Performing groups have been slowly and carefully re-entering the concert waters, dipping their toes in what feels like a pool that could be either scalding hot or arctic cold. For orchestras, a socially-distanced, virtual concert (with fewer players) seems to be the safe alternative to filling 1,000 seats in a hall.
The Louisville Orchestra is giving it a try with a virtual season of four concerts, cutely titled “LOVE” (Louisville Orchestra Virtual Edition). The first show played live on screens around the world on Saturday night.
The live feed cut out early on, interrupting Devóne Tines singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” but once things seemed to get back on track, Teddy Abrams conducted the strings in Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst (2012), a short, exciting opener commissioned by the Sphinx Organization.
Tines’ returned to sing Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach” (1931), a chamber work for baritone and string quartet with a text by the English poet Matthew Arnold, presented with the entire string section of the orchestra. While Tines’ thoughtful and dramatic choices lifted Arnold’s epic text off the page, the strings felt constrained by their size, burying some of Barber’s acerbic and broody textures, either through intonation or synchronicity.
Consider the challenges of this setup, though, where players are spaced at least six feet apart at Paristown Hall (a space not really built for non-amplified music) and miked to the teeth for an online performance. It’s like marching in formation, and every foot strike has to be accurate within millimeters and milliseconds. Concert halls with forgiving acoustics can help make the accuracy less consequential, but understandably in this pandemic world, safety and precaution are more important.
Following “Dover Beach” was Caroline Shaw’s “By and By” (2010), also originally for string quartet and singer. It’s a free arrangement of the familiar gospel songs “I’ll Fly Away” and “O Death,” giving the singer quasi-improvisatory vocal lines accentuated and framed by string chords and arpeggios.
Sitting squarely in the middle of the concert, Tines offered his own composition, written in direct response to the killing of Breonna Taylor. “VIGIL” originated as an improvisation with Igee Diedonné, and is a breathtaking song that puts a lump in your throat, with its lyrics (by Tines) beckoning us from darkness to light with a pensive orchestration, and ornamented with keyboard filigree composed by Matthew Aucoin. You can watch the original version presented by Lincoln Center here: https://youtu.be/GkSDFkEoU90
Tines wore an elegant white jacket, with necklaces of pearls, and a brooch with Breonna Taylor’s picture framed by yellow feathers and sparkling rhinestones. He commanded the music, narrative and emotions of pain, death and ultimately, hope. Tines stares at you with his eyes and his voice, emphatically and empathetically asking you to really consider what he’s singing about. Using a microphone, while clearly necessary, could have been more carefully placed to avoid stray plosives and to better capture Tines’ movement: he’s an opera singer, after all, and wants to tell a story with his entire body.
The concert closed with the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 “Eroica,” with an unusual setup placing the woodwinds and brass in front of the strings (they’re usually behind them), as an added measure of precaution. Non-wind players and Teddy were masked the entire time.
It’s hard to imagine a concert where we drive to a venue, go out to dinner, hug a friend in the lobby, sit next to a stranger and listen to a cacophony of coughing, Ohio Valley residents in between (or during) movements of a symphony. For musicians whose livelihood depends on large gatherings of people, this pandemic shutdown has been especially difficult.
The Louisville Orchestra has pushed through incredible challenges for their artform, and they’ve been without a CEO since February of this year. The technological limitations and challenges are not easy or cheap to overcome, but the LO offered a well-produced and thoughtful concert that promises a safe and welcome alternative for the time-being.