When musical organizations across the Capital Region cancelled their concerts for fall because of the concerns about the coronavirus, hundreds of young musicians were thrown into a quandary. When would they ever get to play together again.
“We saw their eagerness to make music. They wanted to play in person,” said Empire State Youth Orchestra Music Director Carlos Agreda. “What could we do? How could we make this happen?”
As it turned out, by being creative.
The result is the first virtual Tutti! Festival, which opens tonight (Dec. 3) and continues over two weekends through Dec. 13. (Tutti is an Italian musical term that means all together.) All the concerts are pre-recorded and were performed during the last two weeks of November without cuts. Most concerts run about 50 minutes without intermission.
The Symphonic Orchestra, which usually involves 100 mostly high school musicians, was divided into three chamber-size groups. The Repertory Orchestra was also divided, which left the Youth Percussion, the Jazz Orchestra, and the Concertino Strings with their standard number of players. In total: 12 ensembles, each with its own conductor and each given a concert date.
“It was a logistical nightmare,” Agreda said with a laugh.
His first concern was the repertoire. The Dec. 3 concert will involve 25 players. For this group, he chose the classical repertoire, which includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1, two Mozart overtures, Erich Korngold’s “Dance in the Old Style,” Victor Herbert’s Serenade for Strings, and Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Homage to Mozart’s Sinfonietta No. 1.” Because none of these pieces required lower brass, Agreda was able to assign works from the Romantic Era, which included these instruments, to the second classical group with their concert set for Dec. 13. The third classical group was only strings players with their concert on Dec. 11.
But what to do with the wind players, such as the oboes or flutes, in which two of the concerts involved them?
“I asked them which concert they wanted to play, so they chose,” Agreda said.
Rehearsals for everyone began live on a weekly basis in September at Proctors.
“We’re so lucky the theater has a huge stage,” he said. “String players are separated by eight feet and the wind players 12 feet, plus having all the restrictions, masks and PPE. And we never rehearsed longer than about 45 minutes because you didn’t want the musicians staying in the same room with the same air. There were always health concerns.”
The system worked well.
“None of our musicians have had any complications from the virus,” Agreda said. “It’s been absolutely zero.”
Agreda and two assistant conductors rotated among the three classical groups for rehearsals. For the other groups, each conductor chose repertoire that would work with the size of their group. And all the groups, except for the Jazz Orchestra and the Youth Percussion have been at full capacity.
“Some of the players in these two groups decided to take a gap year, so we’re having January auditions,” Agreda said.
Having to adjust to trying circumstances has, however, yielded some new methods that Agreda said he hopes to continue when circumstances return to normal. These include doing auditions online, which allows the judges to better evaluate a musician’s levels; chamber-size groups have enabled the players to better hear what the other musicians are playing and where their part fits into the whole; having to engage more assistant conductors and coaches led to more individualized attention, including sectional coaching, which has rarely been used before.
“The pandemic forced us to use many tools that we didn’t realize we had and forced us to think outside the box,” Agreda said.
A full list of what each group will play is at www.esyo.org.
Each concert is available for up to 48 hours after the initial performance.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Dec. 3, 4, 5, 10, 11, 12;
3 p.m. Dec.6, 13
HOW MUCH: $1 to $30 depending on what level the listener chooses