It's a 2020 kind of Christmas concert
The beauty of a Portland Youth Philharmonic concert is watching the orchestras and ensembles play with such harmony, the majestic sounds filling a venue such as Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall to the delight of audience members.
So, what about a streamed concert involving anywhere from 15 to 125 musicians? How does that work?
Well, it's a little bit more of a challenge, and we'll see the final product when Portland Youth Philharmonic puts on its 59th "Concert-at-Christmas," virtually, Saturday, Dec. 26.
Having rehearsed via Zoom throughout the season, musicians have recorded their parts on video and audio with the use of metronomes and click tracks, which provide tempo and cues, and post-production entails meshing all the parts together for the full orchestra and ensemble sound.
Literally, it's a patchwork deal with scores developed using composition software and digital interface "MIDI." David Hattner, PYP musical director, said it's a tried-and-true process, and he promises an outstanding online performance.
A string orchestra of 125 to 150 members as well as woodwind, brass and percussion ensembles will be on stage (sort of).
There'll be classical holiday pieces (including from "The Nutcracker"), and modern music such as a tune from "The Avengers," current hit "Dynamite" by K-pop group BTS, "Do You Want To Build A Snowman?" from the movie "Frozen" and "All You Need Is Love" by The Beatles to spice up the concert.
Hattner said he and musicians "won't take for granted" being able to perform live to an audience. But, it has been interesting rehearsing and putting together the "Concert-at-Christmas."
"Conductor is one of the most useless titles in a pandemic," Hattner said. "I've become a coach. I meet musicians on Zoom … coach them really one at a time in front of their colleagues and teach them the piece."
Young musicians — like many young people, being tech-savvy — don't mind.
"It's actually been kinda easy since it's always the same Zoom code and everything, not to mention the fact that we don't have to drive to rehearsal," said Haruka Sakiyama, 13 and a violinist who'll perform an original piece she wrote, "Tinkling Bells," as part of the Youth String Ensemble. "It does kind of suck that we don't get to play as a whole symphony, though, and hear each other while we play since the pieces we play are mainly commissioned for just our instruments."
Ian Song, a 16-year-old violinist, and Maggie Carter, a 14-year-old bass player, will play from Vivaldi's winter concerto, arranged as an operatic and romantic duet. They agree with Sakiyama: it's been simple rehearsing through Zoom, but just different.
Song said "audio echo" inhibits ensembles from playing together during rehearsals; it's why there has been individual instruction and performance during rehearsals.
"We don't get a chance to hear ourselves play together until the concert recording is finished," he said. "In this sense, I miss our physical rehearsals. … Conversation, and interaction in general, is painful awkward over Zoom."
Said Carter: "Some groups of musicians have spent rehearsals playing their parts independently for the rest of the group and the coach, which has promoted thorough preparation; other groups have muted all the musicians but one and then played together, allowing for some sort of group experience without the interference of Internet lag."
All three are eager to see the "Concert-at-Christmas" in its entirety.
"It will be an unprecedented experience," Carter said. "In previous years, there have been 400 or 500 musicians backstage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, all busy trying to get to their rooms or rehearsals, instruments in hand — a glorious bustle indeed! This year, the concert will be put together before it is premiered and won't involve any work from the musicians themselves on the day of the concert, but we will still hear music from all of the musicians in all of the orchestras, and so I'm excited to feel that sense of community through the music although we will all be at a distance."
"Traditionally, the Christmas concert is a PYP family reunion," Song said. "It is a performance from all of our ensembles along with an alumni orchestra," which won't be performing this year. Song added that the introduction of non-classical music (such as with BTS) was voted on by students and "it's all very lighthearted, joyous seasonal music. Exactly what we need during these times."
Said Sakiyama: "Even though it's virtual and different, I'm still looking forward to the Christmas concert since we always get to play really fun pieces."
All three miss seeing their friends at PYP in person this season, with Carter saying it "has been one of this fall's biggest challenges for me" and "it has been deeply saddening to realize that I was instead at home with no scheduled concerts for at least a year."
For the most part, Hattner said, "(musicians) are handling it well. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We're going to march forward and finish the job."
Scheduled rehearsals and concerts will all be virtual in the coming months, with an in-person season expected to happen in 2021-22. Hattner said PYP has commissioned more than 30 new works by composers, and some will be undertaken after the Christmas concert.
Registration for Portland Youth Philharmonic's "Concert-at-Christmas" can be done at portlandyouthphil.org/concerts. Tickets are pay-what-you-can; a ticket and info will be emailed to you after registration.
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