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Photo: Singapore Chinese Orchestra.
Ionisers attached to ornamental snake plants in front of the stage improve air circulation with an “ionising curtain” between the performers and audience at a Singapore Chinese Orchestra concert. The idea is to keep people safe from Covid.

I was saddened and surprised the other day when I offended a woman wearing a mask by asking her if she was also vaccinated. We were in a small room where there was little air circulation, and she was there to give me a hearing test.

Sadness was my primary reaction as the question really upset her. But I was also surprised because so many clinics, performance spaces, restaurants, etc. bend over backwards to make patrons feel safe, even if their requests seem unreasonable.

Consider the introduction of snake plants at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. Toh Wen Li reports for the Straits Times about their role in an unusual air-quality initiative.

“The air was charged with more than just emotion when the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) staged its first wind concert in months last Saturday (Sept 25).

“As the rousing sounds of the dizi, sheng and suona filled the concert hall, high-tech devices attached to 20 ornamental snake plants in front of the stage created an ‘ionising curtain’ between the performers and audience.

“The ionisers, designed to reduce the spread of Covid-19, induce a negative charge in the air particles around the plants. This pulls positively charged aerosols, droplets and particulate matter towards the leaves of the plants.

“The devices were introduced following a six-month collaboration between the orchestra and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

“SCO’s executive director Terence Ho hopes these — and a slew of other measures, such as a filterless high-volume air purifier developed by A*Star to be used in the foyer — will give people peace of mind and encourage them to attend live concerts.

” ‘We have to work towards bringing audiences back to the hall and more musicians back on stage,’ he tells The Straits Times, adding that the plant-based ionisers will remain for future concerts at Singapore Conference Hall, home to the SCO. …

“SCO’s suona and guan principal Jin Shiyi, 56, says in Mandarin: ‘Wind players are now a “high-risk” occupation, and we have had fewer opportunities to go on stage. I’m so happy we can perform on stage again.’

“Last Saturday’s wind concert, also available online for streaming, was part of the recently concluded Singapore Chinese Music Festival. It had drawn a physical audience of about 100 people, less than half the permitted capacity of 250 for that venue.

“Mr Ho says audiences are worried about the recent spike in Covid-19 cases. … For now, he is keeping his fingers crossed as the orchestra prepares for two concerts in early October to celebrate the SCO’s 25th anniversary, while taking precautions to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission. It has split performers  into separate ‘teams,’ cut down on rehearsals and roped in understudies in case performers are hit by the virus or with a 10-day quarantine order. …

“The orchestra would have launched it even without the pandemic, [Chief executive Chng Hak-Peng ] adds, as a way to maintain ties with local and overseas audiences. Before the pandemic, as many as 10 per cent of SSO’s live audience members were tourists.

“Home-grown charity the Foundation For The Arts And Social Enterprise has also launched a 10-year Music Commissioning Series to support Singapore composers and build up a canon of local contemporary music — from Chinese orchestra and cross-cultural works to jazz and musicals. …

“Founder Michael Tay says: ‘While we have had Singapore composers write works for wind bands and orchestras in the past, we don’t see a systematic plan to encourage the writing of major works (of at least 30 minutes).’ The series, he adds, ‘is meant to plug this gap.’ …

“Despite the resumption of live concerts … life has not returned to normal for orchestras. While live performances with up to 1,000 audience members, subject to conditions, are allowed, most venues can accommodate only a fraction of this after factoring in safe distancing measures. …

“[Mr Chng] adds: ‘Even though we are having concerts, we still have not, for the last year and a half, been able to have our entire orchestra perform together.’

“Then there is the impact on freelancers, who in pre-pandemic times would often perform with the orchestra and give pre-concert talks. …

“Countertenor and freelance choral director and educator Phua Ee Kia, 41, had no income for eight months last year and has not performed since 2019. He has been doing his rehearsals online during the pandemic.

” ‘Conductors are really struggling,’ he says. ‘Not all of us are tech-savvy and we don’t just have to cope with our own (issues), but also have to deal with situations when our students say, … “My screen went blank.” ‘

“Phua, who tapped a training grant to take a course in audio production software Logic Pro, hopes there will be more upskilling opportunities and financial support for freelancers. …

“Phua says: ‘A choir is not formed of just five people. I hope in the near future, we are allowed to gather and sing in a bigger group, albeit with masks on. Some of us are forgetting what it’s like to be able to perform in a bigger group.’ “

More at the Straits Times, here.

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Photo: Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
Robert Black started playing tuba with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra at 19.

The photo above reminds me of a long-ago time that one of my brothers played the tuba. Even today, people remember how it hung out the door of the VW bug when my mother drove him to junior high.

