Thoughts on Virtual Performance with Harvard’s Collegium Musicum and Baroque Chamber Orchestra

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In advance of the release of a virtual performance of Handel’s Messiah, WHRB's Ellie Taylor spoke to Andrew Rao, Joey Griffith, Jon Mott, Andy Clark, Sarah Darling, and Phoebe Carrai. They are a collection of presidents, managers, conductors and directors of the Harvard Radcliffe Collegium Musicum and the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra, the two ensembles who performed the work remotely this semester. Handel’s Messiah has been performed at Harvard countless times over the centuries, but this is the first time a choir and orchestra have performed the work while scattered across the world.

You can follow the release of the project at hrcm.org and watch a brief preview of the performance at this Facebook link.

These are some highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Ellie Taylor: At what point did you all decide that you wanted to do a virtual performance, given the challenges of coordinating such a large ensemble over Zoom?

Andy Clark, Director of Collegium Musicum:

The process began with a decision to make sure that Collegium could continue to rehearse and make music during the pandemic and in a virtual space. Thinking about the possibilities, Messiah came to mind as just one of – if not the most – ubiquitous pieces in choral repertory. For me, and I know for many who have encountered and continued to perform the work, over the years, Messiah becomes something of a reflection point for those who play it, and perform it and those who even listened to it. It's such a beloved treasure in our culture, that each time we come back to the piece, it's an opportunity for us to not only reflect upon our past experience with the work, and memories, and nostalgia and so forth, but also to trace how we've changed. As we encounter this piece, it's like this reflection that we can hold up to ourselves and to each other with each passing year. And I thought, well, it would be really interesting actually, to live and feel into this piece at this particular time, as both sort of an anchor point of familiarity, and also as a chance to experience the work in a completely new and different context.

For the musicians who took part in the performance, did you all have experience performing Messiah? Or was your first time engaging with the work virtually?

Joey Griffith, Student Manager of Collegium:

At least for me, I had never really had the opportunity to perform at least a good chunk of the work, I had sung excerpts here and there. Performing it for the first time to this length, virtually was something that I wasn’t expecting, but it's really, really been truly magical and inspiring just to be able to perform with people, even though you can't technically hear them. But to just know that you're going through the same experiences and that you're binded together in this opportunity, it's really, really special.

Andrew Rao, President of Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra:

It was actually my first time both playing and singing any, any part of the Messiah – very, very strange way to do it for the first time. But I had all the hallmarks of the experiences I've had in the past, playing music with both Harvard Baroque and singing with Collegium. I was getting to know a piece that I'd heard many times before and I loved listening to but hadn't played before. And getting to know it by actually living inside of it. And I think I got most, if not all of those markers of the kind of transformation of my experience with a piece. When I start playing a piece that I've known by listening to it, there will be parts that I've completely ignored that become sort of my favorite part and I really begin to cherish it anew. And that happened, even just by playing and singing by myself. I got that experience. And I think that that is probably one of the most precious parts for me of playing these sort of canonical pieces.

Jon Mott, Resident Conductor of Collegium:

For me, it's an interesting distinction to have been a choral conductor for a while now and to have never actually performed Messiah, and now the only way that I've done it is in a virtual setting. I've sort of been of the mindset since the beginning of the pandemic that music is almost just not worth trying to do in a virtual setting. And it's been a difficult endeavor to sort of just grapple with that instinct to just put things on a shelf and not touch it until we can be together in person in a room blending our sounds together the way that we know how to do it. But the other day, we got a little teaser of what the virtual choir and orchestra might sound like together. And, you know, I think many of us were on the verge of tears, if not in tears when we heard it. It just had this ability to bring us all together and to really make it seem like it was worth our time and effort to make a virtual choir.

What did the rehearsal schedule look like for this? Where do you begin if you want to perform Messiah virtually?

JM, Collegium:

Oh boy, yeah. So our principal structure for the choral rehearsals were to meet once a week, like a class for two hours. We met on Tuesday evenings, and we would share guide tracks over Zoom. Everybody would be muted, and you'd sort of sing it to the audience of your peers on the screen and just see each other's mouth moving and hope that you're singing the same thing. This is entirely different than a normal rehearsal, where you're feeling what the room looks like, and you're looking at people's faces and how they're reacting to what they're hearing. Then we had small group rehearsals. Once a week, each student would take part in a one hour long rehearsal. And this was with around thirteen of their peers, and they got to learn one movement of Messiah by themselves. So we learned four or five or six movements as a large group. And then students also got to learn just one movement by themselves.

