IN: News & Features

Musicians Overcame Session Traumas

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Pixelated flautist

In late February, as most Americans remained blissfully unaware of the looming change that coronavirus would bring to their lives, Su Lian Tan, a flautist and professor of composition at Vermont’s Middlebury College, travelled down to Tufts University to sit in on a composition seminar taught by composer and pianist John McDonald, on Tan’s just-completed Piccolo Concerto. Italian piccoloist Nicola Mazzanti had commissioned the piece and was flying in that day from Europe to play the concerto for the first time during McDonald’s class.

Tan naturally felt excited. Mazzanti texted Tan as he landed in Logan airport. He was on the ground. So far, so good. Tan arrived at Tufts, score and piccolo in hand in case she needed to clarify anything. McDonald worked through some passages of the accompaniment with the composer as the students filtered in. As the start time arrived, all still waited patiently for Mazzanti’s arrival.

Twenty increasingly worrisome minutes passed. Tan, understandably concerned, honored her commitment to McDonald and his students. In Mazzanti’s absence, she played through the concerto herself.

Ten hours later, after dozens of unanswered texts and calls, Mazzanti finally responded —from Munich. The American border patrol hadn’t allowed him into the country. Once they learned he’d flown to Boston from Milan, then the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, they took his cell phone, bustled him onto the next flight to Europe, and gave his phone back only when he arrived in Germany.

The next day’s session at WGBH, where Mazzanti and McDonald expected to record Tan’s concerto, had to be cancelled. More disappointment followed. The emerging pandemic indefinitely postponed a summer performance of the Piccolo Concerto in Italy, just one of so many other events cancelled across the classical music world.

Several weeks later, after coronavirus showed no signs of abating in the United States or in Italy, Tan reached out to Boston Symphony and New England Conservatory piccoloist Cynthia Meyers. Tan had no idea how long Mazzanti would be prevented from crossing the Atlantic but remained hopeful that she could hear her work performed nonetheless. Perhaps Meyers would be willing to give it its first performance. Meyers instantly agreed. Piccolo concertos are a rare genre; Tan’s composition was exciting news in the close-knit world of piccolo players.

After receiving Meyers’s enthusiastic answer, Tan decided to work towards recording it along with her earlier flute concerto, as well as a duet and a trio by McDonald. The other pieces had originally formed parts of a different project, one slated to be recorded—on both film and audio —at a studio in Brooklyn this autumn. But these New York plans and others had to be scrapped also.

Carol Wincenc, a Juilliard professor and perhaps the leading flute virtuoso in the world, was to play Tan’s flute concerto and be the third member of the trio alongside Tan and McDonald.

Tan speaks very highly of Wincenc; she referred to her as “unattainably gifted” in a 2015 article in Fanfare Magazine, and her admiration for the flautist has only increased since then. Coronavirus unfortunately truncated the jubilee year of Wincenc’s performance career, and many scheduled events had to be cancelled. Though sheltering through the pandemic with her sister in Boston, and with equal parts excitement and anxiety, Wincenc agreed to a potential timeline. With that, all of the puzzle pieces fell into place and Tan eagerly proceeded with the plan.

Recording anything beyond an at-home solo performance was extremely rare in the midst of the pandemic’s first wave, but moving the date of a recording forward was inconceivable.

To capture this moment, I’ve interviewed everyone involved: Tan, McDonald, Meyers, and Wincenc, as well as WGBH engineer Antonio Oliart. A tale of careful planning, cautious optimism, several surprises, and a successful recording, all under the dark cloud of coronavirus emerges. Myers expressed the shared sentiment movingly: “We have to keep music in the ears and consciousness of society because it’s needed. Desperately needed.”

***

Su Lian Tan with enough pixels.

This project (using the working title PanSynch) generated especial concern because of the instrumentation: flute and piccolo are, as Tan succinctly described, “notoriously aerosol.” Aerosols, fine droplets that travel long distances, constitute the prime spreader of coronavirus and explain the danger. This fall at the New England Conservatory, for example, all of Meyers’s flute and piccolo instruction has to be in large concert halls to provide maximum distance between instructor and student, while Tufts officially bans the instrument—students cannot play except in very few designated Tufts campus spaces, and all wind instrument lessons must be online.

Recording chamber works involving flute and piccolo required a large hall with fine acoustics and a modern ventilation system. WGBH’s Fraser Performance Studio provided the perfect setting: besides easily meeting both of these requirements, Tan and McDonald had already planned to record there with Mazzanti. As an added bonus, all had already worked extensively with WGBH engineer Antonio Oliart. A flautist himself, Oliart had also recorded two of Tan’s previous CDs, the wonderfully named Grand Theft Flauto and her recent album, Revelations.

However, WGBH had not yet reopened and cases in Boston were peaking in late April. After waiting through Stages 1 and 2 of Boston’s reopening plan, the musicians began remote rehearsals and agreed upon tentative dates in mid-July.

