After a summer of outdoor concerts, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra heads back inside
'The power of music, I think, has actually become all the more noticeable,' says conductor Alex Prior
The pandemic was a time of firsts for many members of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra.
"I can't tell you how much we all learned about setting up a tent," said ESO concertmaster Robert Uchida about hosting outdoor concerts.
When the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on concerts back in March, the orchestra had to find new ways to share their sound. Outdoor and virtual concerts became the norm — and they came with challenges.
"There was one concert that was a tremendous fiasco, which began with ... gale force winds," Uchida said. "The second violist's music, she had clips and everything on the music, but the wind was so strong that it blew the music off into the first viola's face."
"If that weren't enough, the second violinist, he was playing with an iPad — because with page turns, it's much easier — but the sun was hitting the screen of the iPad, so it overheated and shut down."
Despite the occasional mishap, the ESO held more than 170 very successful concerts this summer, raising over $160,000. In addition to standard orchestral fare, the musicians shared bits of their personal musical tastes. According to composer and ESO chief conductor Alex Prior, the shows were "so well-received" with people coming in the thousands to watch the group perform.
"People just wanted to hear music and they wanted to hear the musicians that they love — and our community really loves their musicians — and what they wanted to share.... So it was absolutely beautiful," he said.
After months of uncertainty on when the orchestra could return to their home stage, the ESO re-opened the Edmonton's Winspear Centre's doors on Monday for the first indoor show with an audience in more than six months.
"The feeling amongst us is very positive, and we look forward to taking further steps towards being able to have larger audiences in the hall," Uchida said.
Return to stage a 'magical' experience
Of course, the experience has been adapted to the current reality. Concerts are no more than an hour long and audiences are capped at just 100 in a theatre that can seat nearly 2,000.
The orchestra, too, is smaller — between 15 and 30 musicians, depending on the performance — all physically distanced from each other.
"There certainly is a greater reliance on the visual between us, because the hall ... is rather resonant," he said. "Sometimes what you hear, you can't trust it, because sometimes what you're hearing comes back from the hall and is a little bit late."
The shift has been strange for Prior. "It's difficult because performing for an empty hall, or a hall that's not very full, is weird," he said.
"I just did a concert in Quebec with no audience, where it was just online, and bowing with no applause is odd and feels surreal — but that's OK. Everything's surreal now."
Prior's last "normal" performance before leaving the Winspear stage in March was of Carl Neilsen's Symphony No. 4, commonly known as The Inextinguishable.
Before the performance, he spoke to the audience about the power of music.
"And I stand by that," he said. "The situation might have altered what we're doing, but the power of music, I think, has actually become all the more noticeable — people's need for it."
Coming back to the Winspear has been a "magical experience," he says.
"It's that kind of happiness where you have a tear in your eye because there is sadness that the last six, seven months were not what we hoped for, but much greater, much greater happiness that we're back together."
Connecting people through music
While the ESO's summer season was altered thanks to the pandemic, Uchida says the experience brought him closer with his fellow musicians.
The orchestra played about 180 virtual and outdoor concerts over the summer. Uchida says it was a good time to pause and consider their work.
"Our art form really hasn't had the opportunity to step back and reflect upon our art, what it means to us as musicians, what it means to our community and what it means to society as a whole. That hasn't happened since the Second World War," he said.
"We feel that if the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra were to come out of this pandemic and be exactly the same and do everything exactly the same way as we used to, we will have failed."
Monday's season premiere performance is just the beginning of what the orchestra hopes to present this year, Prior said.
As restrictions change, so will the orchestra's approach. "If we can expand, trust me, we will," he said.
Whether audiences tune in online or find a seat in the theatre, Prior hopes that the orchestra's music will connect people.
"People are just so thrilled to hear live music, and to hear music from the musicians they love rather than putting on a CD," he said.
"We can't pretend that times are normal, but music does offer a togetherness that is particularly powerful and poignant."
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Annie Bender.