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BPO’s Season Opener is a “virtual” treat and after six months the musicians couldn’t be more grateful

Six months into the shutdown the world continues to get some big COVID wake-up calls, with President and First Lady, Donald and Melania Trump, testing positive for coronavirus as reported this morning in the New York Times while CNBC reported that “White House physician Sean Conley said in a memo early this Friday (10/02/2020) morning: ‘The President and First Lady are both well at this time, and they plan to remain at home within the White House during their convalescence.’”

And last week, the Metropolitan Opera House, the largest performing arts organization in the world, announced that it had canceled its entire 2020-2021 season. Not “postponed.” “Cancelled.” That had a huge ripple effect on Broadway theaters and other performing arts venues whose returns to live, indoor performances are now more in doubt than ever. One thing many forget is that any performance includes weeks, months, or years of preparation and close, intense, face-to-face cooperation. So, yes, the theaters and concert halls may be closed, but the rehearsal spaces, costume shops, and backstage dressing and green rooms are also closed.

So, theater and concert offerings are getting smaller with fewer performers on stage, socially distanced, and those offerings are, so far, entirely “virtual” which can either mean pre-taped and offered on YouTube or some similar streaming service or “live-streamed” meaning that as you watch, the performers are, somewhere, actually, well, performing. And, even then, mostly because “why not?” those performances are available to “ticket” holders for a time after.

So music, and classical music, is being made. Alex Ross of the New Yorker recently wrote about the L.A. Philharmonic’s virtual opening under Gustavo Dudamel. You can read that here.

And, locally, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra just started their 2020-2021 season last Saturday night with a virtual concert, taped before an audience of no one on the Friday morning before at Kleinhans Music Hall. Speaking of tape, the stage was literally marked off with blue tape so that each performer had his or her own “zone” on stage and was provided with a personal, taped-off “zone” backstage as well. (While the conductor and soloists for any given live performance are given dressing rooms, I can report that Kleinhans backstage is, or was pre-COVID, incredibly crowded.)

In addition, performers on wind instruments who cannot wear a mask were separated from the others by large Plexiglas structures. Overkill? Given that the pandemic has now killed over 200,000 Americans, perhaps not. We love our BPO musicians and want them around for a long time.

And, just as most of us working from home have had the odd IT surprise, the concert got off to a late start on Saturday due to the enormous size of the video file which had to be uploaded to the streaming platform.  But if you’d got a virtual ticket, you could watch anytime, as much as you want to. And the concert was cleverly constructed, with two familiar and iconic works composed for small orchestras of mostly string players and introducing a new work for strings by a young (39), female, black violinist, Jessie Montgomery, who came up through the Detroit based Sphinx Organization. Founded in 1997 with the goal of addressing the underrepresentation of people of color in classical music, Sphinx has a strong relationship with  Buffalo. In fact, every year the BPO invites Sphinx stars to Buffalo for daytime school concerts both at-Kleinhans and in local schools. So it felt “full circle” to have a composed work by a Sphinx participant.

Montgomery’s piece opened the program and with the tempo marking of “Lively” it certainly was, and with shifting rhythms it was certainly right up there with the dozens of new compositions that JoAnn Falletta regularly programs at BPO Classics concerts. There was a period of time, perhaps over 30 years ago, when “new” meant discordant, “angular” music, not what we call “accessible” but these days the newer composers, Gen-Xers often, have found a way to delight contemporary audiences, while still challenging the musicians.

First violin Diana Sachs reported: “I was so glad I learned the new piece by Jessie Montgomery really well because I knew I’d be really exposed [note: “exposed” is how musicians describe playing in small combos, where each performer is almost a soloist.] Obviously, everyone else felt that way too, because everyone came in super prepared for the first rehearsal, so it sounded great from the get-go!

Of course, just as there was a learning curve in the transmission of the concert, performers had to learn “new tricks” as well!  I wanted to know about playing while wearing a mask, and Sachs told this story: “I had bought a special black “Tommie Copper” mask for the concert, but it was too much fabric, so when I stuck my violin under my chin the mask rode right up into my eyes! I ended up having to take tucks in my mask with a needle and thread!”

Composer Aaron Copland, when younger, went down a path for a while of composing “academic” music, but then developed his own unmistakable style, beautifully featured in the second work on the concert originally titled “Ballet for Martha” (as in dancer Martha Graham) which she then decided to call “Appalachian Spring.”  Falletta and the BPO’s performance was true to the original 13-instrument (strings, piano, and flute, clarinet, and bassoon) configuration, a rare treat. At the piano, by the way, was a Buffalo treasure (he’s also the staff pianist for the New York Philharmonic) Eric Huebner who will be back on stage for the next BPO Classics Concert. That’s soon! In fact, next Saturday, October 10.

