Achieving Zoomness: Performing Arts Online
A preview by Betsy Schwarm, January 13, 2021
It is at times like those of the past ten months that the performing arts can mean the most. Not only is it a chance to gather together in a shared artistic experience, it is also a reminder of the marvelous things that mankind can create, especially when working together. Alas, that ‘togetherness’ has been difficult to achieve of late, and performing arts organizations have faced the challenge of bringing what they do to a public that craves distraction and fulfillment.
Enter the internet and its ability to reach out. If one is the Metropolitan Opera or the Berlin Philharmonic, one already has the resources, the archive, and the finances to jump aboard that particular possibility and put it to use. What if one is a smaller, regional organization? As Scen3 has discovered, many Denver-area ensembles are making it work, and are even finding unexpected advantages in the technology. At the end of this article, you’ll find links to some opportunities available this weekend, and in the weeks ahead.
Let us begin our exploration of the subject with Stories on Stage, whose artistic director Anthony Powell unintentionally provided the title of this article. Of performing amidst a pandemic, he observed, “the only way to proceed was to give the new technologies a try and achieve Zoomness!” Powell, as self-confessed “tech Luddite,” admits that filming his organization’s productions and offering them online proved less awkward than it might for other organizations: “We’re very, very lucky in what we do – Stories on Stage features a single actor sharing a story, so it isn’t like doing a play when you need all sorts of theatrical trappings to make it work.” Nonetheless, it’s been a new experience. “Really the challenge is to the actors, because it’s not so easy to send your performance to who knows where. For actors, it’s hard, especially with comedy. You rely on the audience to be your scene partner and provide that wonderful energy.” Fortunately for all, the close-in camera work recaptures some of that intimacy: since the invisible audience can see even the smallest twinkle of an eye, the actors can imagine those viewers’ reactions and play with that they cannot themselves see.
The chamber orchestra Pro Musica Colorado brought its own advantages to the situation. As a mid-sized ensemble, it was not exceptionally difficult to ensure that the spacing of the musicians met social distancing guidelines – as long as no wind players were involved. Additionally, music director and conductor Cynthia Katsarelis notes that ProMusica has “a long-standing relationship with our terrific recording engineer,” and, once the ensemble identified “venues with the required HVAC capacity” and, not incidentally, was awarded a COVID relief grant from Colorado Creates, “we had everything we needed.” Using the internet to reach out to audiences has had a positive effect on listeners and performers alike: “It has made the world feel smaller, despite the isolation created by the pandemic.”
For the Colorado Chamber Players, it became time to design new programs amenable to a new reality. The ensemble’s performances this weekend (January 16 and 17, 2021) involve only four musicians: three in Denver, and all members of the same household; the other in Florida. The Floridian, violist d’amore Daniel Urbanowicz, admitted to initial skepticism as to how it would work, but then realized that, “in a virtual collaboration we end up communicating and sharing many more ideas than in a live rehearsal. Since we can’t really rehearse online due to lag, we need to verbalize our vision, tempos, colors with the other person before we record, which is hard!” So organization of time and resources is different, but not the end goal: that of an artistically satisfying result.
Singers face a problem that doesn’t much trouble string players: masks alter the timbre and resonance of the voice, and, moreover, do little to contain aerosol transmission. While solutions were explored, the Ars Nova Singers postponed its April performance, ultimately redesigning it into, to borrow a phrase made familiar by composer Eric Whitacre, a “virtual choir” project. From a starting point of having an apprentice singer from a Louisville High School, Ars Nova invited singers of various ages to record parts at home. As executive director Kimberly Brody observes, these tracks were assembled “into a cohesive whole,” and supplemented by visual imagery: high school graduation photos, both from the young artists and from the choir’s adult members. The result, Wind Song, was released on YouTube “as a graduation gift.” Also on YouTube from Ars Nova is its October 2020 program, Together/Apart: Awake with Heart, featuring small ensembles from the choir, each rehearsing separately and being filmed individually. The results were then synchronized so that, for the full chorus pieces “it appeared as though it was the full choir of 32 members onstage together.”
The Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado also made the leap to socially distanced performance, its artistic director Frank Nowell attesting that the ensemble had already been considering an increase of its “video presence,” and adding “flexibility was key to making it all work.” Some ensemble members faced a steep learning curve with technology, though the emotional challenges were, to some extent, just as startling: “many of the practices we’re used to – standing close together on stage, sharing stands, even giving each other hugs – had to be re-considered.” However, performers and audiences were willing to make it work. Of BCOC’s musicians, Nowell remarks, “Everyone was very eager to make music during this time when so much of their work disappeared overnight.” Audiences, too, have responded positively: “People tell us they really enjoy the virtual concerts and are moved by the how the music connects with people at this time… when we all need it.”
All those interviewed for this article observed that it was quite exciting to know that they could now share not just a specific performance, but their art as a whole with those both near and far. It’s a new reality, but one with its own rewards. As Colorado Chamber Players music director Barbara Hamilton remarks, “My favorite part about online concerts is being able to reach colleagues and friends in Canada, the USA, Europe, Australia and Korea, who can tune in from afar. Someday, post-vaccine, we’ll return to live concerts. But the lasting impact is that we will still have an online presence, along with our live chamber concerts. We’ve been inspired to join the 21st century, at long last!” Surely we all hope that life will get back to normal, but if we have learned along the way, that, too, is an advantage.
Each of the organizations featured here have online performances coming up soon, some as soon as this weekend, and others already on YouTube. Here are links for more information:
Stories on Stage: https://www.storiesonstage.org/
ProMusica Colorado: https://www.promusicacolorado.org/
TBD upcoming virtual broadcast: Bach B Minor Mass, with St. Martin’s Chamber Choir
Ars Nova Singers: https://arsnovasingers.org/
Wind Song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oQ1Suak9_M
Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado: http://www.bcocolorado.org/
Its October 2021 concert, Hearts Resounding: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1yeqxVpgXI