A tuba is a mighty big instrument, and it takes a certain kind of musician to fall in love with it. For example, the young man in today’s story.

Jim Higgins writes at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “If Robert Black drops out of college, and that day could be coming soon, his professor and his parents aren’t going to cry or scold.

“Black, 19, beat out dozens of older musicians to win the job of tuba player in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra through a blind audition process. He’s the orchestra’s youngest musician and only member of the Gen Z cohort.

“He signed his contract in early 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted chances to play last spring. So Black [made] his MSO subscription debut March 6, playing Paul Hindemith’s ‘Morgenmusik,’ though he did play a Christmas music quintet with MSO colleagues in December. 

“A calm speaker, Black finds it easy to explain why he enjoys being an orchestra tuba player. A tuba — and the low brass section — adds fullness in an ensemble filled with higher register instruments.

” ‘I just really love being … the person that gets to add that (depth) to the whole sound of the ensemble,’ he said.

“Black said he likely became a tuba player because his late godfather, who played the instrument, gave his family a small E-flat three-valve tuba. Black’s mother was a middle school and high school band teacher, and both his mom and his older sister played horns, so brass music was a regular part of family life in Vernon Hills, Illinois. …

“After finishing his college auditions and choosing Rice University in Houston, Black took part in the 2019 auditions for the Milwaukee Symphony’s open tuba position with 61 other musicians. He did not expect much to come from it.

” ‘My kind of goal was if I can advance past the first round, I’ll consider it a success,’ he said. 

“In the ‘elephant room’ where the tuba auditioners warmed up, he recognized musicians he knew from Facebook, people who already had jobs. But to his pleasant surprise, Black made it through to the final round, playing excerpts from Bruckner’s Seventh with a professional trombone section for the first time.  

“The MSO didn’t hire a player out of that audition, but Black went off to his freshman year at Rice with helpful feedback. … At Rice, he worked closely with professor David Kirk, who is also the principal tubist of the Houston Symphony. 

‘It was clear to me from when I first heard him that he would have a very short time as a student. He was destined for professional success,’ Kirk said during a telephone interview.

“For his second audition in January 2020, in attempting to prepare as much as possible at Rice while still making his flight to Milwaukee, but with dorms closed for winter break, Black slept on a couch in a practice room for a few days. …

“After the final round, assistant personnel manager Rip Prétat took him to meet the panel of musicians and music director Ken-David Masur, who welcomed him to the orchestra. …

” ‘Robert is an incredible musician,’ principal trombonist Megumi Kanda said in an email message. ‘He is sensitive to his surroundings and has great style. His playing and blending skills are remarkably mature, especially given his youthfulness! His ability and willingness to musically interact and adjust quickly will make him a great fit.’

“Lest Black’s parents have any concern about his adjustment to life in the MSO, Kanda wrote: ‘As his neighbors in the orchestra, the trombones are a nurturing bunch; we will take good care of him!’

“Kirk said he has counseled Black on integrating himself into the orchestra. Ask questions, don’t make statements, he has told the young musician: ‘You have to be respectful of the fact that those people have been playing music together for so long. They have their own habits, their own customs and they must be respected.’ “

More at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, here.

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Photo: Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette
When Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, sets his feet wide, furrows his brow and flings his arms out, it essentially means “play louder.” But there are nuances.

Have you ever wondered what messages the gestures of conductors are meant to convey — or whether the orchestra players understand them? What about last-minute substitute conductors? Do they change their style to be readable by musicians who have never worked with them  — and how difficult would that be for conductors trying to concentrate on a piece they hadn’t expected to play that night?

Jeremy Reynolds writes at the Post-Gazette, “When talking to a body language expert, the mere dilating of pupils can reveal the difference between truth and a bald-faced lie. Facial expression, hand gestures and eye contact all carry similar significance.

“Just as actors and dancers are experts in communicating with their anatomy, orchestra conductors also extensively train in nonverbal communication, as their primary role is to beat time and use their bodies to direct emotional intensity and nuance during a performance.

“At the root level, some cues have obvious meanings. When Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, sets his feet wide, furrows his brow and flings his arms out, this essentially boils down to ‘play louder.’ But to a trumpet player, his meaning might be as nuanced as ‘play this as though you’re standing alone on a precipice yowling into an infinite void.’ His smoother, smaller movements generally imply softer melodies and phrases but might suggest to a violinist playing with a sound no louder than the pattering of a mouse’s footsteps.

“ ‘I have to be the music for every moment, every gesture, every bit of eye contact,’ Mr. Honeck said in a telephone interview from Paris. ‘If I conduct a piece, I fill it in with character, the meaning of the music.

