Boston Symphony Orchestra keeps making music despite coronavirus cancellations 

James Markey (left), Mary Ferrillo (center) and Lucia Lin have all continued to produce content for the BSO online despite performance cancellations. Photos courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

By Sara Magalio
BU News Service

BOSTON – Music lovers stream down Massachusetts Avenue and pour into Symphony Hall, where they sit shoulder-to-shoulder as they wait for the musicians to take their places, the lights to go down and for the cavernous concert hall to be filled with mellifluous melodies. 

This used to be just another day in the office for members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but closures caused by COVID-19 and subsequent restrictions on large gatherings have forced the BSO to turn to alternative methods, such as producing educational and performative videos to continue to engage with the community.

Bass trombonist James Markey spoke to the collaborative nature of orchestral performance and adapting to the cancellation of performances and rehearsals that fostered this connection between his peers.

“I miss that opportunity to be able to support my colleagues, to make music with them on stage,” Markey said. “Ultimately as an orchestra, that’s what you do for every performance, you work together to get everyone on the same page, and that’s what a really great conductor can do too.”

In response to the restriction on large gatherings brought on by the virus, the BSO has canceled all events through mid-June, including the 2020 Boston Pops spring season, set to take place from May 16 to June 13.

The BSO is still waiting to determine whether summer programming, including the 2020 Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular and the 2020 Tanglewood season, can happen. The organization said they will monitor official recommendations daily and proceed “carefully and cautiously in the decision-making process.” They are planning on making final decisions closer to the start of the summer events.

Ryan Losey, director of foundation and government relations, noted in a virtual Massachusetts Cultural Council meeting that for the BSO, Boston Pops and the Tanglewood season in Lenox, anticipating the need to cancel an array of future events and planning is a significant challenge for them.

Losey said the BSO is trying to not “jump the gun in canceling things,” but to “be really mindful of the safety of people in the commonwealth.”

The orchestra faced its first virus-related hurdle when its two-week Asia tour, scheduled for February, was canceled. President and CEO Mark Volpe said they took the cancellation as an opportunity for community engagement.

“I think we certainly have invested a lot of energy in making the orchestra adapt,” Volpe said. “Instead of just coming here and doing a few concerts for Valentine’s Day and playing ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ we broke up the orchestra and we had 12 different pop-up concerts in homeless shelters for children and veterans, women’s shelters, hospitals, and we were even at Angell Animal Medical Center pet hospital.”

With all current outreach now done remotely, the orchestra has shifted to producing a collection of online offerings under the umbrella title “BSO at Home.” This platform includes past recordings of performances, playlists of recordings from their archives and newly filmed content.

Musicians have been called on to produce a variety of videos from home, including tutorials, performances and sharing their thoughts on how social distancing has affected them personally.

Markey was one of the first musicians to have a video uploaded to the BSO’s website and YouTube channel in late March. In the video, he breaks down an excerpt from Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” which Markey describes as, “certainly one of the most challenging excerpts for trombone.”

James Markey plays during his instructional video for the BSO.

“I think that the more that people are isolated, the more they’re really missing out on experiencing life together, and this is such a great way to help with that,” Markey said on making a video for the BSO Homeschool series. “Students can go into a practice room and hopefully have a week or a couple weeks of work ahead of them and feel like they have some direction in their practicing.”

Markey also spoke to the difficulties of continuing to practice his craft while he and his wife homeschool their four children, and how holding himself accountable through recording practice sessions has helped him maintain his technique.

“I was always a parent before, but now with our children being home, I’m not only a parent, I’m a teacher too. Even with the online resources, we’re still sitting over their shoulders and making sure they understand what’s going on,” Markey said. “It’s actually really easy for practicing to move toward the bottom of the list of things that I do in the course of the day because, let’s face it, everybody needs to eat, and making lunches for four people has to happen.”

Markey added that posting one-minute snippets of his practice sessions every day for the past few weeks on Instagram and Facebook is a challenge that he embraces to keep his skills sharp. 

“That has actually helped to be a motivator to getting me going,” Markey said. “Because it would be very easy for me to say at the end of the day, ‘I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to do a whole lot with my practicing.’ But when I know that I’ve set a deadline, a goal of myself that every day, I’m going to put something up, it makes me cognizant that I really do need to keep my skills up and have something to practice for.”

