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BU orchestras perform for the first time in front of an audience since COVID-19

After over a year of not being able to perform for an in-person audience, the Boston University Symphony and Chamber Orchestras are back. The musicians for both orchestras are all music degree students in the College of Fine Arts.

A violin. This week is the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Boston University Symphony and Chamber Orchestras have performed with a full ensemble on stage. COURTESY OF ROBIN ZEBROWSKI VIA FLICKR

The BU Chamber Orchestra performed Monday and the BU Symphony Orchestra is performing Friday, both at the Tsai Performance Center. This is the first time they have had a full orchestra on stage since the start of the pandemic, James Burton, the director of Orchestral Activities at BU’s CFA, said.

This is Burton’s first public concert at BU, he said, adding that he is excited but not sure “what to expect.”

“The idea of performing with an audience in the hall is incredibly exciting because performances with no audience lack an absolutely vital part of what music is about,” Burton, who is conducting the BUSO on Friday, said.

Last year, only 25 people were allowed on stage, which makes it impossible to study symphonic repertoire, Burton said. Now, BUSO has a complete ensemble and is performing Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, Johannes Brahms’s Haydn Variations and Jean Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 on Friday.

“The Shostakovich is a rip-roaring joyous outpouring of festive spirit, and was written for the opening night of a season and has all of that excitement to it, and I figured that’s what we needed right now,” Burton said.

Burton programmed Brahms’s Haydn Variations because he said it is Brahms’ first “real masterpiece” and is amazing at “marrying artistry with emotion.”

“If you’re listening to it for the first time, you don’t need to know all about that, because it’s very clear how it speaks to you, and you go on a musical journey through these eight beautiful variations of a theme attributed to Haydn,” he said.

Monday’s BUCO performance is conducted by guest conductor Mischa Santora, a music director at the Boston Ballet, Burton said. The orchestra performed Beethoven, Wagner and Gabriela Lena Frank.

Bryan Ping, a junior cello performance major in CFA, said he is excited about classes and rehearsals moving back to in-person.

“It’s the feeling that everyone as a whole in the full orchestra, I think just allows us to really play out with more dynamic and more competence knowing that we’re all here,” Ping said, “that there is a sense of absolute power amongst all our sections.”

Last year, he said, they were each assigned their own stand and were spread out far apart. Now, students have their stand partners back, which is traditional in an orchestra.

Being able to “make noise with people again” is what Bradley Geneser, a tuba player and second-year masters student in CFA, said they are most looking forward to, though the transition back into regular performing has been more difficult than expected.

“The performance nerves that I haven’t felt in years are coming back for the first time,” Geneser said. “The level of preparation that I forgot that goes into a concert like this one that’s coming up, it’s just a lot more than I remember.”

To prepare for the concert on Friday, the BUSO has been rehearsing three times a week along with practicing outside of rehearsal, they said.

“Even when we’re away from our instruments, we’re still thinking about the music,” Gesner said.

Elizabeth Meyers, a violin performance major in CFA, said she had to readjust her listening skills to get used to orchestral playing again.

“The main thing is communication, listening, communicating with your fellow musicians and the conductor,” she said. “So I feel like I needed to retune my ears a little bit.”

The students played through the pieces last year in groups of 24 people, but now with 80 to 100 musicians, it is much louder and “feels right,” said Jacqueline Bartling-John, one of the orchestra managers.

Burton said he has seen his students transition “brilliantly” from a COVID-19 school year to being all together.

“I’m hoping people will come, I’m hoping people want to hear music again,” Burton said. “Listen to something together at the same time as each other, and experience the music in the same moment, and that’s what a concept is, and can’t be replicated, any other way.”

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