Musical Postcards by Friends of Music
With its regular concert activities on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the eastern panhandle’s Friends of Music organization is experimenting with technology to produce virtual concerts. These concerts, dubbed “Musical Postcards,” are coordinated by the Friends’ Music Director, Jed Gaylin. Each concert features performances by small ensembles of two to four musicians, all of whom are members of the Friends’ Two Rivers Chamber Orchestra. Gaylin, also a pianist, is performing in many of the concerts. For the concerts, the musicians are physically located in separate locations but playing together remotely via smartphones and tablets.
The Spontaneity of Live Performance
Gaylin notes that he and his colleagues are making a special effort to counter the difficulties of the current times by choosing musical works that are “uplifting, immediately affecting, and much beloved.” He emphasizes that the participants have also tried to maintain as much spontaneity and creativity as possible, in spite of the constraints inherent in virtual concert-making. In particular, he said, “We used no reference recording to play along with, no ‘click track’ (or inaudible electronic metronome), no auto-tune. We only used technology to record, and to balance with an equalizer as we would in documenting any live performance. In this way, we believe we have come as close to live performance as possible.”
Describing his journey learning this technology, Galen remarked that “as a music director, I work with sound engineers and video producers and have always relied on their expertise to guide the process. It’s been a challenge for me to learn this technology so quickly, but my colleagues, the sound and video experts, have been very encouraging. It’s given me a window into their world and they appreciate that. It also gives me a better understanding of what might be possible and ideas for what we can try even when we’re all back together in person.”
The Friends of Music counts itself among the lucky organizations in the arts community, in the sense that the group doesn’t have to maintain a physical venue. Judy Jones, the organization’s president said the Friends group’s finances are strong. “We won’t have program advertising revenue this year but we have reserves and we’re exploring our options for grants.” She remarked that the board was “delighted by the vote of confidence from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA),” which renewed its support, through the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History, for the Friends’ Two Rivers Chamber Orchestra with a grant of nearly $15,000 in August. The initial costs for the “musical postcards” project have been relatively modest, funded by a bequest from the late Betty Lou Bryant, a long-time Friends of Music board member and supporter.
Supporting The Musicians
Jones noted that concern for the musicians does weigh on the group. “The professionals we work with have made a career as musicians, but are mostly contractors. Some teach in schools or teach private lessons, but those jobs have been difficult to maintain for the past few months too. It was tough to announce to our members that the regular season was cancelled, but it was even tougher to call our musicians. At the time we decided to cancel, we had fourteen musicians practicing for the upcoming performance. Several of the board members made extra donations so we could fund these individuals even though we were calling off the show.”
“The idea for the ‘musical postcards’ series was a way to continue paying our regular artists to perform by creating a program that fit the constraints of the pandemic” says Jones. “It doesn’t come close to replacing what they might earn for our regular concert series, but it maintains some sense of normal and lets them do what they want to do — perform.” Gaylin expanded upon the importance of the performance, noting “it’s hard for a musician to not play. I’ve been playing for an audience since I was eight. You feel it as a calling, a way to help people with music. There is a concept in many cultures of a gift as something you must pass on. At a time when people are feeling the loss of being able to connect and share, this small outlet is our way of helping to pass along our gift.”
Returning to the Stage
The Friends do not yet know when they will be able to resume their regular, live-concert activities. Jones reports that the board has access to a wealth of guidance from the NEA, the WV Department of Arts and Culture, and other arts organizations. If an organization has a dedicated venue it could be easier, but live performance, be it vocal, instrumental or dance, is the trickiest to navigate for re-opening. “You are pretty much next to someone continuously for the entire performance. We need to think about the ethical and health issues of assembling our musicians. We also have to think about whether we can fill the church, or if our audience will feel comfortable in that setting.”
Contemplating the months ahead, Jones remarked “you can’t plan on one option, you need to prepare for the worst and be ready to grab for the best. We are aiming to be nimble, keep our overhead down, and think about things in a systemic way. If we do the best we know how and rely on our very hardworking people in our organization, we expect to weather the pandemic intact and with great energy.” Gaylin expressed his anticipation for this hopefully not too distant future, “When we do get together again, the joy of breathing the same musical air and performing in the same space will be magical and breathtaking.”
The first four virtual concerts posted on the Friends’ website, Facebook page, and YouTube channel are a performance of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” featuring Concertmaster Heather Austin-Stone; a performance of Mendelssohn’s “Song Without Words“ (Op. 109), featuring Principal Cellist Camilo Perez-Mejia; a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “None but the Lonely Heart“ with Two Rivers Chamber Orchestra soloist and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Principal Second Violinist Qing Li; and a performance of Schubert’s “Serenade” by Principal Violist Jason Diggs. Mr. Gaylin accompanies all four performances. The group plans to post additional concerts every month. Pending concerts include a performance of the first movement of Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” by the Two Rivers String Quartet.By Staff Contributor