When the recording session—over the course of two days in as many weeks—finally arrived, they set up extra security precautions thanks to the advice of Tan’s physician sister. Tan arrived with medical gloves and cleaning supplies. They dutifully swabbed stands and other surfaces. They found special hand sanitizer that wouldn’t cause the keys of WGBH’s Steinway to turn green. Oliart had carefully measured out sixteen feet between the piano and flautists, a distance longer than the six feet suggested by health officials because of uncertainty about the nature of aerosols. Several conflicting studies conveyed enough worrisome warnings to ensure maximum caution (even now, months later, the CDC’s primary music-related recommendation is only to “consider temporarily suspending musical performances that involve singing or playing wind instruments”). Naturally, everyone felt nervous, even with surgical-grade N95 masks provided for McDonald and Oliart. At that pandemic stage, the reassurance of a negative test was not widely available. But as soon as the first notes sounded, the sheer excitement of playing together dispelled the anxiety of that first musicians’ meeting in many months. As Wincenc said, “the desire to make music together superseded any inconvenience.”

The four had rehearsed together over Zoom for several weeks leading up the recording, a frustrating process that forced a rethink the very nature of a rehearsal. McDonald had jokingly titled the Zoom meetings “Latency Schmatency, Let’s Rehearse Anyway,” which proved to be prophetic. As Meyers remarked, expectations for the rehearsals were so low, it was somewhat of shock to get any work done at all. It was near impossible to play together; the deadly combination of latency and Zoom’s occasional sound cancellation ensured that.

During the rare moments that McDonald attempted to play live accompaniment over Zoom, he began to notice a curious thing: he could predict when the platform might cause problems. By treating Zoom like a human singer or instrumentalist with anticipated ticks, McDonald could adjust his own playing slightly to match when Zoom would “zone out” or “go completely silent.” After some practice, he could play through “surprisingly large chunks and passages” with another musician, although it would never work for performance.

Primarily, though, discussion was key. McDonald made simple home recordings of the piano parts and sent them around, providing chances to practice with accompaniment. While on Zoom, they carefully went through the pieces together, sometimes playing a few bars alone. Generally, the rehearsals were used for highlighting tempo changes, examining minutiae, or offering new interpretative ideas. Wincenc maintains that rehearsing over Zoom in no way resembles a live meeting, but it worked as a way of making sure all were on the same page.

On the first day at WGBH, the ensemble recorded McDonald’s trio All Together Now and Tan’s flute concerto Autumn Lute Song, with the former presenting the most issues. The subtitle of All Together Now, “Suite of Six Pieces In Some Kind of Unison” hints at its complexity. McDonald describes the piece as an interplay between piano and the unified timbre of the “two flutes as a unit.” As the subtitle suggests, it’s not exact unison throughout, as the flute parts are rarely in pitch unison, but almost always play the same rhythm. McDonald thus employs register, tempo, texture, and articulation for variety. But the prospect of two instrumentalists’ practicing in near-unison together on Zoom would send any musician into fits of terror.

During the recording, with the added protection of plexiglass baffles placed in front of the flutes as well as the prescribed distance, the difficulty of rhythmic unison hardly came as a surprise. Although the baffles had little effect on sightlines (even with McDonald masked, neither Wincenc nor Tan reported any difficulty in following his hand-cues), the sound bounced onto the baffles and back at the players. Oliart had miked both flutes separately, but finding exact unison forced the musicians to re-record parts several times. Tan and Wincenc chose not to wear headphones, preferring the natural sound, but that may have caused added complications.

These blips, though, should not belie the overarching efficiency of the session. Wincenc remarked that once the musicians gathered in the studio, they truly pushed to the end with an overall mood of “just get it done!” The pandemic made efficiency that much more important; conversation was kept to a minimum and all implicitly trusted Oliart. This was especially true for All Together Now: McDonald had written the piece specifically for Tan and Wincenc and the three had performed it at the 2016 National Flute Association Convention in San Diego. At that event, Wincenc and McDonald had also performed the same arrangement of Autumn Lute Song (which is featured on one of Tan’s previous albums in its original orchestral version, performed by Wincenc). At a basic level, familiarity allowed the players greater efficiency.

Lebensraum at Fraser Studio

Indeed, with only two performers, the recording of Autumn Lute Song sped along. Orchestral arrangements for piano are always tricky, and McDonald’s part was no exception; many of the adjustments that had to be made in the arranging process created a piece that wasn’t inherently pianistic. Autumn Lute Song is based on classical Chinese brush paintings, which are traditionally accompanied by written verses. The “song” of the title references these verses, and composer Tan imagines the flute as the voice with the orchestra as accompaniment. Tan weaves the sound of the pipa and nasal qualities of the erhu, ancient Chinese instruments, as well as a brief evocation of the Indonesian gamelan, into the orchestral part. The ornamentation and glissandi Tan integrates created a challenge for her arranger, Douglas Biggs. But all were pleased with the final outcome, even though it necessitated extensive discussion among composer and performers during rehearsals.

Through all these tricky moments, the “unceasing camaraderie of musicians who just need to make music already,” as Tan put it, kept the session speedy and the performers happy. The first day, five hours’ work yielded well over half an hour of music: not a bad ratio.

