When the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra first considered putting on a holiday pops concert, they pictured some beloved festive songs, performed by musicians dressed in holiday garb.
They didn’t picture the musicians wearing masks or sitting six-plus feet apart on stage.
Yet, this is 2020, so that’s exactly what happened last weekend when they recorded Poinsettia Pops on Proctors’ stage. The virtual concert, which features a dozen songs, will be available for people to view starting Tuesday and running through Dec. 25.
It marks a first of its kind for the orchestra, which hasn’t been able to get together to perform, let alone rehearse, since January because of the pandemic. Making it happen took weeks of behind-the-scenes work, including securing sponsorship.
“We wanted to make sure that we had sponsorship and patrons behind it supporting the cost of doing it,” said Executive Director Steven Yuhasz. Something especially important because there’s no way to predict how many tickets they could sell.
Then they had to work out the music licensing details to figure out what songs could be recorded, and, of course, they had to work with Proctors and Open Stage Media, which recorded the concert, to navigate safety measures.
“The biggest issue is making sure everyone’s safe when they come in . . . There’s a whole series of protocols that are in place to make any work environment safe now,” said SSO Artistic Director Glen Cortese.
According to Jean Leonard, the chief of staff at Proctors, when any organization rents out space in the theater, they have to make sure that they keep the attendance to under New York State’s 50-person gathering limit. They also have to ensure that everyone who comes in the building has their temperature taken, that social distancing measures are followed, and that they all fill out a contact tracing form.
Around 40 members of the SSO, along with Leonard, who was a guest vocalist, got together last Saturday and rehearsed for about three hours before recording the concert, which is filled with holiday classics like “The Little Drummer Boy,” “Coventry Carol” and “Sleigh Ride.”
For many musicians, it was their first time up on stage since the pandemic.
“It was really special. A lot of people seeing each other for the first time since March and maybe even before March,” said SSO concertmaster Michael Emery.
Per the safety rules in place, each musician had their own stand rather than sharing one with a partner, which changed the dynamics of the performance from the musician’s point of view.
“Typically, each string section can hear each other at least to a certain extent. . . there are at least four people at any given time that are playing the same part that can hear each other. That goes away under these situations,” Emery said. “I think it actually made everyone concentrate even more.”
They also had to communicate a bit differently with Cortese. Musicians usually look for the conductor’s body language for signals, especially their facial expressions. With the masks, the latter wasn’t quite as easy to do.
“A lot of what the conductor conveys is through his hands, arms and beat pattern. The entire physicality of his gestures. We miss a little bit of expressiveness from his facial expressions but I think in general that doesn’t change much,” Emery said. “So [it was] a bit of an adjustment with the ears and the eyes, but we’re musicians and we’re used to making those adjustments.”
‘Like a big band’
While the tunes were all familiar to the musicians, there were a few new arrangements by Cortese that were new to the orchestra. One that especially went off well according to Emery was “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
“That’s a great arrangement,” Emery said. “The brass and winds sound like a big band and they’re really rocking it out back there. It was a good piece to play. It brought up our spirits.”
“They sounded really rich and full and really quite wonderful. It also put us all in the holiday spirit to hear that music,” Yuhasz said.
“I sat backstage when I was not actually performing and to just listen to them play some of those standards that we love to hear live at this time of year; it was a privilege to get to be behind the shell but in the room to listen,” Leonard said.
Putting the show together was no small task, but it seemed particularly important to have a holiday show during this time.
“I think the community really could use something like this right now since there’s nothing going on or very little,” Cortese said.
It’s also a way for SSO to stay in touch with the community.
“I think we all felt, not just from a personal level of being able to play together again, but we felt it was nice to put something like this together that people can enjoy and to make the connection with local folks,” Emery said.
Yuhasz hopes that the orchestra will be able to perform other virtual concerts throughout the pandemic. That, of course, all depends on how well this one does financially.
“The other thing we have to do as a non-profit is to make sure we have our funding in place before we do it because, again, there’s no guarantee that ticket sales are going to cover the expenses of it,” Yuhasz said. “We’re hoping to do a concert in January, a smaller, virtual [one] and then do one again in March and/or May just because it’s important to us as a non-profit that we’re out there. That people know that we’re still surviving.”
While many performing arts groups have been working on virtual offerings, nearly all of them have been severely impacted by the pandemic. From Yuhasz’s perspective, SSO has the community in part to thank for keeping the organization going.
“We’re very, very lucky that we’re not closing our doors,” Yuhasz said. “It’s amazing, too, how generous people are. They want to see the symphony happen. They know the importance of the symphony in our community and what it brings our community. They’ve been long-time supporters of the symphony and it’s just a new way of thinking, a new way of doing business.”
The Schenectady Symphony Orchestra’s “Poinsettia Pops” concert will be available to view from Tuesday through Friday, Dec. 25. Tickets are $20 and ticket holders will have access to the holiday concert through Christmas Day. For more information visit proctors.org or call 518-346-6204.