A Conversation on Boston Civics

William Grant Still

The Boston Civic Symphony will begin its season with an ambitious livestreamed concert broadcast free on Sunday at 3:00 from the First Church in Cambridge [access stream HERE]. I spoke with conductor Francisco Noya about how the Symphony has put together the concert, what it has been like to rehearse with masks and social distancing, and how our moment in time influences programming. The conversation began with the usual icebreakers:

FN: I’m very, very well, thank you, though it has been a very strange year. For the first time in twenty years I find myself without having to worry about preparing a concert for the coming week, but there has been plenty to do ― I teach remotely, I have been studying scores, and I’m constantly in contact with my colleagues all over, including in Latin America and Europe, to see what they are doing and what they are able to put together.

BJS: About your Sunday concert ― I’m happy to see a large local ensemble finding a way to do something live.

Oh, we’re not large ― we’re very much smaller than usual.

I guess I’m comparing you to a lot of what I’ve seen since everything was shut down. I’ve seen a lot of people playing in their living rooms on Zoom.

Yes, of course, but we are normally 85 or 90, so this is seriously reduced. On Sunday there won’t be any audience at the First Church, because of the state requirement that there be no more than 25 people in the room – and we’re just 25.

How did you even get to this point? Every organization has to struggle now to find its place. You’re trying something pretty ambitious. I mean, the Berlin Philharmonic streams all of their concerts, but they have rather different resources.

Yes, I love that orchestra and know many people in it – and they have very advanced equipment and full-time staff to run it. Detroit has been doing streaming for years as well. We’re obviously not as large as those organizations, but going day by day here, feeling our way forward to see what we can accomplish. When we met earlier in the year, the question was “do we even try?” I mean, we saw the Met Opera, the New York Philharmonic shutting down; the BSO just announced they will have no season. But we decided it was better to try to plan for something and cancel if necessary than to wait and find yourself suddenly wanting to present something and being unable to.

There was some serendipity involved here: we started by looking for venues. We knew Jordan Hall was unavailable. We needed somewhere large enough to accommodate our distanced orchestra and that had good acoustics. I knew the First Church in Cambridge from working with the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra, and they had dates that we could use. It turns out they already  have quite a system in place for streaming their services. We’ve had to add on to it – adding cameras, and bringing our own sound engineer with an impressive set of microphones. We are going to see what happens. As with anything technological, there will probably be some bugs. We’re going to go ahead and play, we welcome everyone to watch – and if things get bumpy, you can just get up and grab another beer from the fridge!

You mention that the orchestra has been distanced. How is that working?

Yes, we’re keeping our distance. All of the players are at least six feet away from one another, and everyone not playing a wind instrument is wearing masks. We fill the entire space with just 25 performers. Our main priority is to keep everyone healthy – we rehearse without breaks to minimize unnecessary interactions, although that feels a little like it defeats the purpose of music making with your colleagues. We enjoy each other’s company, and it is hard not to have that dimension of our work together. However, it was very nice when we started playing together – you could see people smiling through their masks!

There are musical challenges of course, especially in ensemble. There is so much going on when you play. There are visual elements: the conductor of course, but also the players near you – how they move, how you communicate phrasing through motion and expression. Of course you’re also listening as well. Now, you have to look so much further. Your listening cues are distant, and delayed. You have to play before the beat.

So you’ve only got 25 players, but you need the kind of techniques you use when you have 125.

Yes, exactly. So it’s not so much learning something new as having to make unfamiliar adaptations.

And you have wind players as well as strings?

Yes, the winds are all at least ten feet away from everyone. There have been studies about how wind instruments might behave with respect to the virus, and it appears that the risk may be lower than previously thought. There is a University of Minnesota study that find that flutes and trumpets put out the most air; a big instrument like a tuba uses more, but most of that air stays in the instrument. People are developing masks for trumpets, trying to help reduce any risk while not changing the sound. In any case, the pieces on the concert are either for reduced winds or don’t use them, so, there are fewer instruments to worry about.

It’s an unusually interesting program. There’s a work by William Grant Still; a Sibelius rarity, Rakastava; Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye. Is this program reacting in some way to our historical moment?

Absolutely. About the William Grant Still — when Black Lives Matter became so important earlier this year the Symphony had a series of conversations about how to react. We have decided to be proactive, and we will be presenting more music by African-American composers…

Francisco Noya (file poto)

Which means more music we almost certainly haven’t heard before, which is a good thing.

I agree. I love Brahms and Bruckner and Mahler as much as anyone, but I want to hear more of these other voices. There will be more performances by African-American soloists, and seeking out African-American orchestra members once we can imagine a full orchestra performance again. William Grant Still is a major African-American composer, of course. I had not previously known the work we will perform, Out of the Silence, but as soon as I heard the title I was intrigued. I feel like we’ve been in a silence for months – in a fermata imposed by the virus – and this first work will be the way we emerge out of that silence. It’s a wonderful piece and will feature our assistant conductor Nathaniel Efthimiou on the piano part. 

The Wagner and Ravel, were written as gifts ― Wagner’s to Cosima and Ravel to children of his friends ― and we feel like this chance to play is a gift to the audience, but also to ourselves. Of course, the fact that these are scored for small ensembles make them suitable for our allowable forces; the Ravel will be played in a reduced orchestration by the Spanish contemporary ensemble Conjunt XXI!, and the Sibelius transcribed his own unaccompanied choral work for string, timpani and triangle.

So, on Sunday we’ll get to have a live performance to watch ― at a distance, of course ― but nevertheless, a real live event.

Yes, it will be interesting. Even the Berlin Philharmonic, with all of their equipment and staff, have hiccups in those live streams  I expect we will have all the excitement and surprises of a true live performance, even without a live audience in the seats!

LIVE STREAM PERFORMANCE

Sunday, October 25, 2020 – 3:00 pm EST

A selection of works for small ensembles:

William Grant Still: Out of the Silence 
Elgar: Chanson de Nuit
Sibelius: Rakastava
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll
Ravel: Ma Mère L’Oye, Suite.

Francisco Noya, conductor
Nathanial Efthimiou, assistant conductor

The LIVESTREAM will be made available [HERE] prior to the concert date and will be provided for FREE.  No tickets will be sold for this event