Creative Possibility within Constraint: Midland Symphony Online

Reviewer: Alexander Cbxtn Verdoni The Fig

Venue: Midland Center For The Arts - Online

In a universe of infinite acoustic possibility, Stravinsky composed music with self-imposed rules and arbitrary limitations. By establishing a set of parameters, he forced himself to write music that was wildly original, scandalously modern, yet internally consistent. For Stravinsky, constraint was the mother of invention. Setting constraints is a technique composers often use for discovering new musical material.

And now symphonies around the world must navigate the new and unusual constraints of COVID-19. Is this a creative opportunity or an impossible obstacle? Though it’s easy to complain about the shortcomings of virtual performance, we must have open ears in order appreciate fresh approaches. 

Instead of collapsing under the austerity of tradition, the Midland Symphony Orchestra opened their new season virtually on October 3. “Strum, Strings and a Serenade” broadcasted live to subscribers, transmitting a masked 12-piece orchestra with musicians sitting 6 feet apart. The night’s program featured 3 works only for string instruments (the symphony wanted to avoid potential viral transmission from trumpet fanfare or clarinet run).  To speak honestly, I was prepared to be disappointed – symphony programs typically leave me snoozing and a computer screen was yet another level of detachment. But what I was not expecting was how COVID’s unusual constraints made this symphony experience new and refreshing.  

Perhaps it was the easy-going home experience: I was free to enjoy the music in pajamas, free from the inane small talk that comes with pretending to be a “sophisticated Schubert enthusiast”, far from the hoity-toity atmosphere that often stiffens the concert hall. I sat in my favorite chair eating a bowl of ice cream, enjoying the electric rhythms and bouncing melodies of MSO’s opening piece, “Strum” by rising composition star, Jessie Montgomery. 

Perhaps it was the intimate visuals: Cameras, from 6 different angles, broadcasted the beads of sweat forming on the brow of principal violinist, Takeshi Abo, as he delicately carried the slow and heavy melodies of Shostakovich’s 8th string quartet. I watched Christine Beamer, the principal viola, zip her fingers across the neck of her instrument as the music shifted to the twisting contours of Russian folkdance. More than one musician had a face wrought with worry as they anticipated their page turn. 

Perhaps it was the friendly chat box: Dr. Matt Travis, Director of Choral and Orchestral Programs, answered audience questions mid-performance, explaining aspects of Shostakovich’s score. The chat box was filled with eager patrons and many warm greetings – it felt familial. When Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” began, there was a discussion about who influenced the composer’s work. One patron, sipping a cocktail at home, declared, “Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, and a one Moscow Mule.” Usually, this kind of chit-chat isn’t tolerated in the middle of a concert – yet, here we were, chit-chatting with the Orchestral Programs director, learning bits of music history, offering feedback, being playful, all while enjoying the music (albeit via laptop) created by our friends and colleagues. The symphony rarely feels as personal or approachable as it did last night. 

Though the concert itself was conservatively executed, there is promise that these forms of digital interactivity will breathe fresh life into a symphonic experience that has been relatively unchanged since the early 19th century. If MSO pursues and deepens a creative, educational, and relaxed interactivity, I know I would return to engage more. The limitations set by this pandemic may be the creative push orchestras need when they reestablish live, in-person, music-in-the-flesh concerts once again. 

Midland Center for the Arts’ virtual passes can be purchased at: https://www.midlandcenter.org/shows-tickets/virtual-pass-for-999mo/

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