Voices of Canceled Stanford Shows: The Stanford Symphony Orchestra’s winter concert

April 13, 2020, 12:03 a.m.

If you had asked any of the music department faculty what their primary concern was at the beginning of Week 9 winter quarter, their answer would have surprised you. As Stanford students, faculty and other community members are all too aware, Week 9 spelled the beginning of the end for the on-campus performing arts scene. Tuesday, March 3, saw the first of many emails from Russell Furr of the Stanford Department of Environmental Health and Safety, urging that all on-campus events from March 4 to April 15 involving 150 or more participants be canceled or postponed. Nowhere was this more acutely felt than in the music department, whose highly anticipated Stanford Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and Stanford Symphonic Chorus (SSC) winter concert was to feature a professional vocal quartet and debut a brand-new Hauptwerk electronic organ. Yet, just two days before the devastating news hit University inboxes, logistics of a far different nature plagued the music department. 

According to Paul Phillips, the SSO Music Director (MD) and Gretchen B. Kimball Professor of Orchestral Studies, the organ had yet to arrive as of the first dress rehearsal for the winter concert. The decision to invest in the top-of-the-line electronic instrument, with sampled sounds from organs all over the world, had been years in the making for the music department, which was excited by its musical ingenuity and technical capabilities. But as its expected arrival date in early February passed and more weeks went by, Phillips began to grow worried. The organ would have been featured in the second-to-last movement of the Janacék choral mass, and its notable absence going into Week 9 meant that Phillips and SSC director Stephen Sano had to decide whether to move the concert from Bing Concert Hall to Memorial Church. 

“At the end of rehearsal on March the 1st, I started to become more aware of the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation,” Phillips told The Daily. “Nowhere in the U.S. had shut down at that point except for maybe around Seattle, but Steve Sano, the Stanford Live folks and I became aware that the window to give live performances was starting to close — and fast. There are at least 200 members of the combined symphony orchestra and chorus, so the March 3rd order to cancel all public events with more than 150 people meant curtains for us.” 

“Everything happened so quickly,” wrote Jennie Yang ’19, a dedicated SSO coterm violist and member of orchestra leadership for the last five years, in an email to The Daily. “The ban on events over 150 people, which I believe was the University’s first communication regarding coronavirus’s direct impact on campus life, was announced on March 3. Our winter concert set was supposed to be literally days later, on March 6 and 7. In the days in between, I think we were all in a superposition of ‘There’s no way they can cancel’ and ‘They have to cancel,’ but it did seem inevitable when Steve and Paul finally pulled the plug.” 

Phillips described how the March 3 email cued a rapid series of music department meetings where the performance faculty deliberated over their next steps.

“Though [we were all] disappointed, nobody argued in favor of concerts,” Phillips told The Daily. “There was a unanimous decision to do everything [we] could to prevent the spread of the virus, aware that Santa Clara county was one of the hardest-hit counties in California.”

In an email to SSO members entitled “Bad News,” Phillips explained the unanimous decision and related that the last time he had a concert canceled was in 1984: “I spent 35 years without ever having any cancelled performances and most of those years were spent in New England with all sorts of natural disasters. But we somehow skirted them. Multiple dress rehearsals got snowed out but concerts could always take place. That’s how unprecedented this is.” 

Yang spoke to these same themes of public health consciousness and the novel impact on musicians, musing how the cancellation of a performance with no chance of postponement is something that’s “unprecedented in the vast majority of musicians’ lives.”

“The show always goes on, no matter how anxious or ill-prepared you feel (and it usually turns out fine in the end anyways)!” Yang wrote in an email to The Daily. “But when people can’t even convene in the same space without risking the health of themselves and those around them, there’s no way for something like an orchestra to function.” 

SSO President Bryant Huang ’21, a double bassist and orchestra manager, wrote in an email to The Daily a response that strongly resonated with Phillips’ own poignant email.

“I have been part of a cancelled show,” Huang wrote. “The Stanford Wind Symphony went on tour in June 2018 and due to travel issues, our first concert of the tour was cancelled. The rest of the concerts of the tour went on (mostly) as scheduled… Looking back at it, the cancellation of the SSO concert was, for many of us, the first ‘domino’ to topple over as each day after, more things were cancelled (including the orchestra party) and more unexpected announcements were made.” 

By the end of Week 9 winter quarter, the music department had canceled all events through mid-April with the exception of one flute concert that faculty deemed unwise to cancel so last-minute. Phillips convened the orchestra on Thursday, March 5, during what should have been the final dress rehearsal to do the set of readings from the “Advanced Orchestration” class, noting that “[the group] got really lucky because of the peculiar sequence of events. If we had rehearsed for the concert that day, the Advanced Orchestration class readings scheduled for Monday the 9th would have never been done due to new restrictions put in place that weekend.”

