As we emerge from a second national lockdown, it can only be expected that for many of us, the novelty of livestream concerts may now be wearing thin. However, accompanied by the fantastic slogan ‘unprecedented times call for unprecedented art,’ Southbank Sinfonia have embarked on an innovative digital concert series that aims to transform our expectation of online concert-going.
Having grown out of a desire to embrace social distancing restrictions rather than commiserate the lack of social contact, Southbank Sinfonia (in partnership with Teralon Media) have produced a series of three cinematic short films shot in the gorgeous setting of Hackney’s Round Chapel. Unlike live streamed and pre-recorded concerts, the Round Chapel Sessions incorporate immersive filming as audiences are guided through and around the players.
As Project Lead and Artist Development Manager for Southbank Sinfonia, Marcus Norman explains “in this time of digital saturation, we wanted to create an experience that immerses the viewer within the music, anchoring them in the here and now if just for a moment. Our hope is that you feel like you’re right there with our musicians – ringside view – catching a fleeting smile, a furrowed brow, a bead of sweat…”
The project is unique not only in it’s approach to audience experience, but through it’s creative selection of repertoire. Featuring compositions by a diverse group of composers including Cecilia McDowall, Jessie Montgomery, Sally Beamish and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the Round Chapel Sessions shine a light on a collection of music by underrepresented composers. With the inimitable Chloé Van Soeterstède at the helm conducting, the brilliantly talented orchestra of young professionals come together in what is sure to be a thoroughly impressive and enjoyable musical experience.
The films are set to be released weekly throughout December 2020 on their Youtube channel as follows:
SESSION 1 Friday 4 December- CECILIA MCDOWALL Rain,Steam and Speed
SESSION 2 Friday 11 December – JESSIE MONTGOMERY Starburst & SALLY BEAMISH Reckless
SESSION 3 Friday 18 December – SAMUEL COLERIDGE-TAYLOR Novelletten No.1 & No.4
Hermione Kellow, co-founder of AM was lucky enough to chat to Southbank Sinfonia players Georgie Davis (violist) and James Fisher (bassoonist) about their experience taking part in the Round Chapel project and their more general experience as orchestral musicians during the Covid era.
Hey guys, thanks so much for chatting with us at Apocalypse Music! Let’s dive straight into the Round Chapel sessions. How did you find the experience of being filmed in such a unique manner?
J: It was amazing! There were cameramen diving in and out of the orchestra so it’s not just like a standard put the camera here, film the concert kind of thing. The purpose was to be amongst us.
G: I think there were about five or six cameramen going around everyone and they would just come up behind you or in front of you and sometimes stand there filming for age, so we just had to try and play as if it were a normal performance! It was really interesting what they were doing and we would do different takes where they would be in various places and focus on different people. It was interesting to be a part of the production of it and to see it being put together.
As difficult as this year has been for live performance, do you feel as though being part of digital projects such as these may have actually been helpful for your professional development?
G: I think it’s given us skills and experiences that we probably wouldn’t have had to have before, like learning how to properly record something or set up technology. It has really expanded our creative capacity for what you can do when you are isolated from others but still need to keep a project going and put it out to people.
J: I agree, I think it’s potentially a sign of the future and what’s to come. All orchestras and organisations are adapting and this kind of Round Chapel project is such a good example of that. Not just putting out a wide shot from above to be like “here is our concert,” but trying to use filming tools and techniques to create different experiences or points of view. It’s something that’s going to be here to stay so it has been fantastic to do all of that.
G: I think it gives it a really personal touch as well because obviously the way they film it is so close up to the players individually, you can see what they are reading and what they are doing. You can almost see what they are thinking! It might change people’s perspectives of how concerts should be and inspire future audiences!
You must have done so many livestreams by this point, how did this experience compare and do you feel it added something extra to the performance?
J: It’s so different, so much more is invested into this kind of production. It felt much more professional having the production team instead of for example, home livestreams over lockdown. Everything was planned and storyboarded whereas in a livestream, we would just put a camera on and film duets or something.
