Phoebe Liu, Contributing Photographer
On the wide stage of Woolsey Hall, 23 masked string musicians sat 6 feet apart with their instruments as they performed the Yale Philharmonia’s first livestreamed concert of the semester.
The concert, which took place on April 9, was streamed on the Yale School of Music’s website. This semester, the student-composed orchestra has four concerts — two recorded, two livestreamed — planned. Friday’s concert, the Philharmonia’s third performance of the semester, featured an all-British repertoire selection. William Boughton, professor of conducting and director of the Yale Symphony Orchestra, was invited to conduct the performance.
“We’ve definitely found creative ways to play together as an ensemble across a larger space,” violist Florrie Marshall MUS ’26 said. “A challenge of playing while socially distanced is that you’re much further apart from the people that you’re supposed to be playing the same exact notes as. At the same time, we have a bigger sound because we’re covering more physical distance.”
All pieces on the program are written by British composers: Edward Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro,” Gerald Finzi’s “Romance for String Orchestra” and Michael Tippett’s “Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli.” Boughton, who is English, selected the works, saying that “Finzi, Elgar and Tippett are all my roots.”
Violinist Elena Kawazu MUS ’21 said that during rehearsals, Boughton took the time to explain what emotions each part of the pieces should evoke, especially highlighting how British wit and humor was reflected in the pieces.
Boughton chose the Elgar piece because of Elgar’s connections to Yale and Woolsey Hall. Elgar was in Woolsey Hall to receive an honorary doctorate of music degree from Yale in 1905. On that stage, Elgar accepted his degree against the backdrop of his own composition called “Pomp and Circumstance” — which established the tradition of performing that piece at graduation ceremonies. On Friday, 116 years after that event, the Philharmonia performed Elgar’s pieces on the same stage.
This semester, the Philharmonia has been holding in-person rehearsals at limited capacity. Additionally, students are cycled between rehearsals and performances so that not all orchestra members are rehearsing and performing at a time.
Marshall, as well as Kawazu and violinist Shenae Anderson MUS ’21, spoke positively about socially distanced rehearsals and performances. They were particularly appreciative of the opportunity to play in person this year.
Kawazu mentioned that she and other string musicians feel lucky considering the fact that winds and brass players are not permitted to rehearse or perform in person, as their instruments prevent the musicians from wearing masks while playing.
“We are grateful that we can actually play in person despite being distanced and have a semblance of an orchestra rehearsal,” Kawazu said.
Anderson said that playing in a livestreamed concert feels like a normal performance — until the end of the piece, when there is silence instead of applause.
“I know that people are watching but I can’t see them, and in the performance I forget that nobody’s there until the end of the piece when there’s no applause, and it’s really, really weird,” Anderson said. “Part of going to a performance or playing for people is the shared experience of being together in a room and feeling that energy.”
Anderson added that audiences watching a livestreamed performance from home cannot experience being “enveloped in sound” as at an in-person concert.
Since winds and brass cannot play with the Philharmonia this semester, the orchestra’s performance repertoire solely consists of pieces for string instruments: violin, viola, cello and double bass. Anderson noted that the strings-only setup makes the Philharmonia feel like a chamber orchestra — an orchestra made up of a smaller group of instrumentalists.
Anderson said she missed playing with winds and brass, yet Marshall said it was a “treasure” to explore the string orchestra repertoire, which the Philharmonia does not explore as often in a typical year.
For Boughton, the string orchestra repertoire is especially familiar, because he formed a British professional orchestra called the English String Orchestra in 1978.
Marshall added that the piece by Finzi held special meaning for orchestra members. The piece opens with a delicate counterpoint that returns at the end of the piece. Marshall explained that hearing the same tune for a second time induces optimism, particularly about the return of the performing arts after the pandemic.
“The general sense that I get from my peers and colleagues is that we know we’re on the cusp of things starting to be open,” Marshall said. “I think as soon as people start feeling safe together in large spaces again, performing arts will be at the top of the list of things that people want to do. And in a new way, the music you hear the second time is not the same as you hear the first — in that respect, when we do get to return to live performances in person, it’s going to be that much more significant and cherished than ever before.”
The Philharmonia’s next performance will take place on May 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Marisol Carty | firstname.lastname@example.org