Gamze Kazakoglu, Contributing Photographer

On Friday, Sep. 24 in Woolsey Hall, Yale Philharmonia gave its first in-person concert since before the COVID-19 pandemic began, with music by Maurice Ravel and Modest Mussorgsky, Igor Stravinsky and Carl Maria von Weber.

The program opened with von Weber’s “Overture to Oberon” and was followed by Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite.” After a brief pause, the performance concluded with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” The only in-person audiences allowed were students, faculty and staff from the Yale School of Music and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, but it was live streamed on the School of Music’s website. The concert’s principal conductor was Peter Oundijan, whose music career spans more than five decades. Oundjian has held positions in the Tokyo String Quartet, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Since the Yale Philharmonia returned to in-person performance after nearly 19 months, its current team of front-of-house staff and box office workers is almost entirely new, Katie Kelley, the director of communications at the School of Music, wrote in an email to the News. The process of rebuilding and training the new team led the School of Music to limit the audience to a smaller and more manageable group. Additionally, Yale has placed limits on event capacity to help quell the spread of COVID-19. As the University gradually expands audience-related permissions across campus, the School of Music anticipates that it will incrementally expand its audiences to include other Yale ID holders, according to Kelley.

“A part of [resuming in-person performances] is remembering how to communicate my musical message with the other people in the hall,” said Michael Ferri MUS ’22, Philharmonia violinist and concertmaster. “Our profession is the art of empathizing. We all have to breathe together in order to play at the same time. So it is a very visceral process and having everyone there is so impactful and meaningful.”

Tubist Vivian Kung MUS ’22 expressed similar sentiments about the first live performance in over a year. For Kung, being able to play together with musicians, rehearsing with the acoustics at the school facilities and conducting live music proved to be “exciting and fun.” Although the orchestra usually rehearses between two and three times per week, they have only been rehearsing for the concert’s “pretty considerable program” since the beginning of September, Kung said.

“It has been challenging to get used to technical things like watching the conductor, which is a skill that I haven’t been using for a year,” Kung said. “Listening to people live, tuning, pitches, all have gone rusty.”

Woodwind and brass players are now allowed back in rehearsals. Although violinists could rehearse last year as long as they wore masks, the woodwind and the brass players weren’t able to play in a room with more than two or three people. The woodwind and brass players had only one rehearsal session last year, and it was outdoors in the parking lot behind the School of Music, Ferri said. Whenever they played chamber music during the pandemic, the woodwinds and brass instrumentalists had to be in individual rooms and either played together over Zoom or made recordings and stitched them together.

For both the rehearsals and concert, the woodwind and brass players had bellcovers and slit masks as an extra precaution. Slit masks have the same shape as normal face masks but include a mouth slit through which the instruments can be played. 

“It is very challenging to play with [the mask], actually,” Kung said. “But having that extra precaution allows us to rehearse together, so it is worth it.”

The readjustment to coordinating with other players has also been a newfound challenge for the orchestra members. According to Ferri, it has been difficult to get everyone to play together again, since when the instrumentalists were playing by themselves, they did not have to make cue notes — indications informing musicians of important passages played by other sections of the orchestra. Ferri said that the players are out of practice with this “vital communication.”

The presence of an in-person audience was also an adjustment. According to Ferri, the audience’s presence not only makes a difference in the players’ consciousness of listeners, but also changes the acoustics, requiring the orchestra to adjust their sound accordingly. When there are people in the hall, the sound is significantly warmer and it bounces off the walls. But when the hall is completely empty, the sound just keeps vibrating in the air. For Ferri, the presence of the audience has a positive impact, both physically and for moral support. 

“This is the first orchestra concert for everybody, and I think we have all enjoyed it so much,” Jonah Ellsworth MUS ’22, a cellist and a member of the audience, said. “I really appreciate the orchestra’s enthusiasm for the music and it’s just great to be back and doing this.” 

Yale School of Music’s concert series will continue to take place in Woolsey Hall and Morse Recital Hall in the upcoming months.

Gamze covers music news for the Arts desk and writes for the WKND. She is a sophomore in Pauli Murray majoring in psychology and humanities.