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Local Musician Goes Virtual With 'Stay At Home' Symphony Orchestra

The "Stay at Home Symphony Orchestra" is doing its best to keep the music going while staying a safe distance from each other.
The "Stay at Home Symphony Orchestra" is doing its best to keep the music going while staying a safe distance from each other.

The Houston Symphony, just like all arts organizations, is feeling the squeeze of COVID-19 and its season going on hiatus as a response. But as the saying goes, the beat goes on. While shows through May 10 have been canceled for the group, one musician has found a way to still create art.

Robin Kesselman, the Symphony's Principal Double Bass, has joined an impromptu digital group, lovingly dubbed the Stay at Home Symphony Orchestra, to record Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Overture" to The Marriage of Figaro. Twelve artists from across the nation gathered independently to record their individual instrument's part before it was compiled and released on YouTube. 

"I think everyone in every medium and in every industry is trying to find a way to continue doing what they do normally," Kesselman said. "We’re showing individual arts communities can band together and share the common goal of getting music to the audience and show that we’re still functioning, performing and practicing at home."

The gathering of artists from across the nation to perform in a virtual space was spearheaded by Kesselman's college roommate, The Philadelphia Orchestra's Associate Principal Flute Patrick Williams.

"We rely so heavily on our audience for both our livelihood and energy. We do what we do to change people’s lives, and when that venue goes away, we have to ask tough questions about how we move forward and bring music to people and maintain our artistic integrity," Williams said.

The Stay at Home Symphony Orchestra is composed of members from Atlanta Symphony, Chattanooga Symphony, Fort Worth Symphony, Houston Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Recruiting the members to assemble the performance was relatively easy for Williams.

"Luckily, the music world is a tight-knit community. Some people I went to school with or met over the years. I have a lot of wonderful friends who play in the country and around the world. It's easy to guess we're all home doing nothing, so it was easy to recruit. I was texting, and everyone was super enthusiastic about the project. It really only took about five days to complete," Williams said.

The piece, "Overture" to The Marriage of Figaro, was selected because it is public domain, meaning it's an easily accessible piece, and it exudes joy, positivity and comedic energy. The composition also allowed for a stripped down version that could be executed using a dozen players instead of an entire orchestra.

To pull this off, the musicians all performed and recorded their individual parts set to the tempo fo 152 bpm to keep them on track. Then, they sent them digitally to Williams for layering and mastering. For Kesselman, he recorded his section on his phone.

Even though the whole project came to fruition in five days, it still had its hurdles. Kesselman said, "It’s technically challenging to practice it. You have to record it in one take. I practiced for two days."

Williams added, "When files get compressed and sent online or over Google Drive, some latency can creep into the files. Even if you line up everything at the beginning, through the project, the timing can get off. It took substantial editing to the audio to make everything sync."

The finished product, though, is a feast for the ears and a shining example of how the arts community is overcoming adversity.

The Stay at Home Symphony Orchestra is just one response from many arts groups across the city, nation and world to address the changes COVID-19 has forced upon us. Houston Press is following the trend and will continue to keep readers up to date on how they can still enjoy arts and culture.

Houston Symphony has followed the same steps of the Stay at Home Symphony Orchestra and started releasing music and videos on its website. A prepared statement detailed how the group is doing their part to still serve their mission.

"The Houston Symphony is offering musical relief. It’s making its concert broadcasts available to stream on demand for free online, as well as creating musician videos, blogs, curated playlists, and more available at houstonsymphony.org/listenathome. While the Symphony already broadcasts live on Houston Public Media each Sunday evening, each broadcast concert will now also be posted on the Houston Symphony website for on-demand streaming, and new broadcasts will be made available on-demand for one month after their broadcast date. In addition, the Symphony is stepping up to create a new schedule of content available in greater quantity on its website and via social media."

Houston Symphony committed to posting content featuring Houston Symphony musicians regularly throughout each week. Thursdays, the Houston Symphony’s Community Embedded Musicians are producing a plethora of videos, blog posts, and other content focusing on education.

Enjoy "Overture" to The Marriage of Figaro on YouTube. Follow Houston Symphony's online music and videos at houstonsymphony.org/listenathome.

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