By the time the second recording session rolled around, more musicians were willing to perform and open slots at WGBH had become scarce. Yo-Yo Ma held a livestream concert in the space just before their next session. Ma had found the recording demands and concerns of a solo musician largely unchanged from pre-coronavirus times. But chamber music required extreme measures to guarantee safety.

Both pieces on the docket for the second day—McDonald’s Dependencies and Tan’s Concerto for Piccolo and Orchestra (also in a piano version)—required only two musicians. Baffles were dropped but distance maintained. McDonald had composed Dependencies for Tan in 2008, after learning of Tan’s background as a singer. McDonald based Dependencies on three songs each by Schubert and Schumann. Rather than arrangements of the originals, McDonald calls the music “a series of fantastical responses to elements in the songs.” By playing the flute, Tan is “in some way remembering the musical materials of singing them.” As with All Together Now, the pair’s previous collaboration made the session smooth.

That was not the case for Meyers. Brought in with only a few months to learn a full concerto to recording standard, she had a heavy responsibility. Discussing her interpretation with Tan over Zoom alleviated some apprehension, but on the day of the recording Tan heard Meyers’s complete performance for the first time. Also, Tan had shaped the concerto specifically for Mazzanti, its original commissioner. The second movement, an operatic aria reflective of his time in opera pit orchestras and the jazzy final movement lead Meyers, who knows Mazzanti, to remark that she could “hear so much of him in it.”

The concerto also presented the exact opposite problem of All Together Now. Instead of a focus on togetherness, the piece is inherently argumentative. Sometimes the musicians question each other, but rarely concur. As Tan describes it, the first movement represents “a shared concern.” The piccolo and orchestra can’t agree, leading to a vehement debate “just on this side of socially acceptable.” The argument is such that in the original orchestration, the loud clack of a rimshot on the bass drum marks the climax—it’s not hard to imagine a gunshot silencing the piccolo. The right balance between piccolo and piano is crucial.

Enter Oliart. The piccolo is notoriously difficult to record but Oliart’s background as a flautist reassured both Meyers and Tan that efficiency was guaranteed from the booth. And, Oliart had worked extensively with Meyers in the past, even recording conservatory pre-screening tapes for Meyers’s child! Although physical distance still created ensemble issues at first, the smaller air column of the piccolo allowed the two musicians to communicate clearly. At the end of the day, Tan was thrilled. Meyers is a consummate musician, and the recording was excellent. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

***

Despite the disruptions and challenges a few unexpected benefits emerged from the rehearsal and recording process in the time of coronavirus. Tan highlighted the sheer excitement of being together, creating an electric and efficient recording session. Wincenc mentioned that scheduling rehearsals had become far easier than usual—a silver lining to the sadness of so many cancelled commitments. Meyers felt that the ability to stay home for rehearsals caused a more convivial feeling throughout the process; there was no rush to exit rehearsal halls, so everyone appreciated the social aspect—particularly at a time of pandemic-enforced isolation.

McDonald agreed that coronavirus had forced musicians to make choices for “exigent, pragmatic reasons.” And, of course, if coronavirus restrictions had not forced Mazzanti to return to Italy, Tan would not have invited Meyers to join the project—a collaboration that has already given birth to many positive returns. McDonald is now working on an extended version of Dependencies entitled Inter-Dependencies for piccolo, flute, and piano, with Meyers as the added performer, for example. Meanwhile Mazzanti, now able to travel to neighboring European countries, looks forward to finally performing Tan’s Piccolo Concerto in the near future.

Oliart observed that, thanks to the virus, many musicians are now considerably more comfortable using technology and have been far more willing to make essential investments in home recording technology. This was certainly the case for Meyers, who had previously refused to give Skype lessons but used this project as an excuse to buy a useful external microphone! And the impossibility of large group rehearsal has led all performers to investigate and perform previously lesser-heard repertoire; Oliart has recorded a broad array of new or forgotten works at WGBH.

For musicians hoping to follow a comparable path, especially here in Boston, Oliart has many words of reassurance. He is always safely self-contained in the booth and readily works with musicians’ preferences. When WGBH first reopened, the station permitted only six musicians in the studio at one time, but that number has now increased due to careful social distancing.

All the artists were quick to tell me that the most important quality for any musician in these difficult times is to err on the side of patience and understanding. As was clear throughout this project, trusting in one’s colleagues is paramount!

Ultimately the four musicians accommodated the necessary safety measures without trouble. They overcame fears of a future without music. The distance, the precautions, the oddity of it all, in fact, “every bit of effort,” as Tan summarized, “is worth it ten times over in order to get our art made and our expressions felt!”

The “PanSynch” video HERE tells the story in sound and image.

Gareth Cordery, a first-year Ph.D. student in Historical Musicology at Columbia University under Walter Frisch, majored in Music and History Middlebury College. He has performed piano concertos with symphonies across the United States, and lives in New York City.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. A fascinating account of resilience within the music community!

    Comment by Sophie Richard — November 5, 2020 at 10:40 am

  2. Such a complex situation, so carefully delineated!

    Comment by Anne Sienkewicz — November 8, 2020 at 12:22 pm

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