SD, HBCO:

So to talk about a totally different part of the “rehearsal process,” in addition to the real-time rehearsals, we began the whole process by creating a series of guide tracks. So this was something that Phoebe, Andy, Justin Blackwell, and I did early in September; we just got together and basically blitzed through Messiah, trying not to think about the fact that what we were doing was going to be experienced intimately by people for the entire semester. It's like you're creating artistic content that you're creating at a time capsule, it's still happening, it's still fresh, it's still real, but you can't touch it anymore, because you're in a different time.

It sounds like there was a lot of guidance that musicians received between the guide tracks and between your feedback for them on these large zooms. But something that I find particularly distinctive about musical performance or musical rehearsal is this kind of back and forth that happens between the directors and the musicians. Was there any kind of direct feedback for musicians from those who had the vision for what the performance was supposed to sound like?

AC, Collegium:

Not only were the students able to hear their peers, which is important, albeit not in real time, but at least to get a chance to learn one another through their singing and musicianship. But also we were able to give a kind of individualized feedback that really we haven't done in that way before. And it's interesting to think about both the supports that were set up, to learn the music to contextualize the music. We weren't building an ensemble in a conventional way. But we were able to give individual singers more feedback and be able to trace their progress and their growth throughout the semester in a way that we hadn't done before. So it's interesting to think about after the pandemic, when we are back together, what elements of this process we might want to sustain.

PC, HBCO:

Over Zoom, we had breakout rooms in rehearsals where the bass group would join the violas and the violin one and two would be together. It was a very interesting procedure, I think we honed what we already do to a great extent. I was amazed at how seriously everybody took it and how much it meant to them.

AR, HBCO/Collegium:

I feel like I got, both in the orchestra and in the choir, more individual feedback than I would have otherwise. Another good thing is that it's very low pressure, or it's comparatively low pressure when, when you're playing, you know, a solo, you know, for many people, but you're in your room. And if you don't want to look at the people's faces, you can just look up or something out the window. Whereas if you're, if you're being asked to play, you know, particularly gnarly solo, in Memorial Church where you know, everyone's surrounding you, that can be much more nerve wracking. Zoom is not the best way to play music. But you know, it certainly is not completely worse. I think we can like everybody in this time, we're learning things that we can carry with us into the future to maybe improve our future.

Another element for this, which I'd just like to mention briefly is that the sort of virtual ensemble virtual choir phenomenon that really started to pick up steam during the first months of the pandemic, although at least in choral music, it had been around for about a decade with Eric Whitacre and others starting this, you know, project of folks recording themselves by themselves on video and stitching together a performance I'm not so sure that it's the kind of typical seeing musicians and boxes on the screen, you know, whether that has a long life or not, I don't know remains to be seen.

Let’s end with a question about how you expect the longevity virtual music on Zoom to manifest itself in the future. Of course, there's no telling whether or not there will be future pandemics like this. But if we operate under the assumption that the next decade or so once this vaccine happens, will be pandemic free, do you think that there will still be groups who tried to do virtual performances? Or do you think this will be a relic of 2020 and 2021 that will be left to collect dust?

PC, HBCO:

You know, like, there's nothing like live performance. I've even done porch concerts on my front porch, here in Cambridge. And I mean, the last time I did it, 45 people showed up because they're just starved for live performance.

AC, Collegium:

I'm not sure I have a clear answer yet. Absolutely, we want to be with other people, we want to share music; I think we're all we're all craving that human to human contact. But I think being forced to take a step away from the routines required, for many of us, to really reflect upon our vocation, as artists, whether it's something we enjoy as part of our life, or the way that we make a living, and both philosophically and I think even practically. I think we're finding new ways to empower the students to learn that's going to actually make our rehearsal time together more valuable and vibrant and creative. So I'm not really sure of what it will be like other than I, I can't imagine that it's going to be exactly the same. And I think that's not necessarily a bad thing.

AR, HBCO/Collegium:

Like everybody else, I'm not really sure what the future of Zoom performances will be. But I think one thing that I would not be surprised if it changed after the pandemic is having Zoom masterclasses and lessons. The difference between the quality of a zoom masterclass and a real masterclass, I think is probably smaller than the difference between a zoom performance and then actual performance because you don't usually need to be synchronized in masterclasses.

SD, HBCO:

For me, the thing that has become so clear is that music exists between people. Music is the thing that people share with each other. I think that those kinds of intimate relationships are going to power the deepest expressions of classical music going forward. I think we won't ever forget that after this time.

Ellie Taylor is a DJ for the Classical Music Department.