Shaken, Yet Stirred

I have been listening carefully and closely to the Digital Concerts of my home city orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. We are very fortunate here in Detroit, as our DSO has been growing its capacity to broadcast on the internet for quite a long time. High resolution cameras were recently added, and the superb acoustics of Orchestra Hall serve the microphones quite well. Nothing can replace being in a live audience for a performance, but our hometown orchestra musicians are making the very best of a challenging situation.

A great deal of thought has clearly been put into these concerts. Safety for the musicians is certainly a priority, and watching the performance you will see them all seated at least six feet apart. Everyone is wearing a mask, with the exception of the wind players when they are actually playing. I believe that being spread out so far apart, yet still performing at a very high level of musicality is only possible because of the excellent acoustics in Orchestra Hall. I don’t know that the musicians could hear each other well enough in your average high school gymnasium to pull this off.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall Stage

One consequence of putting a pandemically safe distance between musicians on stage is that we see and hear the orchestra playing with greatly reduced instrumentation. There are simply fewer musicians on stage. Oddly enough, I think this works better being broadcast than it would live in the hall. The microphones pick up the sound, and I turn up the volume on my hi-fi speakers and still get an incredibly rich sound from the strings. I am awash in sound in a way that I don’t think would be the same in the balcony with a small number of string players. I love Orchestra Hall, and from experience know I can hear every detail of every note from any seat I can afford. I just don’t think I would feel the string bass in the soles of my feet live with only a few players performing, in the same way I can cranking the volume up to 11 in my living room. (You can trust that I speak here from past concert attendance. In the past, I have sat so high up in the balcony, I thought a St. Bernard with a barrel of brandy around its neck might have to come save me).

An unexpected bonus of the reduction in orchestral forces is that it necessitates a shift of repertoire. You can’t perform the standard orchestra pieces with a small number of players, at least not without sounding like a mere shadow of what we are accustomed to hearing. I have been impressed, thrilled and excited to see the programs that our new Music Director Jader Bignamini has put together. Truth be told, there is usually very little performed in an orchestra season I haven’t listened to or studied before. This speaks more to the narrow body of old war-horses orchestras feel they have to play to attract ticket sales, rather than the breadth of my knowledge. Take a careful look at what is planned in a season, and if you find a world premiere by a living composer you will almost always see it paired with one of the “greatest hits” that has been played over and over again. (If you buy me a cocktail every time you find this to be true, I will be well past tipsy by intermission.) The changes that the public health crises have forced upon us have pushed the orchestra to play different music, and it is a refreshing change.

There has been music from every historical period represented. Our principal cello Wei Yu gave a brilliant performance of a Haydn cello concerto, and on another concert we had the Brandenberg Concerto No. 5 of Bach, complete with harpsichord virtuosity that is rarely given opportunity to see the light of day. There has been performances of music by Henry Purcell, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and old Wolfy himself, herr Mozart. There have also been performances of Igor Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, the Serenade for String Orchestra by Krzysztof Penderecki, the Baroque Suite by Aldolphus Hailstork, and a piece I have never heard before by Toru Takemitsu named Archipelago S. The music by Takemitsu was particularly inspiring, as he is a composer that offers a sound that combines elements of Japanese music with western modernism. It is a much different aesthetic from what we usually get the opportunity to absorb from the orchestral standard repertoire.

The fall season has certainly been shaken up. I subscribed to the 2020-2021 orchestra classical series with full knowledge that there was doubt it would go forward as scheduled. I have personally found the digital solutions the Detroit Symphony has offered to be inspiring, refreshing and have been stirred by the determination for the show to go on.

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