The notoriously fickle Montana weather cooperated when the Missoula Symphony needed it.
The orchestra had planned on recording its latest concert, with more than 30 musicians plus a technical crew, in St. Anthony’s Church. But when COVID-19 cases began spiking in the county, they decided to head back outside — on a ranch near Kelly Island owned by a supporter instead of taking any risks, said Jo May Salonen, the executive director.
It’s a “beautiful backdrop” where the musicians could space out, she said. Montana PBS shot with multiple camera angles, and the sound quality and balance were quite good, she said. The concert features Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, supplemented by one classic, Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in B-flat Minor and one modern work, Thomas Sleeper’s Four Wonders Overture.
The performance will be streamed on Friday, Oct. 16. (See box for info.)
As groups shift to online performances, there’s an open question about audience support if they’re competing against the bottomless supply of streaming competition. The Missoula Symphony has seen strong local turnout — its first online concert in September, also shot at the ranch, sold around 700 tickets, and Salonen said they were heartened by the level of support through individual buyers and season-ticket holders.
Since the orchestra is in the final process of hiring a new music director, this concert was guest-conducted by Gordon Johnson, the retired longtime baton-wielder for the Great Falls Symphony. With highs in the low 70s during their rehearsals and shoot, and no rain or snow, “we totally lucked out,” he said. Wood-bodied string instruments and reeds are “very finicky” in heat or cold, much less precipitation.
They rehearsed for two evenings, from around 5:30-7:30 p.m., and then shot two nights to give the video editors two takes to choose from.
While Montana orchestras perform outside regularly, they’re typically in a bandshell or performance space with hard surfaces that provide better acoustics. On grass with musicians spaced apart, they had to listen more closely, he said. Beethoven is known for using extreme dynamics that also had to be accounted for. His writing is precise, requiring “a great deal of attention in terms of hearing,” he said.
Playing without an audience is inevitably different, too.
“You play with the same heart, skill … you would under any circumstance,” he said, but “cameras don’t lie and sound recordings don’t lie,” another layer of pressure to try to overcome.
Regarding the conductor search, the final candidate, Zoe Zeonadi, was supposed to visit last spring as an audition/interview. That was delayed until this fall, but the pandemic made it too complicated. Among other factors, Zeonadi lives in Greece. The final selection will be made soon, Salonen said.
The four candidates, all of whom interviewed and conducted a masterworks concert during the 2019-20 season, will take over during a challenging season. Plans for the remaining two masterworks concerts in the first half of 2021 haven’t been announced yet, as the potential for gatherings — for musicians or audience members — changes quickly.
The Holiday Pops concert will go on as a streamed event, too, although they’re still working on details. Singing remains a high-risk activity, so the Chorale members will record individual performances that will be edited together.