaced out, and every musician will have to bring their own stands and turn their own pages, as there are no stand partners. Because COVID.
February 1, 6:54 PM: The rest of the musicians trickle in, giddy with excitement and adjusting to the unfamiliar feeling of being in a room with seventeen people in it. I'm also very conscious of who isn't there. We are restricted to strings and piano only to keep the group as small as possible, and I miss the banter of the trombone ladies, Rick-The-Tuba-Player's off-color jokes and wonderful stories, and catching up with my percussion buddies. We lost Norton Dickman (viola) in April of 2020, and the first rehearsal after the passing of a musician is a unique kind of loss.
February 1, 7:34 PM: After tuning and announcements, we jump in to Mozart. It takes longer than usual for the continuo section to agree on the precise length of the detached touch called for by this style. It doesn't help that the four of us are strung out across 50 feet of stage. The seconds and viola sections also take additional time to find a consensus on intonation. These furious adjustments take about 14 seconds, while continuing to play. I can't tell you how much I have missed the high that comes with this kind of work.
February 1: 7:44 PM: Jim starts rehearsing the strings-only pieces. I go to the back of the auditorium, ostensibly to listen, but really to cry because it's the first live orchestra I've heard in 11 months. There is a particular chord in the Alencar piece which touches ever so gently on my barely acknowledged grief for the hundreds of thousands of people we have lost to COVID. I cry thinking of every musician in this room practicing all year despite their empty calendars; practicing when performing is not allowed is the purest form of hope that I know. We need that hope right now. Because…well, you know why.
February 1, 8:05 PM: Jim announces they are moving on to Schoonenbeek, I sprint back onstage and try to clear my head. This one is all about the piano except for an 8-measure interlude of strings only, and it feels like the musical equivalent of the Miss America Swimsuit Competition – very pretty but mostly just exposed. It's hard to hear Jim's comments because of his mask, one that I sewed for him out of an old blue and white gingham shirt.
February 1, 8:11 PM: I honestly find this Scarlatti Symphony to be trite and awkward, but you might actually like it, so listen for yourself. Fortunately, the tempo is slow enough that I don't think anybody can tell I skimped on practicing it.
February 1, 8:21 PM: After zipping through the rest of the program, we start rehearsing the final piece. I ask Jim if he wants me to try the harp parts on the piano instead of the harp patch on the keyboard to add some more dynamic depth and resonance…partly because I knew he was considering it, but also because I want a second shot at the entrance I missed on the first run-through.
February 3, 9:20 AM: Bad news. Our principal violist is in the hospital – thankfully not for COVID or anything requiring intensive care, but still concerning. We don't have enough players in the section as it is…there are multiple divisi passages (when the section splits into subgroups and plays different notes) and we were already a player short. Whoever our executive director, John Klein finds to sub is going to be essentially sightreading at the gig. Jim tried to schedule the rehearsal and the performance close together so that we could minimize people getting sick or needing to quarantine between the two, but clearly such precautions aren't foolproof.
February 3, 11:46 AM: John Klein finds somebody from the full viola section who is able to cover the open spot for tonight. The Waddelows breathe a sigh of relief.
February 3, 5:02 PM: I take a shower, style my hair, and put on actual makeup for the first time in months. No lipstick though, not much point these days.
February 3, 6:57 PM: Jim asked the orchestra to wear solid bright colors to the recording session. David (bass) shows me his brilliant yellow tie that he picked up at a thrift store that morning. He overhears me grumbling about the Scarlatti and we end up discussing his (better) keyboard works and then Bach's (astronomically better) keyboard concerti. It is wonderfully normal to talk shop.
February 3, 7:31 PM: For the sake of our pinch hitter viola player, we run through each piece once, omitting repeats and giving an extra pass to challenging sections.
February 3, 8:04 PM: The tiny beep of the video camera signals the start of the first take. I was anticipating struggling to "perform" for an empty house and a camera. The last concert I livestreamed was generally unsatisfying, knowing people were watching but not being able to experience their reaction was all of the bad parts of live performances and none of the good. Tonight is different, though. The musicians are playing for each other and our hope for a future audience, and that is enough.
We play every piece as a single take, without a word being spoken between cuts. There is a certain tension that comes with recording, and I enjoy taking a moment to breathe and feel the embrace of the warm chords of Ole Bull's "Solitude sur la montagne" when I'm not performing.
February 3, 8:23 PM: I thought Jim might have us record the Scarlatti twice, since it is the longest piece with the most challenging transitions. Ultimately, he tells me later, the health risks of extending our indoor group time aren't worth any potential improvements in the recording. Because COVID.
Recording the Vaughan Williams is a little bittersweet. I'm not ready to go home yet.
February 3, 8:34 PM: We pack up and head outside into the cold February night. We had the tiniest glimpse of the future tonight, and I can't wait to share our concert with my friends, family, and community. You can see the full program here. John Klein has a lot of editing ahead of him, but Jim and I will move on to rehearsing for our livestream jazz trio concert in early March. Maybe by September we can get the whole orchestra back together again. And maybe none of us will ever have to say "because COVID" again.
For part two of this pair of articles, click here.