Tobias Ringborg conducts the Orchestra of Opera North in its online performance of "2020 An Isolation Odyssey" (© Opera North)

Isolation Odyssey: Behind the Scenes with a Lockdown Orchestra

Scattered throughout the world, members of Opera North's orchestra share how they are enduring the loss of live performance and companionship during the COVID-19 lockdown. They also share a mood-lifting, online isolation performance of a work that everyone knows but not always for the same reasons.

Online performances of classical music have become such a fixture of our COVID-19 lockdown era that they’re already spawning parodies. Yet there’s no denying the power of the best examples of this novel format to cut through the grim mortality curves, the babble of rolling news and mangled messaging, to genuinely move us.

“In many ways, the effect of the pandemic on mental health has the potential to be even wider than on physical health, because even those who don’t catch the virus themselves or become seriously ill are facing stress, anxiety, grief, and isolation,” says Dr. Emily Carlson, music therapist and post-doctoral researcher at the Finnish Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Jväskylä. “We know that music can help, and personally I have been really inspired by all of the virtual music collaborations I have been seeing over the last few months.”

With the larger ensemble pieces online, something besides the music comes into play. Implicitly — without laboring the point — they remind us of the power of collective endeavor, of human resourcefulness, and our need to communicate through art.

“The reason we all make music is to connect with one another and with our audiences, and it couldn’t feel more empowering to continue doing what we love most in these difficult times,” says Lourenço Macedo Sampaio, Principal Viola No 2 in the Orchestra of Opera North. When the Leeds, UK-based ensemble’s concert performances of Also Sprach Zarathustra were cancelled as the pandemic intensified, Lourenço and his colleague, Principal Cello Daniel Bull, began to work out a way to perform its iconic opening movements with 40 of their colleagues, in sync and under social distancing restrictions.

One of the most famous pieces of music of all time – and a favourite of Lourenço’s – Richard Strauss’ 1896 tone poem has been borrowed by everyone from Elvis Presley to WCW Champion Ric Flair since it was popularized through Kubrick’s use of its blazing opening fanfare in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Appropriately, its composer intended it as a celebration of humanity’s questing, resourceful nature, inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophical novel of the same name.

Principal Bassoon Adam MacKenzie (© Opera North)

Daniel and Lourenço contacted Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg, who had been due to take the podium for the concerts at Huddersfield and Leeds Town Halls. “The idea sounded rather crazy,” says Tobias, “but it kind of fitted in with how crazy the world is right now, so I thought we had to make it happen.”

“I contacted my dear friend and chamber music partner Bengt Forsberg. We met in Allhelgona, a gorgeous little wooden church in Stockholm and did a couple of takes with my phone camera turned on me as I conducted him on the piano. I sent the film back and wished them luck.”

Daniel and Lourenço sent Tobias’ footage out to 40 of their colleagues, each of whom donned full concert dress and recorded their parts individually. They filmed themselves in kitchens, spare rooms, gardens – even, in the case of percussionist Chris Bradley, as they took their daily exercise.

For Liz Wyly (viola) and her husband Andy Fairley (cello), “it felt utterly bizarre trying to record ourselves in the living room, but we were lucky that we could at least sit together, as we often do at work, being in neighbouring sections.”

Andrew Fairley and Liz Wyly of the Orchestra of Opera North playing at home during lockdown. credit: © Asadour Guzelian (courtesy of Opera North)

“I was ill when I played my part in the recording,” says Principal Bassoon Adam MacKenzie. “We all were in the house. In fact, we think we may have had the dreaded bug. It felt like someone had put a belt around my chest about four notches too tight. Despite this I couldn’t resist getting out the mouse mask (Reepicheep from Narnia) which I’d bought for my son for World Book Day.”