The winter concert set and scheduled spring repertoire, however, were not so lucky. Phillips, Yang and Huang all expressed to The Daily their genuine excitement about performing Beethoven’s iconic “Eroica Symphony” and Janacék’s “Glagolitic Mass,” as well as debuting Phillips’ own original composition “Black Notes and White” (2001). This year is Beethoven’s 250th birthday, and orchestras all around the world would have been performing his music this year. The Eroica symphony is a masterpiece and challenging in its demand for technical and stylistic perfection. In the words of Yang, “Pulling off a good and satisfying performance of Beethoven is something that requires a truly cohesive, meticulous and mature ensemble.” 

Huang broke down for The Daily his singular experience rehearsing the “Eroica Symphony” and “Glagolitic Mass” as a double bassist.

“I really enjoyed rehearsing the winter quarter repertoire,” Huang wrote. “It was challenging, yet fun and satisfying to play, especially Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica.’ Rarely do we get the opportunity to play such an icon[ic] piece by Beethoven, so to have the piece on the program was an absolute pleasure. [Double bassists] often don’t have the most ‘active’ part, but ‘Eroica’ gives us so many opportunities to shine. However, that also comes with certain challenges. While the notes themselves are not particularly hard to hit, the tempo is what makes it a challenge, especially since we have to constantly shift and cross strings. Regarding Janacék’s ‘Glagolitic Mass,’ I grew to enjoy the piece the more we rehearsed it. [Janacék’s ‘Glagolitic Mass’] was also quite challenging, but for different reasons from ‘Eroica.’ For me, it was challenging because of the heavy use of accidentals and the unique harmonies that were foreign to my hands and ears. So I had to spend a lot of time [simply] learning the notes and understanding the music.” 

Yang lamented the devastating impact that leaving campus so abruptly in March had not only on her musicianship but also on that of fellow SSO violist Addison Jadwin ’22.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my viola with me when I left campus, not quite realizing just how long it would be before I returned,” Yang wrote. “I do have my old violin at home, and I will certainly be playing it often. I think one of my biggest disappointments about this whole situation is SSO’s loss of Spring quarter as well. In particular, my friend Addison Jadwin, a musician whom I deeply respect, was slated to perform Walton’s viola concerto, which is a piece I and many, many other violists know of well. He’s the first violist in quite a while (certainly in the last 5 years and probably much beyond that) to win Stanford’s Concerto Competition [but] now, it’s unclear when he’ll be able to do so, and that’s an incredible shame.”

Phillips clarified for The Daily that the music department in the past month has decided to postpone Jadwin’s performance to fall quarter 2020, along with that of Ethan Chi ’22’s piano concerto. It is to be determined when other planned spring quarter repertoire such as Strauss’ “Don Quixote” and Beethoven’s “Sixth Symphony” will be performed. And with the cancellation of an on-campus summer quarter announced on April 2, conducting the Stanford Summer Orchestra will no longer be an option. Many aspects of the Stanford symphonic music scene are “currently up in the air,” but Phillips has high hopes for eventually using the new electronic organ, which ironically arrived on campus the day before the concert was called off. 

While SSO experienced the nasty domino effect of COVID-19 leading to canceled concerts and in turn many leaving campus without retrieving their instruments or rental sheet music from their dorm rooms, the group’s MD has attempted to make the most of the situation. Phillips told The Daily that when the crisis first occurred, conductors from around the country emailed him about how the music department and Stanford more generally were handling the mounting pandemic. Some conductors have organized Zoom sectionals or pre-recorded individual parts to splice together a symphony (most notably in the case of 70 New York Youth Philharmonia musicians with their two minutes of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1“), but these are not the directions Phillips wants to go with his orchestra. Issues with latency (or the delay in computer ability to process sound) are too significant for an ensemble the size of SSO despite the engineering of the program JackTrip by Stanford’s own Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) researcher Chris Chafe. Phillips would rather spend the time normally devoted to orchestra rehearsal spring quarter on delving deep into orchestral literature and surveying famous composers and conductors. 

This spring quarter, students enrolled in MUSIC 160 “Stanford Symphony Orchestra” will Zoom through the “Keeping Score” survey course curated by San Francisco Symphony MD Michael Tilson Thomas, in addition to virtually meeting preeminent musicians and conductors from around the country. Notable guests include Mindy Kauffman, a piccolo player with the New York Philharmonic who won her spot at age 22; Aaron Dworkin the founder of the Sphinx Organization and prolific writer on the intersection of music and entrepreneurship; Blair Tindall M.A. ’00, author of the critically acclaimed “Mozart in the Jungle” (2005) and Osmo Vänska, the MD of the Minnesota and Seoul Philharmonic Orchestras. Though the course is primarily intended to fill the current symphonic performance void for the 100+ community of SSO and Stanford Philharmonia (SP) musicians, any interested students can enroll — the only criteria for the course is interest in orchestral repertoire and contemporary musicianship. Despite its inability to regain what was lost with the cancellation of its potentially historic winter concert, it is apparent that the Stanford symphonic community is determined to make the best of the situation and reaffirm the importance of symphonic music to its members’ lives going forward. 

Contact Natalie Francis at natfran ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Login or create an account