Scott Speck is in a different world.
“Everywhere I go, everyone’s wearing masks,” Speck said. “The one thing I’ve found quite astonishing is that on some of these city streets, they’ve gotten so quiet that birds are coming back. Lots of birds on urban blocks where you wouldn’t expect it.”
The Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO) music director has been hunkered down in Chicago since March, another difference between the present and his normally peripatetic life.
“This is where I was headed to do a run with the Joffrey Ballet of ‘Don Quixote,’ scheduled for April and early May,” Speck said. Those performances were postponed for the season.
He also has duties across Lake Michigan, with Muskegon’s West Michigan Symphony. For now, all of these entities are dormant, thanks to COVID-19.
Though MSO would be in the offseason now, preparations would be underway for late September’s renewal. Advertising would get finished up. There would be contact with patrons. Questions dominate instead.
“The governor’s guidelines may have been eased, but that doesn’t mean everyone feels comfortable going out yet,” Speck said. “I think it’s important to stay in touch with our family. It really is a family of people that all come together.”
MSO uses technology to bridge that gap. On Mondays, they feature members of their orchestra in soul-soothing performances pulled from their YouTube channel — including one with violinist Lisa Wiggins at a gorgeous overlook above a North Alabama mountain valley.
On Thursdays, Speck talks to audiences. The subject: His passion for Russian music. The subject is partially decided by what is on hand.
“Each video ends with an audio performance of the MSO playing something, so I start with what we have a recording of us playing well. So, I’m working backwards in a sense,” Speck said.
He began with the reputed “father of Russian music,” Mikhail Glinka, and went to the metamorphosis of the country’s cultural style.
“I knew we had to talk about the ‘mighty five’ composers [César Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov], who all believed in putting Russian folk songs and Russian folk themes into their music,” Speck said.
He just started covering Tchaikovsky’s genius. Speck admits he could talk about the Russian titan endlessly.
Like all of us, Speck is adapting. He takes walks for a change of pace from his apartment’s confines.
“There are beautiful parks around. Unfortunately, they’ve been closed, but you can walk around the outside. On the street, you see lots of signs of life, joggers, people biking and people riding skateboards,” Speck said.
He cited abundant delivery options as another benefit of his Windy City quarantine.
Other pandemic experiences have been less wondrous. His 91-year-old father passed away “a month ago” from a non-COVID-19 cause; however, exposure concerns kept him from flying to Boston to be with his elderly mother.
“My brother and his family are right there near her, so that’s great. I just couldn’t be there. That would make it counterproductive for me to be with her,” Speck explained.
He told of “friends of friends” who succumbed to the novel coronavirus. The “tragic” times stirred memories of his youth and the Fulbright scholarship that took him to 1980s Germany. When he spoke with survivors of World War II’s devastation, their resignation surprised him.
“They had a very kind of stoic attitude toward it all, you know, ‘What could we do?’ and ‘I don’t want to single myself out, everybody had losses,’ and so on,” Speck said. “I found it so hard to understand how someone could take a personal loss that way and see it with such perspective, but now I understand because we’re losing tens of thousands of people.”
His European travels inspired a pandemic diversion. Stirred by a recent Scandinavian getaway, Speck is learning the Norwegian language. Forty lessons into it, he said his studies will help him understand Swedish and Danish to boot.
“I’m already fluent in German, so if you already know English and German, it’s easier because they’re similar. Like today, I learned that the word for ‘warm’ is ‘varm,’” Speck quipped.
He’s also revived a neglected practice: Bikram yoga. The 90-minute, 26-posture routine starts his day.
Afterward, his true calling beckons. He begins programming concerts.
“Boy, do I miss conducting. It’s not just what I do for a living. It’s so much more than a job — it’s a huge part of my identity, a vocation in that sense,” Speck said. “I miss it terribly and I miss the particular energy of the Mobile Symphony terribly.”
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