Stage Manager Ben Harper’s voice rang across the nearly empty Saenger Theatre: “Alright, two minutes, everyone!” Conversations muffled by face masks lingered before everyone shuffled toward stage. Mobile Symphony Orchestra’s (MSO) rehearsal break was done.
This was the first segment in the last weekend of the most difficult MSO season within recollection. Everyone involved is eager to see it fade.
When the pandemic put the kibosh on MSO’s final concerts from last season, they retooled. Determination paid off since MSO performed while symphonies across the nation were silent. Flexibility and resolve were why they ran neck and neck with Alabama Contemporary Art Center in the race for a 2021 Arty Award for cultural innovation.
MSO doubled concerts — two per day — but shortened their length. It taxed everyone.
“It’s been exhausting,” Harper said. “Getting audiences in and out and getting the adrenalin up again is a lot.”
For now, 35 musicians were onstage, less than half the standard. Their casual clothes — jeans, skirts, shorts, T-shirts, sneakers, clogs — deepened the unique ambiance, a peek behind the curtain the public rarely sees. One cellist sported a quilted winter jacket against the building’s air conditioning. No refined black attire here — just artists and the music they love.
They leaned forward and jotted on sheet music in response to MSO Music Director Scott Speck’s instructions and observations. He was free with compliments as he worked to coax their very best to the surface.
Speck skipped straight to specific sections, emphasized desired tones or particular technical refinements. At one point, he held up three fingers and ticked off corresponding points. The first was inaudible behind his mask, the second was a rhythmic variation and the third: “Don’t do that.” The orchestra chuckled. Periodically, Concertmaster Jenny Gregoire exchanged notes and observations with Speck, then with others. The absence of ego seemed crucial.
To these ears, the performance was more audibly textured. A delicate flute line became nearly tangible. Musical conversations between instrument sections leaped out. Call and response between violins and cellos, layered motifs and passages swirled and ascended before tiptoeing down on pizzicato.
Why the sonic revelation? I’m alone in the seats, with no distractions or other bodies to impact acoustics. Maybe it heightens the art’s intimacy. Maybe it’s my proximity to the conductor’s podium, where all the instruments are aimed.
It’s not just me. Others noted it as well.
“I think it’s the spacing between the musicians,” MSO CEO Celia Mann-Baehr said of the pandemic distancing still in play. “When you hear something, you can look over and tell who exactly is playing it.”
Whatever the cause, it only heightens the sense of privilege in the experience. MSO’s American debut of Jennifer Higdon’s new work this September reveals how fortunate Mobile is to boast a symphony of this caliber. Not only is Higdon a Pulitzer and Grammy award-winning artist, but she has actively tried to push the classical music world forward, to break old habits and maintain relevance for shifting public perspectives. Her efforts wouldn’t be spent on an “also-ran.”
Saenger Theatre Director of Booking Chris Penton popped in during a break. He said plans for installing new heating and air conditioning were bumped up by three weeks or so.
Environmental control is vital when the grand venue is 96 years old and sits in one of the country’s sultriest cities. Without it, the plaster walls chip and peel. Mold remediation was last conducted just over a year ago. MSO’s second June 13 matinee will be the last performance there until the renovation is done.
“We’re about to go over the Dvorak piece again,” Speck told me during a break. “I’m going to tell [the musicians] to leave the emotion out, just focus on the technical aspects. I want to leave them ‘al dente’ before tonight so they can bring something fresh to the actual performance.”
Though they aren’t trying to channel sentiment, it’s something true musicians do naturally. Gregoire and others sway while they play, their relationship to the music unavoidable. Even Speck’s entire body bounces and gestures grandly as he guides the artists.
Many lifetimes of cumulative discipline coalesced into those moments. These musicians began study before they were school age in many cases. It’s stirring and overwhelming to realize such a weight in the moment the art is pouring forth.
Most fragrant is the hope and relief in the room. Musicians were waylaid by the pandemic, so when vaccinated audiences reappear, paychecks do, too. That’s when passions resurrect as the vocations we all long for them to be.
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