Markey has also filmed a day-in-the-life video showing his musical family’s at-home jam sessions, and since he plays multiple instruments, he is planning to create a video performance playing the organ he has at home.

Markey and family play music together while sheltering in place in a BSO at Home video.

Mary Ferrillo, a violist, is currently spending the hiatus in Kansas City with her boyfriend, a bassist in the Kansas City Symphony, but that has not stopped her from contributing to the BSO at Home initiative. 

Ferrillo produced a video of her playing an excerpt of “27 Pieces for Viola da Gamba” by Carl Friedrich Abel, editing in footage of her dog Roland, who she says has been loving all of the extra attention from the stay-at-home restrictions.

Ferilla performs alongside her dog.

“It’s just great to have a project,” Ferrillo said. “I definitely knew that I did not want to spend all of this time aimlessly and without a goal, so when they put out the call for content, I thought this is a thing I should do because I want to connect with my audience, even though we are not all physically in the same place, and because nothing is more honest than listening to yourself, and now you are doing it with a video camera instead of in a practice space.”

Ferrillo noted that while the video is not particularly educational or serious, she hopes viewers can be distracted for at least a few minutes from the seriousness of the global situation and share in some of the small positive effects of social distancing.

“I put together the video about my dog, because I think many people are experiencing one of the effects of all of this, that suddenly we have the blessing of being able to spend time with the individuals that matter most to us. One of those bright spots for me is that I get to hang out with my dog a lot more,” Ferrillo said.

Learning to teach

Lucia Lin, violinist and associate professor of music at Boston University, is currently working on producing a collection of Bach sonata and partita video performances with the other violinists. She is planning on also producing educational videos for the BSO in the coming months. On top of all of this, Lin is recovering from a forearm injury and said she is still struggling to play at 100%.

“Having the challenge of doing these Bach movements, which are short enough, they are not more than three or four minutes long, is a way to work on my playing since there is a goal there,” Lin said. “You certainly don’t want to put out a product that you are embarrassed about. So it has been a great motivator and the right amount of playing for right now.”

Lin has had to completely revamp her BU classes while also contributing to the BSO at Home collection. She has moved her studio classes from every three weeks to once a week to keep her class more connected, invited guest speakers from around the world to speak with her students via Zoom, and has had students create their own warm-up exercises to keep them thinking critically about their practicing habits.

“By week three, it was a little bit of an overload, because I was trying to do all of this different stuff, and realizing I need to take a step back and reevaluate, because this is not going to be a temporary reality,” Lin said. “It is going to be our reality for some time, and it takes time to make that adjustment and work out how things might change.”

Lin also spoke to how young musicians can stay motivated when there is so much uncertainty in the performing arts, and that the temporary halt of in-person performance does not mean the performing arts cannot find a way to adapt.

“I think the frustrating thing is that we are performers, and the way we communicate is really through our music,” Lin said. “I think that is why we have tried to find ways to be able to communicate musically, even if it is online.”

Lin went on to explain that there are many resources being offered because to performers because of the quarantine. These include the Metropolitan Opera, which is streaming free performances.

“The BSO is doing that, as well as the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s a chance to see some of these things that you might not have time for when you’re running around school,” Lin said.

Ferrillo noted that for students and professionals alike, not having a performance schedule to prepare for poses a significant challenge for musicians to find a sense of purpose again. 

“I think the biggest change is you sort of feel like your whole trajectory for the season has changed, because you plan your life and your time for a whole season around meeting with people and collaborating with people,” Ferrillo said. “Now I just have all this time to fill myself, and that’s definitely different, not necessarily bad but definitely different.”

Even with this stagnation, Ferrillo is confident that she and her colleagues will be able to use this time practicing and creating videos to their advantage in the absence of full orchestra rehearsals, and that the joy of being reunited will only propel their work forward when they are finally able to play together again.

“I don’t think it’ll be difficult for us to get going again,” Ferrillo said. “I think that all of the tools that we have at our disposal, the work that we do every day is not going to go away. If anything, people will be so much more excited to use those tools again. It doesn’t go away, you just miss it while you don’t get to do it.” 

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