SCHENECTADY — The work that goes into preparing 400 young musicians in the Empire State Youth Orchestra requires time, patience and face-to-face feedback. The latter, however, was one obstacle Music Director Carlos Ágreda and his staff could overcome, but the challenge of throwing a music festival to celebrate the orchestra’s 40th birthday season seems insurmountable. But, it’s happening.
The ESYO announced its 40th birthday season is to culminate in a digital festival featuring thirteen ensembles and over 400 young musicians from around the region.
The three-night digital festival streams online on Facebook Watch and YouTube nightly at 7 p.m., beginning Thursday, June 11 through Saturday, June 13.
The festival’s title, “Sounding Together,” comes from the root meaning of the word “symphony.”
“We wanted to see what opportunities we had here, that we wouldn’t normally be able to do if we were not in this crisis,” Ágreda said. The Sounding Together Digital Festival is a first-of-a-kind performance for ESYO and a direct result of the orchestra’s commitment to playing through New York’s COVID-19 pause.
The concept of “Sounding Together” started after a group of ESYO musicians and friends formed a virtual Jazz combo. Each member recorded their part at home using their cell phone, then ESYO musician Sam Hatfield mixed and produced the video. Similar projects occurred in Symphony Orchestra after Ágreda, who has also been actively making music online with colleagues across the country, challenged members of the orchestra to collaborate and perform chamber music together online.
“This festival is a celebration of learning and a testament to the resiliency of our young music-makers,” said Rebecca Calos, ESYO’s executive director. “Like many schools and orchestras across the country, we’ve been challenged to learn, rehearse, and perform, apart and online,” she continued. “I’m so proud of the remarkable creativity of our musicians and the dedicated conductors and teaching artists that have inspired ESYO to keep playing.”
Performing the festival through a digital format has placed more work on everyone, Ágreda said. ESYO has been working since mid-April towards the performance and presentation. The composer estimates from his symphony orchestra alone, he has devoted 11 hours a day for the past two weeks. That includes gathering nearly 50 videos and working with videographers through the editing process. Now, multiply that by the other 12 ensembles.
The “Sounding Together” Digital Festival is to feature many of the student-produced videos alongside virtual performances of all 13 ESYO ensembles and the virtual premiere of Ágreda’s original composition, Ay Caray!
“It was a process, and it was challenging,” said Ágreda. “The idea of synchronizing home performances in a grid-view video is not new, but we wanted to find a way to build an innovative virtual orchestra experience,” he continued. “What can we do that we wouldn’t be able to do if we were in person? How does a conductor fit in a virtual performance if he, she, they don’t have the musicians in front of them? That is how we came with the idea of creating the first ever VR/360° orchestra.”
With the help of Griffin Bengraff, a Digital Media Arts major at the College of St. Rose, Ágreda began reworking Ay Caray! in to a composition for a virtual orchestra.
“For this project, we wanted to create a new virtual orchestra experience,” said Bengraff. “In order to reflect the magnitude of a symphony orchestra, we adapted a traditional 180°degree orchestral layout into a new 360°degree space,” he continued. Using VR technology and spatial audio, Bengraff was able to create an immersive experience that places the audience in the center of the orchestra.
Despite the challenges of social distancing, Ágreda said the virtual classrooms they created opened opportunities for guest lecturers they had not considered in the past. Younger musicians learned more about music theory than in years past.
“We would get into a room and perform music, but we never [did] get to talk about the music. Talk about theory, about history, about all the aspects about music that are so important for a performance,” Ágreda said. The added education enriched the experience for the players, and the scale of improvement from the younger players was notable. The music director said he plans to continue incorporating some form of virtual classroom even once students are able to come back together again.
Festival highlights include ESYO’s Wind Ensemble performing “Amazing Grace” with composer/arranger Jay Dawson; a quilted performance of “What a Wonderful World” by Concertino Strings; music by the Jazz and Percussion Ensembles; digital concerts by Concertino Winds and Brass; and at-home performances by members of CHIME, String Orchestra, and the Lois Lyman Concerto Competition winner William Lauricella and finalist Elihu Conant-Haque. The festival also includes Senior Spotlights to honor the ESYO Class of 2020, student reflections on playing through the pause, and dedications to front line healthcare heroes, first responders, and Capital Region teachers.
For a complete listing of festival concerts and information on how ESYO is playing through the pause, visit esyo.org/soundingtogether. The Sounding Together Digital Festival is made possible by the generous support of the University at Albany Foundation and the Metlife Charitable Foundation.