Masked West Michigan Symphony musicians recently took to the stage at the Frauenthal Center in downtown Muskegon for a concert emblematic of our times: a world engulfed by Covid-19, a United States rising for racial justice, and an orchestra learning to navigate a pandemic that has left cultural institutions reeling.
Wearing face masks and spaced six feet apart to curb the spread of a pandemic that has entirely reshaped our community’s, and nation’s, cultural landscape, WMS musicians gathered on June 10 for the first time since the March stay-at-home order and performed a concert for a virtual audience. Representative of the future of live music during Covid-19 (read: online performances), the event titled the “WMS Online Reunion Performance” honored the music of George Walker. Walker was an American composer, and the grandson of a slave, who shattered barriers throughout his illustrious career, including becoming the first African American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. During the June 10 event, musicians too performed music from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Samuel Barber.
A video of the Walker performance is available to watch for free on the WMS Facebook page (click here to see it), as well as through the symphony’s YouTube account; the YouTube video is also posted at the top of this article. The full video, which includes the entire concert and interviews with WMS musicians, is available for a $50 donation and will be available through the end of the day on Friday, June 26; to view it, go to www.westmichigansymphony.org and click the ‘donate’ link at the top of the page. Once an individual has made a minimum donation of $50, they will be sent an email with a link to the concert.
“This video concert represented our artistic response to the significant happenings in the lives of all people, both in the world, in our country, and in our community—specifically, the pandemic and the violence against African Americans and other people of color,” WMS Executive Director Andy Buelow said. “ As well, we have missed playing together and performing for our audience—and this was our first opportunity since the lifting of the shelter-at-home mandate. It was a joy for us to perform this music, and we offer it as the promise of more to come.”
After opening with Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” the WMS performs Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which has come to represent a national work of mourning and grief, including being played at the funerals of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. The concert closes on a hopeful note with Mozart’s “Divertimento for Strings K.671.”
“It’s in times like these when classical music can really show its stuff; classical music always makes a statement, and that’s something we may not always think about,” WMS Music Director Scott Speck said in the video of the June 10 concert. “…In a time like this, when, in addition to celebrating being together for the first time in three months, we’re also expressing sorrow for the lives we’ve lost, both in Covid and in this horrible injustice in our country.”
After the WMS had to cancel its spring and summer concerts due to Covid-19, the Muskegon-based organization began to rethink the way it reaches its audience—and, now, Buelow said it is considering a significant expansion of virtual concerts for symphony patrons. The next video concert will be held on Friday, July 17 at 7:30pm. The event will feature violinist Chee-Yun performing Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Astor Piazzola’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires.” The concert will be conducted by Scott Speck and feature the WMS string ensemble.
Depending on what happens with the pandemic, Buelow said the symphony may also present part of its fall season as virtual events.
And while musicians and audience members are having to traverse a dramatically different world in which social interaction has suddenly become dangerous, WMS musicians emphasized that Muskegon’s 80-year-old orchestra is here for the long run. June’s concert, and the upcoming events, are representative of an organization determined to provide music for a community wading through deep uncertainty surrounding our health and economy. As a pandemic silences countless live performances across our world, the West Michigan Symphony is figuring out how to safely do what it has done for the past eight decades: keep the music going.
“You’ve heard it expressed many, many times that when words leave off, that’s where music begins,” Speck said in the June 10 video. “Sometimes, there are not the proper words to express what we’re feeling, but sometimes music can affect us in a place we didn’t even know we could be affected, and it heals, or it can heal, feelings within us we didn’t know needed to be healed.”
“There are some times I’ve been told, even in good times, by an audience member that, ‘Wow, I didn’t know how much I needed that concert; you changed my life,'” Speck continued. “And I think that’s why we classical musicians do what we do: in any situation, we’re making a statement; we’re changing lives. But, now, when we have the opportunity during dark days in the history of the United States and the world, this is when hopefully music can be allowed to show its stuff.”