For SUNY Schenectady’s Brellochs, being on set of HBO hit ‘was like going to Disneyland for the Gilded Age’

Right: Dr. Christopher Brellochs in attire inspired by the Gilded Age (Elizabeth Gerbi photo). Left: Scenes from HBO's "The Gilded Age" filmed inside Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and outside in Troy.
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Right: Dr. Christopher Brellochs in attire inspired by the Gilded Age (Elizabeth Gerbi photo). Left: Scenes from HBO's "The Gilded Age" filmed inside Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and outside in Troy.

Getting the opulent period visuals in “The Gilded Age” just right took hundreds of hours of research, some of which Schenectady professor Christopher Brellochs had a hand in.

The dean of the school of music at SUNY Schenectady is an expert in music from the Gilded Age and was perfectly poised to assist with the HBO series, which is set in 1882 against the backdrop of economic change in America and explores the divisions between old money and new.

Some of the scenes were filmed in locations around Troy last year, including one scene at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in which Brellochs not only assisted with the visual accuracy of an orchestra but stepped in to play conductor John Knowles Paine.

The Ithaca native first became interested in the music of that era several years ago, after he moved to the Hudson Valley for a teaching position. Brellochs previously spent eight years working as a professional musician in New York City and was looking around for things to do on the weekends. He toured some of the famed historic homes and estates in the area, many of which had music rooms.

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“There would always be a piano and I’d be the wise guy who would say, ‘Hey, can I play the piano? I’m a musician.’ ” Brellochs said. “Eventually someone said, ‘Go ahead.’ I played [the] piano and I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the acoustics in the music room were fantastic.”

With each historic estate that he visited, he realized that period furniture, visual arts and architecture were all represented but the music was missing.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing to have music in these houses again and have that last part of the artistic world brought back to life? I thought it would really make the houses feel not like a museum but like an actual house,” Brellochs said.

In 2017, he started to research Gilded Age music, venturing to the New York City Public Library for the Performing Arts and Princeton’s music library among others to do so. American music of that era drew inspiration from some of the most influential European composers, including Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert and others.

“America during the Gilded Age wanted to take the best of everything from everywhere,” Brellochs said. “Some musicologists and music scholars will write off American music during the Gilded Age as being 100% derivative of the European style. I think that misses the mark, I think that it is certainly influenced [by it] . . . but the way in which it’s combined there is a unique American aspect that starts getting added to that music even in the 19th century. And that’s . . . what I find so fascinating about the style.”

Eventually, he held performances in some of the Hudson Valley historical estates and filmed documentaries at Boscobel House & Gardens, Crawford House and Lyndhurst Mansion (which was used as a location for “The Gilded Age”).

Brellochs became known for his expertise, so when word got out that Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey,” was working on a series about the Gilded Age and was filming in New York State, friends told him he had to get involved. He reached out to the casting company and applied to be an extra in the orchestra and let them know he was willing to lend his expertise to the series.

“I didn’t hear anything and then the pandemic happened, obviously, all of the filming got put on hold,” Brellochs said.

A year later, he reached out to them again and they put him in touch with the production team.
“I really enjoyed working with the prop master. I was working with him to make sure all of the instruments looked historically authentic,” said Brellochs, noting that the orchestra portrayed the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the series.

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Attention to strings

For the orchestra scene in episode four, called “A Long Ladder” and filmed in May 2021, every musician had to have a Gilded Age-era instrument or a replica of one.

On top of that, many of the instruments needed a costume change of sorts. Modern violin strings have colored silk at the ends to denote which string it is and what company manufactured it. That would not have been the case in the late 19th century, according to Brellochs. As a simple and quick fix, they used a water-soluble marker to disguise the colors on the ends of the strings.

Since the musicians weren’t actually going to be performing the piece of music heard in the episode, they had to clean off all the rosin on the bows so that each musician could play and it would only produce a whisper of a sound.

“This is where a lot of productions just fall horribly short in terms of looking believable. Very often what will happen is you’ll have someone who doesn’t know how to hold a violin . . . And they have them bow . . . three to four inches above the strings. So if there’s a close-up, it’s obvious the person is not playing the violin. It makes it look campy . . . and I know that Julian Fellowes, based on all his work with ‘Downton Abbey,’ is not going for campy.”

They also had to rent a set of timpani reflective of the period. The heads of modern-day timpani are made of plastic but during the Gilded Age, they would have been made of calfskin.

In Brellochs’ view, every detail had to be considered in case there were any close-ups on the instruments.

“I can hear the people saying, . . . ‘Well, who’s gonna notice something like that?’ There’s some truth to that. But I think what happens is when a production pays that level of attention to detail, although people might not consciously know or see those details, the feeling of watching that show is just different. It just feels more true, it feels more real,” Brellochs said.

“Although those details of the colored silks on the end of the violin or the calfskin on the head of the timpani might not be consciously appreciated by most viewers, I think it creates a reality that is so compelling that even if you don’t know that you buy into the whole series in a way that just wouldn’t be achieved without it.”

Many roles

In “A Long Ladder,” Brellochs also got to conduct the orchestra playing Paine, who was the first American-born composer to achieve fame for large-scale orchestral music and he was the first professor of music in the country.

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“I got to portray not only a composer, a conductor but a professor as well. . . you can’t hire an extra who has more experience being a professor and a conductor and a composer than me,” Brellochs said.

They filmed that scene in one day, starting around 10 in the morning and wrapping up around 1 a.m. It was filmed at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, which is a stand-in for the Academy of Music, the country’s preeminent concert hall at the time.

Being on set “was like going to Disneyland for the Gilded Age. It was amazing. I got to meet the costume designer and she’s out of this world,” Brellochs said. “I felt like a movie star.”

“The fittings were fun, being on set and seeing what felt like a cast of thousands . . . there were all these people in these fancy ball gowns and tuxedos and top hats and it was just amazing. We would have the staging area and then everyone would just walk over to the concert hall — all these people who are almost exactly 19th century except they’re wearing masks because of COVID and they might be carrying a bag with their cell phone. Your head is [spinning] because you’re halfway in between two different time periods.”

They filmed seven shots that day according to Brellochs, and while he was worried that most might be cut, they ended up using six out of the seven.

He’s been following the show closely since it began airing on HBO Max in January.

It follows Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) who, after the death of her father, moves from rural Pennsylvania to New York City to live with her thoroughly old-money aunts, Agnes van Rhijn and Ada Brook. Accompanied by Peggy Scott, an aspiring writer seeking a fresh start, Marian inadvertently becomes enmeshed in a social war between one of her aunts, a scion of the old-money set, and her stupendously rich neighbors, a ruthless railroad tycoon and his ambitious wife, George and Bertha Russell.

Happy with result

Brellochs was thrilled with the way “A Long Ladder” turned out.

“I was so pleased. It came out better than I dreamed and I can dream big. So that’s saying a lot,” Brellochs said.

While the series has gotten mixed reviews, Brellochs believes it has an emotionally compelling storyline that educates viewers about the era and highlights historical figures that they otherwise might not be familiar with.

New episodes will continue to air on HBO at 9 p.m. on Mondays through March 21. Season two is already in the works and the production may be filming in the area again. It comes as no surprise that Brellochs hopes to be involved in the second season as well.

“I’m going to try. This is absolutely my passion project that has been going on for over five years. There’s a lot more to do,” Brellochs said.

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