Montclair Orchestra performs socially distanced “Pomp and Circumstance” for Class of 2020
By ERIN ROLL
With graduations being disrupted for the Class of 2020, the Montclair Orchestra put together a special parting gift for Montclair’s high school students: a fully orchestrated — but still socially distanced — performance of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”
Forty-four musicians — from as near as Montclair and as far as South Korea — recorded their individual parts on video and submitted them to the orchestra. All of the submissions were then edited into one video, resulting in the sound of a full orchestra.
The video is available for viewing on the orchestra’s YouTube channel.
“With music of any kind, your goal is to connect with an audience,” said David Chan, the orchestra’s musical director.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the performing arts particularly hard, with Broadway shuttered until at least Sept. 6 and opera companies and orchestras postponing the start of their new seasons until next year. On June 10, the New York Philharmonic announced it would not resume performances until January 2021, and the Metropolitan Opera has likewise postponed its reopening.
“For classical music at large, it’s a very tough situation,” Chan said. Live music and theatrical performances are expected to be included in phase four of New Jersey’s reopening process, along with events at sports stadiums.
For orchestras, which rely heavily on live performances, the pandemic has necessitated a search for new ways of connecting with listeners.
In April, the National Orchestra of France released a four-minute arrangement of Ravel’s “Bolero,” with all of the musicians recording their separate parts, which were then compiled in one video.
The Metropolitan Opera did a similar project for its At-Home Gala in April, with all of the members of the opera’s orchestra and chorus performing separately from their homes.
In Montclair, the Jazz House Kids presented a virtual performance of the 75-member Alumni Super Band on June 19.
“We’re all trying to adjust to this new digital norm,” said Montclair Orchestra violinist Aurora Mendez, a graduate of Montclair State University’s Cali School of Music. “Musicians have finally embraced the ‘evil’ digital nemesis to live performances.”
Some musicians might see videos as a threat to live performances, Mendez said; “I see it as an opportunity.”
Chan said the Montclair Orchestra had been brainstorming ways to reach out to its audience, and to send a message similar to what other artistic groups have been doing — paying tribute to first responders, teachers, and other groups during the pandemic.
He thought of his own high school and college graduations. “Those were, I’m sure for my parents, they were super-milestones in my life,” he said. The students of the Class of 2020, who had been looking forward to those milestones, won’t be able to experience them in the same way.
“Pomp and Circumstance” is actually the first of six marches of that title composed by Elgar. It is officially known as the “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D, Op. 39,” composed in 1901.
In 1905, it was used for graduation ceremonies at Yale. Since that time, it has been a regular feature at high school and college graduations in North America.
The Montclair Orchestra video lasts for four minutes and 22 seconds; making it, from start to finish, took between 3½ weeks and one month.
First, the orchestra had to send an email to all of the musicians, asking if they wished to participate. There were a few who could not, for various reasons, but 44, including Chan, were able to join in.
Each musician received a rehearsal track of the score, instructions on how to record video, and a video of Chan conducting the piece.
Some of the musicians had to double: For example, the woodwinds and bassoonists had to double on the first and second parts for their sections. Chan doubled on the violin.
Playing music alone, to a recording, is a very different experience from playing with other musicians physically present. “It’s a new idea of what making music is,” said violist Devin Moore. Musicians are attuned to collaborating with the others present and feeling the energy in the room, Moore said.
A native of Pittsburgh, Moore is a rising junior at Juilliard and plays viola for the Montclair Orchestra. He became involved with the orchestra after playing in a student competition.
“Of course, I was 100 percent onboard with being able to participate,” he said when he heard about the “Pomp and Circumstance” project.
Moore practiced with the recording a few times before committing his performance to video.
“The musicians were surprised and … really impressed it came together and still sounded like an orchestra,” he said.
Mendez said, “I think that we were pleasantly surprised at how together it was” and noted that the string section members were all using a similar bowing technique. When asked about the emotional response to the video, she said: “My initial reaction was, oh, how I miss playing with this amazing group of musicians. I miss that magic … it’s kind of like a master class.”
Both Moore and Mendez said the response from viewers was overwhelmingly positive.
“We got a lot of shares and likes,” Moore said, adding that he hoped a lot of the graduates would enjoy it.
Mendez got congratulatory notes from many colleagues, including people she hadn’t spoken to in years.
“When there’s passion and love behind a project, it’s going to turn out really well,” she said.