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Unmasking Mozart while playing it safe

Clay Ellerbroek has a problem: How do you play the flute while wearing a mask?

“It’s very difficult to play with a mask unless I go Lone Ranger style with the mask over my eyes instead of my mouth,” said Ellerbroek, TFO’s principal flute. “Covid-19 has really changed things for us.’’

Ellerbroek is a featured soloist this weekend in Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp. He joins Anna Kate Mackle, the orchestra’s principal harp, on stage at the Mahaffey Theater for one evening and two afternoon performances. Principal guest conductor Stuart Malina rounds out the program with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.

An otherwise straightforward performance of a concerto has suddenly taken on new challenges. TFO, like all orchestras around the world, is learning as it steps into a new, “adjusted’’ season, one following strict health guidelines to ensure everyone’s safety. These include limited seating, shorter concerts without intermission, the option of virtual performances, and program notes that can be downloaded at home and brought to the hall.

“We’re treading cautiously,’’ Ellerbroek said, and that philosophy reaches onto the stage. For the concerto performance, he will be on one side of the podium and Mackle will be on the other.

For all performances, strings and percussion players wear masks while they perform at least 6 feet apart. Brass and woodwind players expend more air from their lungs, though much of it goes into the instrument, so TFO is spacing them at least 8 feet apart on stage. The orchestra also does extensive Covid testing to minimize the risk of the virus reaching onstage. In addition, the Mahaffey Theater’s top-notch ventilation system keeps clean air circulating.

Mackle’s job is a bit easier. But she admits that wearing a mask during a performance can be both uncomfortable and distracting.

“For me, it’s going to be strange,’’ she said of the weekend’s performances. “To play in a mask is such a different experience than what I’m used to. And every time I move, my mask shifts and sometimes gets in my eyes. So, I have to order all these different masks to see what fits and doesn’t move when I play.’’

The power of the music makes all of the precautions worth it. Both soloists are excited about sharing the spotlight, especially in the concerto’s serene middle movement that Mackle calls “one of the most elegant, graceful and beautiful melodies out there.’’

Ellerbroek considers it nothing short of sublime: “When the flute and harp are playing this melody together, I think it’s Mozart’s idea of heaven. He wrote tons of beautiful stuff for the flute, but this is at the top.’’

Get to know the soloists

Coincidentally, this week’s featured soloists were born just two days apart! Learn more about these talented musicians:
Click here for Anna Kate Mackle’s profile
Click here for Clay Ellerbroek’s profile

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40
Featuring Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp


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