While the world shut down, about a dozen music faculty members at The University of Toledo helped create joy and togetherness during the coronavirus pandemic through virtual performances as part of the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.
With a reduced orchestra, musicians returned to the stage last fall and played to a mostly empty Peristyle Theater at the Toledo Museum of Art, live-streaming their concerts around the world. To date, thousands of people from 46 states and 29 countries have viewed the performances.
Dr. Michael Boyd, professor of music in the College of Arts and Letters, said he will always remember the first time he performed Vivaldi on the harpsichord while wearing a face mask in front of vacant seats, knowing the audience was watching from home.
“The return of performances in the fall was a morale booster for the community as well as the orchestra members after a bleak time,” said Boyd, who plays piano, celeste and harpsichord with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra. “But we missed looking out into the audience and seeing the seats filled. Even now to be able to sit onstage with a group of musicians has been very uplifting. When a ‘normal’ season happens again, being able to be onstage with a full orchestra and seeing a full house will be a cause for celebration.”
Careful planning went into the selection of pieces when personnel was reduced and on rotation.
“We were in survival mode since strings played most of the concerts without woodwinds and brass,” said William McDevitt, acting assistant principal bassist in the Toledo Symphony and a UToledo graduate student working toward a master’s degree in music education. “Also, we were downsized in personnel. For example, instead of playing with the usual six basses, it was only one or two basses.”
McDevitt, who proudly wore his Rocket face mask onstage, is relieved the orchestra returned this month to a hybrid model, offering both virtual and limited-capacity, in-person performances.
“Performing with a no in-person audience left me feeling empty,” said McDevitt. “We express our gratitude for them through our music. Performances and audience members are a two-way street, and not having one there with you due to the pandemic was very disheartening. During this terrible time, we need them and they need us.”
“Through this crisis, our vision has been to serve our community with live performances,” said Zak Vassar, president and CEO of the Toledo Alliance for the Performing Arts (TAPA). “Fortunately, with the launch of our TAPA Streaming platform back in September, we have been able to continue presenting top-notch performances, even without an in-person audience. We’re excited to make our return to the concert hall in these next few months and welcome our patrons back to a sense of normalcy, with safety as our top priority.”
UToledo music instructor and violinist Dr. Junqi “Sophie” Tang hasn’t played with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra since last April because of the reduced orchestra.
Tang, however, came up with creative ways to teach from afar to keep music alive for UToledo students during the pandemic.
“From my private studio, I provided a virtual learning experience for our students who had to stay home,” Tang said. “To keep them motivated, I prepared the students to compete in virtual competitions and we won a few top prizes.”
Qilong Wei, a second-year music student at UToledo, won second prize and Zeyu Chen, a master’s student, won third prize at the 6th Hong Kong International Music Festival Competition.
After other music festivals canceled because of the pandemic, Tang created the three-week online HanTong Music Festival.
“Students got to perform for the world’s leading performing artists through Zoom,” Tang said. “It’s a great way to bring students together with top teachers in the United States and China to inspire and encourage our students.”
Boyd said teaching piano during the shutdown was challenging because “there was a lot of detail that phone, tablet and computer microphones could not convey.”
Since his instrument does not involve an air stream, Boyd had the opportunity to teach in-person in the fall.
“I gave each student the option of streaming or face-to-face,” Boyd said. “Every one of them chose face-to-face. Pianos were distanced, surfaces wiped down after each use and I alternated rooms after each lesson to give time for air circulation.”
Dr. Lee Heritage, professor and interim chair of the Department of Music, is proud of the “silver linings” for students this year, such as the performers who honed their skills to create recorded performances and the recitalists who learned the value of excellent preparation when time together with other musicians was limited by safety concerns.
“We have a composition student whose ‘pandemic project’ was to create a piece for virtual symphonic orchestra, and our choir created musically compelling virtual performances that truly were ‘music for our time,’ ” Heritage said.
“We have been nurturing the flame of live performance and building our skills — eagerly awaiting the time we can rejoin our audiences in the Glass Bowl, in Doermann Theater and in our beloved Recital Hall. When we do, we will bring a renewed appreciation for the way that live music brings our community together.”
Watch the 2020 UToledo Music Showcase on the College of Arts and Letter’s YouTube page.