April 6, 2020

Music community united by a mouse and metronome

No quarantine blues here as Alberta’s orchestras make music in the time of COVID-19
collage of musicians playing from their own homes
Members of the Calgary and Edmonton Philharmonic Orchestras play a piece together, from their homes. Courtesy Donovan Seidle

Ever since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, in-person arts and cultural happenings have been scuttled worldwide. Yet in difficult times, we crave things that calm, distract and soothe us. This is precisely why Donovan Seidle, BMus’99, and partner/conductor Janna Sailor decided a virtual concert was in desperate order.

Providing homebound members from the Calgary and Edmonton Philharmonic Orchestras with a rudimentary guide, each musician recorded the calming melody of Elgar’s Nimrod Variation IX individually and remotely from their “isolation booths” (homes). United only by Sailor’s conducting and a click-track audio guide to synthesize the tempo, each member used their cellphone to record their part and then send it digitally back to Seidle.

Conductor Janna Sailor

Conductor Janna Sailor

“The intent was three-fold,” explains Seidle, an adjunct violin professor at UCalgary, as well as a CPO member. “Our music director, Rune Bergmann, had recently lost his father and some of us wanted to send a well-wishing video to him and secondly, some of us felt like we were at risk of losing our regular audience members and wanted to connect . . .  somehow.

“And through these difficult economic times, I wanted to prove (maybe even just to myself?) that musicians and artists contribute something beneficial to our communities. When you look at our mental health and the emotional availability right now . . . I think art can act as a balm and a hopeful beacon for all of us.”

Not to downplay the complexity of the virtual conducting and timing of each piece, but the editing was the trickiest part. Using his home studio, Seidle, who plays the violin and viola in the recording, spent three full days mixing, mastering and editing the video.

“So many high-quality video files were so heavy on my computer system,” explains Seidle, “that I had to downsample all the video files and eventually use a different video editor for it to be viable. I was wishing still am for more powerful hardware.”

Although nothing beats the thrill an orchestra gets from a physical audience’s reaction to a piece of music, Seidle admits he has enjoyed the direct feedback he’s been getting. Since its March 24 release, the video has been viewed more than 40,000 times on YouTube and 76,000 on Facebook.

“It’s very touching to hear how this video is allowing people to pause,” he says. “It seems to be giving people a moment of reflection, sort of an emotional catharsis. In our current state of physical distancing we risk losing our sense of community and this video is meant to inspire hope, strength and resilience.

“We want people to know that we are all pulling for recovery — together. That’s our collective goal right now.”