One thing that I hadn’t really thought about was how important this concert was to the musicians. Despite the unusual circumstances (social distancing, no audience) everyone I reached out to had a consistent message of gratitude, including Principal Bassoonist Glenn Einschlag featured in Copland’s Appalachian Spring: “I was extremely nervous to play the Copland because I knew how difficult it was and we hadn’t played together for such a long time.  It was immensely reassuring to witness how wonderfully it all came together in spite of the unfamiliar format.  For me, it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my tenure with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.”

For me, it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my tenure with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov echoed that: “It was strange to sit so far apart, play in the mask, have winds completely secluded in cages but we didn’t care. It was fantastic to make music again with my colleagues and JoAnn. The only thing that would make it better is to play for our audience…. can’t wait ‘til we do it.”

The final work on the program was Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” which is essentially four violin concertos in the order “Spring – Summer- Autumn – Winter.” The soloist for these four concertos was the BPO’s (fairly new) concertmaster, Nikki Chooi, a fun, high energy guy who just seems to embody exactly where the BPO wants to go.

I asked him what it felt like and did the mask thing get in the way. He responded: “Although it was strange to ‘perform’ without an audience, there was a sense of mutual excitement and gratitude to be performing for each other. Personally, I had to practice playing with a mask on as I learned to adjust breathing through the fabric and to position it comfortably so that it doesn’t cover my eyes. As we adjust to this new norm in remaining socially distanced, limiting interaction between colleagues, and wearing masks, we are privileged to channel our expression through music-making.”

The violinist who usually shares a music stand to the immediate left of Nikki Chooi is violinist Amy Glidden, the BPO’s Associate Concertmaster who shared: “The return of the BPO to Kleinhans heightened all of our orchestral instincts. Without small talk and facial expressions hidden behind masks, we only had our musical sounds and gestures with which to communicate. And with the increased distance between musicians, our deep bond with Maestro JoAnn Falletta was the key to making the music coalesce. I will never forget the brilliant performance of our concertmaster, Nikki Chooi, as soloist, and hearing the sounds of live wind instruments after six months.”

And, fellow violinist Diana Sachs also reported that feeling of isolation was overcome by intense listening: “One thing that really struck me is how alone I felt up there on stage with 6 feet on all sides of me. It was strange how I could hear the whole orchestra, the sum of the string section and Nikki and the harpsichordist, yet I could distinctly hear every note I played as well!”

So, the first concert, a virtual concert, for 2020-2021 was a success, not only for the audience at home but even more so for the musicians, who despite how formal they may look on stage during live concerts with their concert tuxes and gowns, are really very social creatures, just like the rest of us, a thought summed up by ‘Cellist Robbie Hausmann: “I thoroughly enjoyed being back in Kleinhans performing with our pared-down, socially distanced BPO. Could you see me smiling under my mask?”

WHAT’S NEXT: THE BUFFALO PHILHARMONIC POPS GOES VIRTUAL ON SATURDAY NIGHT (OCTOBER 3) WITH SGT’S DANDES AND UJIMA’S BROWN

The Pops season opens with the new generation of Broadway stars (Carole J. Bufford and Blaine Alden Krauss) along with Buffalo’s own Brian Brown from Ujima Theatre and Arin Lee Dandes from the Second Generation Theatre Company, both last fall in the sold-out HAIRSPRAY (my review here) at the Kavinoky Theatre as “Seaweed” and “Penny Pingelton.” The evening of song and celebration, “Broadway to Buffalo,” is the second offering of the 2020-2021 Season with Guest Conductor Bradley Thachuk and musical theater favorites including classics from Rogers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, George Gershwin, Stephen Schwartz, and more.

The Saturday, October 3, 2020 show begins (online) at 8 p.m. with the opportunity to stream immediately after if you can’t join exactly at 8. Visit bpo.org to buy tickets (very affordable at $10), to view the program book, as well as to watch a special video message from Arin Lee Dandes and Brian Brown.

SATURDAY (OCTOBER 10) the M&T Classics Series continues with LOVE AND LONGING as JoAnn Falletta conducts Antonin Dvorak’s “Serenade for Winds, Cello, and Bass in D minor,” Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite,” and the centerpiece of the concert featuring Eric Huebner (recently seen on PBS WNED TV in the mini-series featuring BPO musicians) in Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1, also in D minor. While the opening concert this season used a harpsichord for Baroque composer Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Mr. Huebner will play Bach seated at his forte, the Steinway grand.

SATURDAY (OCTOBER 17) The BPO POPS presents THAT STUDIO SOUND: JAZZ CLASSICS FOR LOVERS featuring Sal Andolina, saxophone, along with Katy Miner and Chris Vasquez, vocalists. And, the BPO’s Principal Pops Conductor, John Morris Russell, will be back on the podium.

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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