G: It felt like we were on some sort of film set and I think that comes across in the video. We were thinking about how well we wanted to play also because whereas with a livestream, you have only got one shot at it so you let go of things if they go wrong, in this case we knew we had a certain number of takes. We could really work hard and then relax… and then really work hard again and then relax.
J: I think it was nice that we could kind of switch on and be completely into it and then we would all look up and start waving at each other again!
Obviously, the choice of repertoire is also really impressively diverse! How did you find the programme? Was it eye opening at all?
G: I think this programme was probably my favourite over the entire year that we have done. Obviously it features a diverse group of underrepresented composers but also it was just such a good programme! The pieces contrasted really well and all of them were really fun to play. There wasn’t a piece that I didn’t enjoy which is always really nice.
J: Yeah, these composers, these pieces; they’re perfect for Round Chapel! They were really doable to put together in terms of size and orchestration with social distancing. It was just the best of everything to be able to perform in that situation with that kind of production.
How about the experience of being conducted by Chloé van Soeterstède?
J: We had already worked with Chloé earlier this year and it was great. She is very concise and to the point without being offensive! There’s no time wasting or egos. It makes you want to be prepared because you know she is going to come in and expect results immediately. It mimics the profession as we didn’t take rehearsals to ease into things or work things out. We were just there ready to go and then she gave us everything we could need from the very first note.
G: I think the amount of detail she goes into and the ideas she brings to rehearsals is really inspiring. To know that she has really thought about absolutely everything. She has so many layers to herself and as a musician and conductor that all come together as a brilliant person to work with. I think we are really privileged to have worked with her.
This past year of performance has obviously not been what any of us could have predicted! How would you describe your experience playing with the Sinfonia during 2020?
J: I was so excited at the beginning of the year and then it all fizzled away obviously. I remember thinking in March, maybe we will be back in a month and then it just never happened so it was disappointing. But I’m so grateful that Southbank Sinfonia has continued to support us this year, keeping us busy in lockdown and online. They have been fantastic and to have us back again for next year is amazing.
G: Obviously it’s been hard to not be able to rehearse with people in one room. In the first lockdown we all had to just have online seminars which was amazing given the circumstances, but it was also really hard to not be able to play in an orchestra which is what we wanted to do. It’s been really lovely to have such an amazing support network including all the people in the orchestra and the staff. We are all just one team, so it has been amazing to have that support bubble.
J: I agree, when we all feel down about something everyone is in it together and it’s really nice like that.
G: I also think it’s really unusual that we only played together for about three weeks at the beginning before lockdown but the amount that we bonded with each other, it felt like we had known each other for years. The whole orchestra just completely stuck together and when we came back in September it felt like no time had passed.
J: Yeah, so comfortable, we were able to hit the ground running and didn’t have to reacquaint with anyone or start again. It was just like, right we are going to get into this but just two metres apart!
How has the experience of being an orchestral player changed for you in this new environment?
G: We wear masks at all times unless you are sitting down in your seat and all seats have been measured out so you have to be at least two metres away from the next person. I think for the Winds and Brass they are all three metres away because of the old spit situation! It feels almost normal now but after lockdown, we hadn’t played in an orchestra for about half a year and suddenly we had to do all of this. We were all spread out, couldn’t hear anyone. It tested the orchestral skills to the maximum.
J: It’s so odd seeing the leader or even players in front of me but being twice as far away sound wise and visually. It’s really full on but weirdly, I’m used to it now!
Being a part of Southbank must offer a certain amount of security right now but how does it feel to be entering the profession with so much uncertainty around live performance?
G: I think half of it is waiting to see what happens. Being with Southbank Sinfonia, it has been such a privilege being with them and they are supporting us and making sure that next year is sorted so I think a lot of it is waiting to see what work is available. The other half is trying to work out other options, like maybe teaching or potentially working at a shop or a pub, I think it’s a waiting game.
J: It’s bizarre seeing some of our friends and colleagues outside of Southbank Sinfonia retraining. Even with Southbank Sinfonia, I started a service over lockdown to provide work for amazing teachers looking for students which is a nice thing to facilitate. That’s how we adapt I guess, trying to diversify whilst staying within a musical field.
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Words by Hermione Kellow
Photos © Southbank Sinfonia