 ‘It takes me weeks to find the right gesture for the right music.’

“In Pittsburgh, Lauren Tan, 28, is a certified body language expert. [She’s] reviewed surveillance footage for court cases and works with businesspeople looking for that nonverbal deal-closing edge. … For this article, she reviewed footage of several conductors including Mr. Honeck, the famous Leonard Bernstein, Venezuela’s Gustavo Dudamel and others to assess their movements and nonverbal cues.

“ ‘The first thing you notice is somebody’s hands,’ Ms. Tan said. “People will say that they notice the eyes first, but that’s not true. … Keeping your hands visible is typically a great cue for meeting people and introductions.’ …

“When Mr. Honeck began conducting, she zeroed in on moments when he leaned toward the musicians. ‘I tell businessmen this, it’s a good way to indicate agreement and say, “Hey, I’m on your side.” When Honeck does this, it’s about giving the music more feeling.’

“So are all of these cues practiced and polished? Mr. Honeck says no.

“ ‘You can train and rehearse things, but in the moment of making music, things are spontaneous, you can’t calculate and you have to see how you feel with your body,’ he said. …

“Watching footage of Bernstein, Ms. Tan noted that he consistently nodded to his musicians, which functions both as a cue but also as a sign of approval, an encouraging gesture that builds conscious and subconscious rapport. She said that the audience will pick up on such movements as a sign of mutual respect and positivity …

“While the audience can’t see a conductor’s face, Ms. Tan said that from the videos she could see conductors using different facial micro expressions to project certain emotional qualities for the musicians. There are seven such expressions: happiness, surprise, anger, fear, disgust, contempt and sadness. Sadness is the hardest to mimic, while contempt is most often mistaken. …

“Mr. Honeck has spent years training his hands to move in certain ways to cue musicians for specific kinds of sounds, and he said that the right gesture will be effective no matter which orchestra he is conducting.

“ ‘I train with my hands not because of technical things but because I want to have a special sound,’ he said. ‘If I move in a different way, I get a different and better sound. That’s what counts. The sound must be right.’ ”

More at the Post-Gazette, here.

The famously emotional conductor Arturo Toscanini conducts Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (circa 1937).

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Photo: Afghanistan National Institute of Music
Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra, Zohra, is touring.

I’ve been interested in Afghanistan since before the headlines were all about the US conflict there. At least since reading Jason Elliot’s excellent An Unexpected Light and seeing the Tony Kushner play Homebody: Kabul. But lately I have an even stronger interest as Erik’s sister works on women’s rights in Afghanistan for the United Nations.

This BBC story provides one angle on Afghan women’s rights. Vincent Dowd has the report.

“Five years ago, a unique all-female orchestra was formed in Afghanistan, a nation where only a few years previously music had been outlawed and women barred from education. Now Zohra is visiting the UK for the first time.

“No-one claims that in Afghanistan, the Taliban influence has been rooted out entirely. Violence continues. But two decades ago, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music would have been unthinkable.

“ANIM was founded in 2008, with international support, to bring music education to young Afghans. … ANIM teaches music skills to some 250 young people, both male and female. That figure is about to rise to 320 and there are plans to expand to cities such as Herat, Mazar-e Sharif and Jalalabad.

“About 70% of the young people at the institute come from disadvantaged backgrounds — some used to work the streets selling vegetables, plastic bags or chewing gum to support their families. Ages range from 12 to around 20.

“But five years ago, ANIM founder by Dr Ahmad Sarmast was urged to start a new project specifically to benefit girls.

” ‘One of our students told me we needed a group of four or five girls to play pop music,’ he says. ‘I liked the idea but almost at once it became clear most of the girls at ANIM wanted to join. Suddenly we were talking about a full orchestra.’ …

“There are around 100 female students at ANIM, 23 of whom have come to Britain. Their numbers will be doubled when they play in concert with the London-based Orchestra of St John’s and others. Instruments they’ve brought with them include the sarod, the rubab, tabla drums and the dutar.

“The music performed is a combination of traditional Afghan music and western classical. For instance, their new arrangement of Greensleeves contains attractive new instrumentation probably not envisaged by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1934.

“The conductor for the Afghan pieces is Negin Khpalwak, who at 22 is one of the older musicians in the group. She joined the school not long after it opened — not initially with the idea of conducting at all. …

” ‘It’s much easier for me to conduct when we play Afghan music,’ she says. ‘We’re very familiar with it and we play together easily. If we perform something like Greensleeves — which I think is very well-known in England — we have to concentrate extra hard.’ …

“Negin Khpalwak says even in Kabul, students can still sometimes encounter people beyond the school who think it’s wrong that the orchestra even exists.

