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Symphony Charts Its Return To Live Music

Lucy Gellman | April 8th, 2021

Symphony Charts Its Return To Live Music

Long Wharf  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Symphony Orchestra  |  COVID-19

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NHSO musicians Aya Kaminaguchi and Michael Singer at the Canal Dock Boathouse in October 2020. Tickets for the spring/summer concerts at the boathouse become available April 19. Lucy Gellman File Photo. 

A steel pan rings out, in time with the seagulls circling overhead. Electric cello dips, full bellied, as waves crash into the retaining wall below. A soprano steps up to the microphone, several feet away from her masked audience, and her voice coasts into a gust rolling right off the water. 

All of those are within the realm of possibility this spring, as the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (NHSO) returns to live, in-person programming at the city’s Canal Dock Boathouse. Concerts, which are modeled on the boathouse series that the NHSO beta tested last fall, are scheduled for May 21 through July 4. Tickets become available on April 19.

Due to the ongoing threat of Covid-19, each concert will feature only a few musicians and spotlight collaborations with the wider New Haven and Connecticut community. In addition, the symphony plans to hold more of its performances in empty downtown storefronts this spring, although dates have not yet been set.

I want this to be a celebration of life, of music, and of getting back together,” Music Director Alasdair Neale said in a phone call Tuesday afternoon. “In this musical drought that we've had, I've certainly had some time for reflection, and it's even more important now that we take a new place in the New Haven community.”

Neale said that the process of building the concerts has been extremely collaborative, with input from musicians, NHSO staff, public health experts, and multimedia artists across the city and the state. In practice, that means a program that is nearly as kaleidoscopic as the city itself.  Antonio Vivaldi, Felix Mendelssohn, and Franz Schubert appear beside Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Margaret Bonds, Florence Price, Jessie Montgomery and Rafael Hernández Marín among several others.

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A concert at the Canal Dock Boathouse in October 2020. Lucy Gellman File Photo.

In addition to NHSO musicians, the organization has folded in Connecticut-based guest artists from poetry and spoken word to dance.They include dancer Tavon Dudley, cellist Jonathan Moore, St. Luke’s Steel Band conductor and musician Kenneth Joseph, and soprano Lisa Williamson. The focus on supporting local artists comes in a year that has left the performing arts reeling, and many artists facing months of cancelled performances and unemployment. 

“It's part of an overall commitment on my part, and on the organization's part, to broaden the amount of voices that are on stage,” he said. “We want to make performances look as much as we can like New Haven.”

While that interest predates the pandemic, it was “put into even sharper relief” after the events of last summer, he said. Last year—in the midst of cancelled seasons and isolation—he watched as the country called for a greater diversity of voices on the stage, in the streets, and in workplaces all over the country. It felt past due—Neale has been talking about a more diverse and eclectic range of music since he interviewed for the music director position in 2018. When he stepped into the role a year later, he introduced the symphony’s audiences to Montgomery’s work in his first concert of the season. 

“It's something to take care over,” he said. “You find yourself asking: ‘Could there be another voice that I could contribute to this program, or another voice to look out for?’”

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Neale in downtown New Haven in 2018. Lucy Gellman Pre-Pandemic File Photo.

Neale added that he is very ready to return to New Haven for the concerts, which he plans to emcee because the musical groupings are too small to need a conductor. When the pandemic hit last year, he had just finished leading the NHSO in a program that included Florence Price and Antonín Dvořák. He got stuck in San Francisco, where he lives when he isn’t traveling for work. He’s been there since.

While he considers himself “very lucky that my own situation is stable,” the pandemic has still turned his world upside down. He isn’t a fan of online streaming, and has consumed very little virtual programming during this time. He helped organize a virtual lineup for the Sun Valley Music Festival, of which he is music director, but said it wasn’t the same. When that festival was over, the lack of gigs on the horizon got to him.

“When that disappeared in the fall and there was no end to the pandemic in sight, I went through some pretty low points,” he said. “It was important to allow myself to acknowledge that that was there. I think if there's pain or even a lot of grief, you’ve got to acknowledge it. I've been conducting since I was 14.”

As the symphony slowly returns to performance, “the potential of being overwhelmed is very, very real,” he said. “I'm going to have to hold it together. even if we're doing baby steps. I think there's going to be a point when something coming from the stage is big and emotional enough ... Whenever we get back to that, that sound that we all know that the full orchestra can make, with the full panoply of emotions that are attached to that, I think we don't know what that's going to feel like. But I can't wait to have that energy running through my body.”

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Joseph at a concert at First and Summerfield United Methodist Church in January 2019. Lucy Gellman Pre-Pandemic File Photo.

Joseph, who will be joining NHSO musicians in at the Canal Dock Boathouse in June, said that he is looking forward to playing in public for the first time in over a year. During the Covid-19 pandemic, he has recorded steel pan for multiple online performances, including Pan In Unity with members of the St. Luke’s Steel Band and an arrangement for a friend in his native Trinidad.

Practicing alone in his home isn’t the same, he said. In the past 13 months, he has missed hearing the bands steel pans sing out joyfully in unison, blending soca, soul, and pop as they criss-cross genres. Last Christmas, when the band usually holds a large concert at St. Luke’s Church, was particularly hard for him. As a teacher at Booker T. Washington Academy, he found that an online music performance doesn't feel anything like the real thing. He’s ready to get back, he said.

“I've often felt this sense that when I am performing, I am transported into a different space,” he said in a phone call Thursday. “I am in my own world performing. I can't even tell you what that world looks like. It depends on what I'm playing. But I know I'm not in the same space where my physical body is. I’m excited for that.” 

Tickets for concerts at New Haven's Canal Dock Boathouse become available on April 19. For more information, visit the New Haven Symphony Orchestra's website