By John Showalter
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented some interesting challenges for music and the arts, and the realm of classical music is no exception. Even nationally recognized bastions of classical music like The Met in New York were put in a seemingly unprecedented situation as they found their concert halls suddenly emptied. Despite these difficulties, lovers of the arts have found ways to utilize technology to bring the concert experience to people, albeit in a somewhat altered fashion.
Take, for example, our own Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, who have decided that the show must go on. Their ever-popular Masterworks series would still occur this season, but in a different format. They had to balance creativity and responsibility in order to continue the tradition in the face of these extraordinary circumstances.
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Christopher Zimmerman, music director of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra since 2013 as well as the music director of the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra in Virginia, about the upcoming installment in the Masterworks series.
When asked how the ongoing pandemic has affected his work as a conductor he said, “Quite substantially, but happily not shut me down. Thanks to the FMSO, we have been able to play a variety of concerts of smaller ensembles to an empty hall, recorded and videoed, and then put online for our audiences. So, this season has decidedly NOT shut down entirely, albeit in a different format. My other orchestra, the Fairfax SO in Virginia, has decided like many orchestras to stay quiet during the pandemic, stabilize its financial resources, and then come back next season, hopefully in a stronger financial position.”
The concerts in this unique season of the Masterworks series have been put on in a decidedly different fashion than those of other years, where a full orchestra ensemble played to a packed concert hall. “We have put on concerts to an empty hall which have then been put online,” said Zimmerman. “This has allowed for some different type of programming which may be the silver lining of this plague. Due to the small number of musicians being allowed to play together at any one time, the type of music we have performed is quite different, and in my ways more varied, than the symphonic literature we normally play.”
He elaborated on this a bit further. “This season, for instance, we have gone from a program of eight different pieces, with a huge variety of styles and different instrumental combinations, to a program of just one piece (this upcoming program). Also, the video aspect of the performances has become a truly integral part of the concert, many cameras, many angles, etc., with a director. So we perform the concert under these circumstances and then it is post-produced by integrating the video and audio and then put up online for our viewers. Different from the normal concert production but exciting!”
For this next concert, the FMSO will be performing one work, “Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth)” by the great 19th century German Romantic composer Gustav Mahler. “It is one of the last big symphonic works he wrote,” said Zimmerman. “Written between his eighth and ninth symphonies, the piece is essentially a song cycle and a symphony in one. It has six movements, each based on a poem, and they are sung alternately by a tenor and a mezzo soprano.”
Those two parts are to be sung by two nationally recognized guest singers with whom Zimmerman has worked in the past and has nothing but praise for, the mezzo soprano Daryl Freedman (who has a resume including performing Wagner at the Met) and the tenor Brennen Guillory (who has previously performed this piece for the Orchestra of the Swan in the UK).
About this performance, Zimmerman said, “Normally for a very large orchestra of 80+ players, this is an arrangement for only 21 players. Although it will inevitably lack the sheer force of sound instrumentally, everything is there nonetheless. Nothing of the music itself has been altered, and the heart and soul of the music will shine. Sometimes, when it is more ‘bare-boned,’ the essence of the music comes through even stronger!”
Listeners will be able to “attend” the concert by going to the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra website, where all the information will be available. The show will take place on Sunday, April 18 at 2:00 PM and will be viewable through Sunday, April 25.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, Zimmerman is hopeful about the future of classical music performances. “I don’t see this pandemic as a cultural destroyer. It may take a while, but we will have live concerts again as before. People want them. Although alternative types of performances that have surged during the pandemic due to people’s creativity and persistence, plus today’s technology, may now always be with us as an alternative or perhaps even in collaboration with standard live concerts. Maybe this is a good thing!”
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