” ‘They will say that in Islam women aren’t allowed to go to school, not just for music but to study anything. But it’s not true — women have their own rights and those people need to be educated. Our music isn’t the only way to do that — but it’s one way.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Ge Wang
The Stanford Laptop Orchestra rehearsing for its tenth anniversary concert last month.

Not sure I would enjoy the sound of an all-electronic orchestra even though I did think MIT professor Tod Machover’s partly electronic opera Resurrection was lovely. What I do like about the Stanford Laptop Orchestra is the idea that the most important requirement for taking the course is curiosity. I’m all for curiosity.

Arielle Pardes Gear writes at Wired magazine, “Ten days before the big concert, the members of the Stanford Laptop Orchestra are performing technology triage. Rehearsal has only just started, but already, things seemed to be falling apart. First there was trouble with the network that connects the laptops to one another. Then one of the laptops crashed. …

“The orchestra members have gathered at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics to rehearse a new kind of musical composition. Together, sitting on meditation pillows in front of MacBooks, they create songs that stretch the definition of music. The orchestra plays laptops like accordions, turns video games into musical scores, and harnesses face-tracking software to turn webcams into instruments. …

“Fixing a broken network isn’t as simple as a replacing a snapped string on a violin. But in a laptop orchestra, the potential for disaster is part of the delight. Since it was founded in 2008, the SLOrk has been making music that surprises audiences while it subverts the concept of orchestral performance. The compositions, part-machine and part-human, don’t always go according to plan. Technical difficulties are all but guaranteed.  …

” ‘Nothing’s better at being a cello than a cello,’ says [Ge Wang, the SLOrk’s founder and director]. ‘So we’re not trying to make a cello. We’re trying to make something you don’t have a name for yet.’ …

“[The Stanford Laptop Orchestra is] a for-credit course at Stanford — Music 128, cross-listed in the computer science department as CS 170 — but getting in isn’t easy. The group of 15 students includes those with computer science credentials, and those with more traditional music backgrounds, but neither is enough to become a great laptop orchestra player. The most important thing is curiosity. ‘We’re unified by this interest to make music together with computers,’ says Wang, ‘and to figure out what that means.’ ”

More here.

 

 

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Photo: Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
Tuba player Dan Trahey has helped make OrchKids a national model for lifting up kids. “We’re all interconnected,” he says. “We’re bad at this in America, where we’re all bred to be soloists. We create our own little worlds, and that’s really dangerous.”

When I was in second grade, my mother convinced the school principal to show a movie for children that I think came from the United Nations. It involved hand puppets who were enemies. And what I remember most was that in the end, each puppet felt its way up the arm of the puppeteer and discovered that they were connected.

That message, the message about human interconnectedness, is always having to be retaught, but people who understand it often get involved in initiatives that help disadvantaged children. Consider this story.

Michael Cooper writes at the New York Times, “From the outside, Lockerman-Bundy Elementary School looks forbidding, a tan monolith built in the 1970s. Some of the rowhouses across the street are boarded up — reminders of the cycles of poverty and abandonment this city has struggled with for years.

“Inside on an afternoon [in April], though, it was a different story. Music echoed through brightly colored halls lined with murals. Classes were over, but school was not out: Young string players rehearsed Beethoven in one classroom, while flutists practiced in another and brass players worked on fanfares in a third. Also on offer were homework tutors, an after-school snack and dinner. …

“It was just another afternoon at OrchKids, the free after-school program that the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Marin Alsop, started a decade ago with just 30 children in a single school. The program now reaches 1,300 students in six schools; its participants have gone on to win scholarships to prestigious summer music programs; play with famous musicians, including the cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis; perform at halftime at a Baltimore Ravens game; and win accolades at the White House.

“The program was the idea of Ms. Alsop, who began thinking about how to forge closer ties to the city soon after she became Baltimore’s music director — and the first woman to lead a major American symphony orchestra — in 2007. …

“The first student to enroll in the program was Keith Fleming, then a first grader. ‘At first I didn’t really like music,’ he recalled recently. ‘I just thought, I’m going to do this because I didn’t really have something else to do. The first day came, and I started to learn music — and I started to like it.’

“He is 15 now, and his tuba skills have taken him to Austria and London and helped him win an audition to the Baltimore School of the Arts, where he is a sophomore. …

“From the very beginning,” [Nick Skinner, the OrchKids director of operations], said, ‘it was very important that we were immersed in the school, and in the community.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here. And there’s a nice article at the Baltimore Sun about tuba player and OrchKids volunteer Dan Trahey, here.

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