At Middlebury College, the show must go on… online
If she is being completely honest, bassoonist Monica Ellis has reservations about performing online. “I miss terribly the palpable energy that comes only from live performances with my chamber music mates and from the audiences we serve,” Ellis, a founding member of the chamber music quintet Imani Winds, told the Independent. “However, do I want to stay connected to our fans, supporters, audiences, students and lovers of our music? Absolutely.”
And so Ellis is excited to be coming to Middlebury — virtually — with the rest of the Imani Winds this month for a concert and digital residency with Middlebury College music students. “I look at it like an unavoidable necessity,” she added. “We are all going through this unprecedented time together.”
“Unprecedented” is the word that describes so many things during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the annual Middlebury College Performing Arts Series. The series, which was scheduled to kick off its 101st season with concerts and recitals at the Mahaney Arts Center this month, has retooled for a season of social distancing.
The Middlebury Performing Arts Series will host an array of online performance in an all-virtual fall season. And, although the MAC, as the Mahaney Arts Center is known, can’t host its traditional lineup of top-notch talent, Series Director Allison Coyne Carroll and MAC Director Liza Sacheli have programed a remarkable lineup of nationally and internationally renowned musicians. Many of the faces on the Middlebury screens this fall will be familiar to regulars of the Performing Arts Series. Plus, every performance is free. Just head online to go.middlebury.edu/pas to watch, listen and enjoy.
The series begins Sept. 25 with the Imani Winds concert, which will feature works by John Harbison, Paquito D’Rivera and the quintet’s own Jeff Scott. Like all of this season’s shows, the performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday.
Bringing the Imani Winds to Middlebury was particularly important to Coyne Carroll and Sacheli because the group had been scheduled to perform a commissioned piece at the MAC last April; but that was canceled.
The series will continue on Oct. 2 with Sphinx Virtuosi, one of the nation’s most dynamic professional chamber orchestras. The self-conducted ensemble of 18 top Black and Latinx classical soloists will play a show called “This is America.”
The next five concerts come to us from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, curated by longtime Performing Arts Series friends David Finckel (a cellist) and pianist Wu Han. The full-length, high-definition performance videos will feature clarinetist David Shifrin (Oct. 9), pianist Michael Brown (Oct. 16), violinist Arnaud Sussmann (Oct. 23), pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung (Oct. 30) and pianists Gilbert Kalish (Nov. 6). In most of these performances the principle artist will be joined by many other contributing musicians.
The Jupiter Quartet, which first appeared on the MAC stage a decade ago and whose star has risen ever since, will wrap up the series on Nov. 13. With bonus content, live chats, and online residency activities, audiences will enjoy dynamic interaction with these extraordinary artists, all from the safety of home.
Coyne Carroll acknowledges that these virtual musical experiences will be different from the typical MAC performance.
“You will lose that communal experience of having that experience with friends and neighbors and with new people you will meet in the concert hall,” she said. But she is excited about the things that a virtual performance can add to the experience. There will be extras beyond the performance that will make a night at a show more than just an evening in front of the old boob tube. For instance, look for Middlebury-specific chats before some of the performances and some curtain talks. Series organizers are trying to set up some opening acts by local musicians before the nationally distributed shows to make it more local. They will likely have a performance or two from Middlebury College students.
They will also have live chats online so that viewers can “talk” with each other about the show during the show. “You can’t often talk during the performance,” Coyne Carroll said.
The live chats in some cases will also include the artists themselves (but not during the performance, of course). If you are curious about the quality of the pre-concert chats with the performers, check out a few of the Digital Stages online shows that the college posted since the beginning of the pandemic. These shows, which can be found at middlebury.edu/college/arts/digital-stages, feature 20- to 60-minute YouTube clips of previous shows at the MAC. And a couple of the shows also feature new talks with the artists discussing their work and their lives during the pandemic.
Coyne Carroll noted that she and the rest of the Mahaney staff hope to get feedback during the chats on what audience members like about the shows and what could be improved upon.
Those interested in logging on to enjoy the performances won’t need any special software or unusual connections to take part. And the sound quality of the performances is expected to be pretty good. Sacheli said that Concert Hall Technical Director Mark Christensen determined during a summer working on the Digital Stages broadcasts that YouTube was technically the best and simplest platform.
Ellis, of Imani Winds, said she doesn’t fret over the quality of the audio that virtual viewers will receive, since sound technology is generally very good and widely available. “I think that viewers are quite forgiving if there are slight quality issues and/or technical difficulties,” she said. “That being said, we are constantly trying our best to offer the best quality we can, with the understanding that this is ‘new normal’ for a while and we want to give the viewers the best experience possible.”
It wasn’t a difficult decision to make the shows all free, Sacheli said.
“Our thinking is, some people’s financial situations are precarious, and we didn’t want to exclude people in crisis or students who were here on financial aid,” she said. Plus, because there is not a physical barrier of distance from the concert hall, this season of the Middlebury Performing Arts Series is also being promoted to people beyond Addison County — including to college alumni who are spread far and wide.
Coordinators of this year’s series are happy not just to provide the joys and consolations provided by music, but are glad to provide support to the professional musicians whose normal revenue stream from live performances has dried up. “We are hearing from artists who are desperate to work,” Sacheli said. “We have booked most of our 2021-2022 season already because performances for this fall have been pushed out.” Coyne Carroll noted that artists’ managers and agents are working hard to get their clients paid gigs. “A lot of them are working to get them back on the books … (so) they can get their own office staffs paid,” she said.
Sacheli worries that performing arts may be the last profession that will return to business as usual after the pandemic ends, because of the nature of singing and playing instruments in crowded venues. And she noted that beyond musicians, the lack of work in the performing arts industry also hurts stage managers and pit orchestras in theaters, restaurants and taxi drivers who serve theater patrons … “It’s everyone,” she said. “COVID is a real problem for our industry.”
But the show must go on. And the Middlebury Performing Arts Series staff is excited to see this fall’s shows go on. Sacheli said they also hope to learn something about how to expand their audience in future years. “Maybe there will be people who haven’t been able to come before,” she said. “If people find this satisfying, if they like it and are engaged … (maybe) in the future we could add an option of streaming subscriptions.
“I hope we learn something from this process of presenting concerts digitally.”
Ellis is looking forward to the upcoming Mahaney Arts Center performance.
“So many people have gone through hell with this virus and the national reckoning we are experiencing with race relations. We have real heroes in the form of the essential workers who are doing a way harder job than me. If they can do what they are doing, certainly I can try to make the world a little more enjoyable with online musical content to maintain a connection to the audiences we love and miss.
“So of course I can’t wait to get back on the road and be with Imani Winds and our audiences and wonderful presenters around the country again. But in the meantime, this format will suffice and provide some joy for all.”
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