Perhaps no other art form goes quite as much against COVID-19 regulations as a symphony orchestra plus choir. A hundred people, sitting elbow to bow, emptying spit valves, and a hundred more all breathing and projecting air in unison over an audience of thousands.
Right now, it’s hard to picture.
But while symphonies probably won’t be performing live any time soon, Symphony Tacoma has hit the pandemic ground running with a 2020/21 season that blends previous recordings with new video slideshows, chamber music recordings with ballet, Facebook live artist talks, and a can-do spirit that’s infectious — even through Zoom.
Take last weekend’s YouTube premiere.
On Saturday night, a Bernstein concert from 2017 took on a whole new meaning as a reiteration of the joy, hope, and caring that can still exist in our world. In “Bernstein: Selections from West Side Story and more,” conductor Sarah Ioannides showcased another of her talents – visual storytelling. Through the ups and downs of Maria, Tony, the Jets, and Sharks, Ioannides’ photos from that concert’s rehearsals and performance led us on a journey of excitement, passion, and laughter, remembering a time when hundreds of people could sing together about humanity.
As a pure audio recording, the YouTube video left a little to be desired. The volume was soft, at least on an average laptop, and mikes pulled mostly from vocal soloists rather than the depths of the orchestra. But those soloists shone. Tess Altiveros played Maria with a saintly, bronzed soprano, while Elizabeth Galafa gave Anita exactly the right blend of sultry and sassy, with edgy American “r’s” and Latinx vowels. Bianca Raso added an angelic lightness to the trio as the naïve Rosalia. John Marzano’s Tony played an unassuming foil to the hard-edged brilliance of John Arthur Greene as the gang leader Riff. Dawn Padula’s creamy alto was ravishing as Consuelo, while Casey Raiha sang Bernardo and Symphony Tacoma added a chorus.
Adding “Make our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s lesser-known opera “Candide” was a nice touch, offering hopeful closure to the tragedy of “West Side Story” and an expansive metaphor of caring for the planet, thanks to Ioannides’ slides.
What really transformed this video, however, was the pre-concert Zoom. Almost all the artists joined Ioannides, chorus director Geoffrey Boers, musicologist Dr. Greg Youtz and various audience members to dive into both deep discussion and happy reminiscences. It’s incredibly rare to be able to chat with a soprano or conductor right before a performance — even rarer to have the discourse turn honestly, even vulnerably, to issues like representation in opera (Galafa herself is Puerto Rican), Black Lives Matter, or rapper Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer. And the bonus of Zoom, if you get it right, is that it’s a great equalizer: diva, expert, and fan are all there as humans in the same little square. The humanization continued in the YouTube chat throughout the show, with Raiha revealing how the soloists all felt on being asked to sight-sing the chorus and Ioannides commentating her favorite parts.
The orchestra had its spotlight moment playing the “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story” as backing to ultra-long credits – an understandable choice but a pity, as more and more viewers, dropped away despite an excellently tight ensemble in the jazzy fugue, fiercely squealing trumpets in the climax and shimmering strings in the finale.
In a separate YouTube video, Symphony Tacoma kicked off its new Interlude Series of new chamber music recordings with “Dances & Goddesses,” a collaboration with Tacoma City Ballet. In Robert Paterson’s engaging trio “The Book of Goddesses,” each short movement is dedicated to a goddess from worldwide mythologies, here given choreography by TCB director Erin Ceragioli and gorgeous costumes by Lisa Fruichantie, Judy Loiland, and Connie Gregerson.
Flutist Jennifer Rhyne, harpist Catherine Case, and percussionist Denali Williams played energetically and flawlessly through the goddesses (Sarawati to a sitar-like harp and Indian percussion, Aphrodite to a hypnotic snare drum, Xochiquetzal and her eight rainbow-colored birds to a delightfully medieval harp-and-castanet combo).
Despite the beautiful tableaux and symmetrical ensemble choreography that Ceragioli is so good at, all these goddesses were strangely static, spending their time holding arabesques and being carried around by their equally unemotional males. Even the chiton-clad Nine Muses, accompanied by Middle Eastern dumbek and tonality, seemed focused on perfection rather than inspiration. Future versions of this ballet could benefit hugely from more dance interaction with Paterson’s leaping, twirling, seductive score. It was particularly nice, however, to see the diversity of goddesses reflected in the diversity of Tacoma City Ballet’s soloists.
Rhyne and Case bookended the program with two duets: Paterson’s “The Song of the Lark,” which showcased Rhyne’s silvery upper register, and Piazzolla’s “Histoire du Tango,” rendered slightly more refined by harp replacing the traditional guitar.