For the foreseeable future, the internet may be the only safe place where musicians and audiences can come together.
That’s why the musicians of Worthington’s McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra (MACCO) have gone virtual, turning their own homes into recording studios and using smartphones and other high-tech tools to give a performance of music by J.S. Bach.
MACCO Artistic and Music Director Antoine Clark funded the orchestra’s virtual ensemble project himself, to help make up for the orchestra’s canceled 2019-20 season finale and as an expression of goodwill to his audience.
“I decided that I want to give back to the community and to our patrons,” Clark said in a recent video conference interview. “Basically, the musicians and I are donating our time, talent and money.”
McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra’s virtual ensemble project:
The widespread shelter-at-home orders issued to fight the spread of COVID-19 have led to a groundswell of creativity among musicians and other performing artists looking for ways to stay connected with their audiences at a time when face-to-face concerts are not possible.
Clark had seen countless videos featuring composite performances of musicians in separate spaces playing their parts in large ensemble works. He wanted to bring MACCO and its audience together in a performance that united audio and video recording technology, the internet and the joy of making and experiencing music.
Clark chose Ray Thompson’s wind arrangement of the first movement of Bach’s upbeat Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 as the repertoire for the virtual ensemble project.
“The Brandenburg Concerto offers a great opportunity to do different video shots, showing how the instruments dance around each other,” Clark said.
Clark sent the musicians their parts, along with notes about matters of musical style and execution – just as he normally does when preparing to lead face-to-face rehearsals with the orchestra.
Clark also sent the musicians notes to help with recording technology and pointers about making their recording spaces visually inviting.
“Since we’re all alone at home, I wanted the musicians to feel like they were inviting people into their homes,” Clark said.
The musicians used their cell phones to video record themselves playing their parts individually, then sent Clark the resulting video files.
In order to help the musicians play together in time and in a consistent style, Clark gave them a point of reference. He asked MACCO Principal Bassoonist Scott Hanratty to record himself playing his bassoon part first, with a metronome audibly clicking along in the background.
Hanratty’s recording was then sent to his colleagues, who recorded their parts individually while listening to the recorded bassoon part – and audible metronome clicking – through earbuds.
“These are people that I’ve had the pleasure of working with for years and years, so it was kind of like I was sending my friends a little note saying were in this together,” Hanratty said. “They were able to play along with me.”
In an almost complete reversal of the usual conductor’s working procedure, Clark practiced conducting the Bach while listening to the recordings of the musicians’ individual parts and, informed by those performances, video recorded himself conducting the piece.
“The sound and character of the music in the recording are predetermined,” Clark said, “so I had to create the illusion that I am influencing the creation of the music through precise gestures that mimic the sound” that his interpretation of the piece will have.
Clark forwarded all the videos to musician, illustrator and video engineer Forrest Young, based in Richmond, Va., to edit each musician’s audio and video and to assemble the edited files into one composite video. Young forwarded his editing to Columbus-based sound engineer Matt Disbrow, who completed the final audio mix.
The audio and video editing took a substantial amount of time – about 50 hours of work for a six-minute piece of music – and the finished product shows the orchestra as only technology can, with changes in color highlighting the trading of musical lines from instrument to instrument throughout the movement.
“We wanted to entertain the eye and marry that with the music making,” Clark said of the video
Although the musicians in Clark’s virtual ensemble project were geographically separated from each other, many of the usual collaborative aspects of how they normally work together remained.
Though Clark did not rehearse the orchestra – there is no widely available internet service that allows musicians to play simultaneously from remote locations and hear each other well enough to create effective musical nuances – he prepared the musicians for this project just as he would prepare them for a face-to-face rehearsal or performance.
“(Clark) sent out a reference recording, he sent out a score, he told us what some of the note-length issues were that would come up again, and some of the phrasing issues. So, he sort of got us to hit the ground running like he would in a rehearsal anyway,” said MACCO Principal Flutist Erin Helgeson Torres.
Playing together with Hanratty’s bassoon recording, Torres says, was a taste of the usual give-and-take she loves about playing with her colleagues.
“Scott was slowing down so beautifully (near the end of the movement), and I was like, that’s right. There’s music happening here.”
While this virtual ensemble project features MACCO’s wind players, Clark and McConnell Arts Center Executive Director Erin Blue are discussing the possibility of showcasing other sections of the orchestra in future virtual ensemble projects.
“This piece is our test, but it is my hope that – whether we do it all virtually, or whether we do some version that’s on our stage without people in the theater – some way (we can) feature the different sections of the orchestra during this time, until we can actually all be together again,” said Blue. “We have to find out if we have the resources and the technological abilities to pull it off.”
The bill for MACCO’s first virtual ensemble project was substantial, but Clark says he considers the experience and the finished product an investment. And the members of the orchestra – who, despite losing considerable income in the COVID-19 closures, performed in the project for free – say performing virtually is better than not performing at all.
“We want to continue making music and we want to be with our colleagues, but I think it comes back to mission,” Torres said. “You should want to share music any way you can. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”