Like many of the musicians, Adam had become responsible for full-time childcare, alternating supervision, teaching, cooking, and baking with his wife, who is a headteacher with her own demanding schedule. “We meet up around 9pm, eat a dinner swimming in lockdown booze, and fall into bed,” he says. “I have never had so little time for myself. I can’t even count the days each week I spend teaching online as respite. My students are dedicated and talented, but even when they have the hardware to make the best of the situation, they are understandably under-motivated, emotional, and confused by the daily flux.”

Percussionist Mark Wagstaff, whose three sons can be seen in his contribution to the project, describes his new life as “hectic”. “We’ve never been more appreciative of our little village in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. The local pub has re-invented itself by turning into a shop, with the landlord re-naming himself ‘The Reluctant Grocer’. I regularly come back with a freshly baked loaf of bread, a box of eggs and a milk carton filled with real ale!”

img-4328Percussionist Mark Wagstaff © Opera North

For those with close family outside the UK, the sense of isolation can be acute. “I’ve been away from Portugal for a long time now and in these circumstances, I still don’t know when I will be able to visit my family back home,” says Lourenço. “I’m missing them a lot. Having said that, I became a British citizen in January and I feel very much at home here: I genuinely feel part of a community and I have to say that has been the biggest boost in facing this lockdown — the fact that I have put down some roots and that the UK is a home to me as well.”

For violinist Claire Osborne, too, social distancing has drawn the community closer. “I got on a ladder to finally tackle the ivy that had taken over the back of our garden fence and garage. After a while the neighbour in the garden behind, who lives on the next road and whom I had never met, said he would give me a hand from his side, and we chatted for about an hour, without actually seeing each other. It turns out he has been to quite a few of our operas and concerts.”

“Even though Sweden has taken a somewhat different path in this, we still have restrictions, so no audiences,” says Tobias Ringborg, from Stockholm. “But most of the orchestras and music institutions have been continuing to stream concerts, mostly with different, newly made up programmes — no huge orchestras on stage! I’ve been lucky enough to conduct a few of them, and I have some more coming up. Great still to be making music.

The Orchestra of Opera North in its online performance of “2020 An Isolation Odyssey” (© Opera North)

“Apart from that, I’ve kept myself busy with projects that I’d never have had time for otherwise, films to watch, books and scores to read, walks to take, friends and family to talk to. Honestly, I’ve never been less bored!”

“Isolation is very strange for us, coming from such a gregarious and intense field of work as playing in an orchestra,” say Liz and Andy. “What we miss is immense: the buzz and camaraderie and overwhelming sound world of playing in an orchestra. Being an orchestral musician is a lifelong lesson in being part of a team, with all the real-time adjustments and collaboration, challenges and triumphs that brings. Without that, one is a bit lost.

Zarathustra was a great way to bring a tiny bit of resolution to our cancelled concerts. When we saw the finished result it was surprisingly emotional; you felt the separation as keenly as the coming together, and the string chorale made me cry.”

Putting the project together has changed Daniel’s outlook significantly, he says. “As we added instrument by instrument, part by part, this amazing ‘performance’ took shape. It has really felt like watching a huge building being constructed, and with Tobias’ musical vision as a starting point, the resemblance to the creative process of an actual rehearsal and concert has been remarkable. I was quite disillusioned by tech, social media and the internet before the lockdown, but over the course of this project I’ve learnt how powerful it can be when used to create something for the greater good.”

“I sobbed when I watched the film”, says Adam. “For a live performer, the loss of the outlet that they’ve nurtured since they were a child is crushing. It will be for me if there is no light at the end of this tunnel. But I believe that Opera North, a company which is so innovative, forward thinking, and artistically uncompromising, will come back from this. I think we’ll be fine and, looking at all those faces on the Zarathustra video, I have a good idea how it’ll feel when we get back to the coal face.”

To see more of Opera North’s work online, visit www.operanorth.co.uk/watch-online/.

Dr. Emily Carlson and her colleagues at the University of Jväskylä want to find out more about how people are using music during the Coronavirus crisis, and how effective it is. You can help them by participating in their short survey.