In a brand-new concert format featuring smaller ensembles, the Missoula Symphony Orchestra is breaking into groups for a streamed outdoor performance to kick off a series of virtual concerts through the end of the year.
Symphony at the Ranch, set for Friday night, includes a woodwind quartet, brass quintet and chamber orchestra, each performing two pieces selected by the musicians themselves.
This summer, the symphony sent out surveys to musicians and patrons and saw a strong desire for the group to perform in a safe manner, despite the pandemic.
“We were all sort of eager to do something,” said principal cellist Adam Collins, who took on a main role in organizing the event.
After holding a small, outdoor performance at a donor’s property in town near Kelly Island for the Suzuki Institute, the youth branch of the symphony, Executive Director Jo May Salonen thought the ranch location would be a good option for the professional group as well.
Still, they knew they couldn’t perform as a whole, with too many people to be able to socially distance, even in an expansive outdoor setting.
“There’s no way that we’re ever going to be able to have the size of the symphony and the number of musicians that people are accustomed to until we get COVID under control,” Salonen said, adding the smaller ensemble format allows the musicians to keep a safe distance.
The programming was led by the performers, with each ensemble selecting their own pieces. Normally, the conductor/director has control of the music selection, but the symphony is still in the process of filling that position.
The Missoula Symphony Association announced this week their fifth and final candidate, Zoe Zeniodi, of Greece, will no longer be able to attend her "Pass the Baton" performance set for Oct. 16 due to travel restrictions on international flights for non-U.S. citizens due to COVID-19. The virtual concert will still take place under the direction of Gordon Johnson, Music Director Emeritus for the Great Falls Symphony. The selection process is expected to move forward with the four finalists who completed the interview process, Julia Tai, Steven Smith, Paul McShee and Scott Seaton.
“(Organizing Symphony at the Ranch) was really quite a quick and collaborative process without a designated music director in place, because we’re still mid-search,” Collins said. “We’ve had to delegate a lot of the responsibilities of that position, which usually makes more of the artistic and programming decisions.”
“We wanted musicians’ input, so they helped us shape the concert,” Salonen said, adding the location on a sprawling Missoula ranch influenced the program as well.
Collins, who also teaches at the University of Montana, described the setting as “majestic,” with rolling hills and mountains in the background, adding it inspired the selection of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” by the chamber ensemble.
“It is set not in the West at all, but has this sort of Americana, Western expanses sound that we associate with Copland and his harmonies.”
Salonen said the program features a nice representation of symphonic music, but also includes some “playful” selections, like an arrangement of Scott Joplin’s “The Ragtime Dance” from the woodwinds and a suite from "West Side Story" from the brass quintet.
The chamber ensemble will be playing a selection by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, a Black composer and conductor who rose to prominence in the early 20th century, in an effort to respond to widespread protests against police brutality and racism across the U.S. over the last several months.
Collins said with the extent of injustice that exists in the country’s history, it was a simple and necessary programming choice.
“This is something that I’ve been dealing with myself as a teacher at the University of Montana as well, incorporating more Black and female composers into the music that I teach, into examples that I include in class,” he said. “The symphony’s responsibility or potential path that’s available for a symphony orchestra to address some of this injustice is those considerations in programming to make sure that we’re allowing underrepresented or ostracized voices the opportunity to be heard.”
Because the concert is an online, streamed event, anyone across the U.S. can purchase a ticket and tune in.
“People from all over the country are going to be able to watch this ... so it opens up our fan base a little bit,” Collins said.
Access to the streamed concert is included for season ticket holders, and single tickets cost $25.
Salonen said the cost of putting on the virtual performances has actually turned out to be a bit higher than the cost in a concert hall due to all of the technology and production, which is being led by Montana PBS.
Collins said viewers should expect a creatively pieced together show, with multiple camera angles and closeups of musicians that allow for an even more dynamic performance than they could maybe put on in a live, in-person setting.
“While live performance can’t really be replaced, this is sort of an element that a recording introduces that you don’t get sitting in one seat for a concert,” he said, adding the chamber pieces were recorded in one take, with the intent that the show is as true to live as possible.
The pre-recorded performance viewers will see Friday evening was organized in 30 days, when the symphony normally takes months to prepare, Salonen said, adding while it’s clearly different from Symphony in the Park and their indoor concert hall shows, it will give Missoulians a taste of the symphonic and orchestral music they’ve been missing this year.
“It’s too bad that we’re not all together as the huge symphony we usually are, but I’m happy that we’re able to make something work,” Collins said.