The Show Must Go On—Online, That Is

September 23, 2020
Erich Burnett
socially distanced student musicians rehearsing together
Conservatory students rehearse with conductor Raphael Jiménez in Finney Chapel. Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Conservatory large ensembles begin fall season with weekly performances on Oberlin Stage Left.

A summer of planning and innovation made it possible for an in-person start to the fall semester at Oberlin Conservatory, complete with a painstakingly devised series of safety precautions for everyone on campus.

Beginning Saturday, September 26, Oberlin’s large-ensemble musicians will present the season’s first reimagined performances to a worldwide audience online.

Each week through the conclusion of fall semester, the conservatory will broadcast a program featuring student performances captured this fall in Warner Concert Hall and Finney Chapel. Each episode airs at 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday on Oberlin Stage Left, the web-based platform that debuted in spring 2020 in response to the coronavirus-induced shutdown of campuses across America.

This week’s inaugural program will feature the following pieces:

Rex tremendae majestatis (2008), by Christopher Theofanidis, conducted by Raphael Jiménez and featuring faculty organ soloist Jonathan Moyer

El Jaleo (2019), by Jonathan Bailey Holland, conducted by Jiménez

Colmena (2008), by Arlene Sierra, conducted by Timothy Weiss

The Twittering Machine (1993), by Cindy McTee, conducted by Jiménez

Electric Aroma (a most disagreeable noise) (2018), by Viet Cuong, conducted by Weiss

The program will be preceded by a brief introduction to the fall series featuring conductors Jiménez and Weiss.

In response to the pandemic, conservatory officials have designed a large-ensemble experience that will remain the norm for at least the fall 2020 semester. Gone, for now, are stages packed with dozens of musicians. In their place are smaller ensembles whose members occupy the entire stage—and sometimes the adjacent seats and aisles—to ensure sufficient social distancing for each performer. In addition, instrument groups including brass and winds are partitioned behind plexiglass panels to minimize the transmission of aerosolized particles.

For students, the experience has been a lesson in adaptability, as they grow accustomed to establishing artistic bonds from across the stage and in performance settings in which their audience cannot be seen or heard.

“All the players, who are used to trusting their ears, now have to rely more on their eyes, looking for visual cues from the conductor and from other players to maintain coordination,” says Jiménez, director of Oberlin orchestras. “The flexibility and the ability of the students to adapt have been amazing. They have quickly learned that it is not easy, but it is doable, and they are capable of creating beautiful music even under these very unusual circumstances.

“There is no denying that it is very difficult to keep up the performance energy when you are playing to an empty hall. It is another one of those COVID conditions that we just have to accept. But hopefully those watching our streamed performances will be able to feel the excitement, the enthusiasm, and the joy that we feel as we get to play with each other again.”

Since its launch in April 2020, Oberlin Stage Left has served as the virtual performance hub for Oberlin Conservatory musicians, as well as the platform for dozens of fascinating programs on issues pertaining to musicians throughout the industry.

The transition to repertoire for smaller ensembles affords the opportunity to showcase more recent compositions from living composers. Throughout the semester, Oberlin Stage Left broadcasts will include insights from some of those composers prior to performances of their works.

In addition to ensemble performances, Oberlin students have resumed junior and senior degree recitals on campus this fall. While in-person audiences for those performances are prohibited, all degree recitals are broadcast live on oberlin.edu.

This weekend, Oberlin Jazz students begin a twice-weekly series of live, socially distanced Jazz Forums on Tappan Square’s Clark Bandstand. Performances are scheduled for noon Fridays and Saturdays through October 24.

For a complete list of all upcoming performances, visit the online events calendar.

“Our students have adapted to this new reality with an enormous sense of commitment and responsibility, contributing in any possible way to make sure that we all have a positive and safe experience,” Jiménez says. “We may be playing with a mask on, we may be playing from behind a plexiglass shield, we may be far from each other, and we may be playing to an empty hall; but behind the shield and behind the mask, there is a spark in our eyes that sings a joyful song of gratitude. We are making music together!”

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