You are currently viewing To keep the music playing in Covid era, flexibility is key

To keep the music playing in Covid era, flexibility is key

Jeannette Sorrell had to scramble. She would be guest conducting this weekend’s TFO Masterworks program, which featured selections for soprano and orchestra, when suddenly everything had to change because of the unanticipated cancellation of the singer — just two weeks before the concerts.

Concerts in the time of Covid-19 are particularly tricky, with worldwide travel concerns, the challenge of performing in face masks and other safety protocols, limits on orchestra size and so much more. But Sorrell was quick to shuffle the musical deck, replacing arias by Handel and Vivaldi with instrumental works by Telemann and Grétry.

When I reached out to her about an update, and she said she would have a new program ready in two hours. It now consists of Telemann’s Polish Concerto and Overture Burlesque, Sorrell’s own arrangement of Grétry’s Suite from Zémire et Azor (Beauty & the Beast), and Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 in B-flat. 

Sorrell expects to be altering more of her programs this year. But as founding music director of Apollo’s Fire and a much-in-demand guest conductor of Baroque music, she has a back pocket full of options. Still, Covid has changed the landscape for musicians everywhere.

“You are right in a sense, about that,’’ she said by phone. “I was asked to make a debut with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and was booked to do (Handel’s) Messiah, but it required too many people on stage. So they couldn’t do it and they asked me to design a Baroque instrumental program. The funny thing is, it all got canceled anyway.’’

The pandemic, ironically, has in some ways helped promote Baroque music, which is usually reserved for smaller, period-style ensembles or chamber groups. Large symphony orchestras like TFO earn much of their keep from the traditional 19th-century repertoire – Beethoven and the boys – along with the great chorale works that come along with it. The more people on stage, the better.

Now, public safety requires distancing and masks, and that affects the size of both audiences and ensembles. As a result, programs are adapting to the change.

“So the pandemic has inspired symphony orchestras to explore Baroque music, even though most have canceled part of their seasons,’’ Sorrell said. “That’s the most challenging part. But it’s probably been healthy for orchestras to be put in a situation to explore more chamber and Baroque music. It’s giving us all different ways of bringing this (seldom played) music out to the public.’’

This weekend, she will be leading about two dozen musicians from the harpsichord. Face masks will be worn on stage, and musicians will be sitting either 6 or 8 feet apart. (TFO musicians and backstage personnel also undergo Covid testing each week.)

This approach had wonderful results earlier this year when Music Director Michael Francis led TFO in a fugue from Bach’s Musical Offering. Instead of a dense arrangement for full orchestra, the 20-or-so musicians caressed every note with intimacy – like a whispered conversation.

The effect was enchanting and left some listeners craving more. But reducing the size of an orchestra comes with a price: Musicians are supposed to be on stage, not off it. So the COVID restrictions are especially painful for orchestras around the country that have downsized, although TFO has found a creative solution: splitting the orchestra into smaller ensembles for more concerts. (That’s why you can also hear Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3 in a Soundwaves concert on Saturday.)

“It’s a tough time for the arts and hardest for the freelancers who have lost their income,’’ Sorrell said. “And the government isn’t doing very much for those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, unlike European countries that continue to support the arts. These are very hard-working people with active careers.’’

From Telemann to Mozart
Jeannette Sorrell conductor, harpsichord
Sat, Feb 20, 2 pm & 8 pm

Mozart’s Horn Concerto
Featuring David Smith
Sat, Feb 20, 5 pm