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Behind The Scenes At A Virtual Cleveland Orchestra Rehearsal

After seven months of silence, the Cleveland Orchestra has returned to Severance Hall to make music. But, there’s no audience in the seats, and the number of performers on stage was cut in half to present a series of online concerts.

During a recent rehearsal break at Severance Hall, Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst sat down for a breather. Still wearing his mask and reflectively wiping some fog off his glasses, the conductor recalled the last concert the orchestra played here, just before lockdown last March.

“And there was one moment, I remember, in the second movement of the Schubert, ‘Great C Major,’ that I thought, ‘Gosh, is this the last time I conduct this orchestra?’” he said.

After the pandemic hit, Music Director Franz Welser-Möst wondered whether he'd ever conduct the Cleveland Orchestra again. [Jean-Marie-Papoi / ideastream]

From mid-March up through a few weeks ago, the orchestra’s 100 members kept busy by teaching lessons and performing in small groups around town. Meanwhile, management consulted with a team of advisors from the Cleveland Clinic on how to return the ensemble to its concert hall home. The trick was to introduce health safety measures without compromising sound quality for a series of pre-recorded concerts called “In Focus.”

“We are allowed 42 people on stage,” Welser-Möst said. “They all have to sit at least six feet apart, which makes it unbelievably difficult for everyone. This is an orchestra which is used to listening to each other really carefully and reacting very quickly to each other. And they can't hear each other on the stage.”

Cellist Martha Baldwin said they’re working out the kinks, but it requires a lot of concentration.

When I play, I'm thinking of playing into the sound of my section, of becoming part of this whole sound,” she said. “And when we're so spaced out, you don't have the same sense of that.”

Cellist Martha Baldwin says orchestra members are adjusting to the challenges of socially-distanced music-making. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]

The distancing not only makes it harder for the performers to hear each other, but it also exposes more bare floor, which causes a muddy reverberance that must be compensated for. Another sonic difference is the absence of trumpets, French horns, flutes or any other wind instruments that might project aerosols.

That’s one of many challenges a group of Cleveland Clinic doctors continues to examine for the orchestra. Dr. James Merlino leads the team.

The Cleveland Clinic's Dr. James Merlino heads a team that advises the Cleveland Orchestra on pandemic safety issues. [The Cleveland Clinic]

Can you put wind players on the stage? What should be the distancing? Do you do it with an audience or not? How many people can you have onstage? You have a body of tremendously talented individuals which stretch, you know, all the demographics — some younger, some older,” Merlino said. “And so, how do you take that into account?”

The orchestra said it could be February or later before wind instruments are brought back to Severance. For now, they’ve reprogrammed their season as a virtual experience that subscribers can receive through an app called “ Adella,” named after Adella Prentiss Hughes, who founded the orchestra in 1918. Martha Baldwin said the Adella recordings have been another adjustment for her.

When you're recording, I feel like I tend to have this sense of, this is being recorded and it really has to be just perfect,” she said. “But when you're playing live, that's not the goal. You're going for the moment. So trying to really focus on making music in the normal way, as if there were two thousand people here, I think is the key for me.”

Although there's no one in the audience right now, Martha Baldwin (center) says she imagines playing to a full house at Severance. [Jean-Marie Papoi / ideastream]

It looks like it’ll take a while before audiences come back to Severance Hall. A series of online performances won’t make up for the millions of dollars lost from canceled concerts in the U.S and abroad. But Baldwin said at least they’re keeping a flame going in a time of darkness.

You know, I think so many institutions have had to sort of shut down,” she said. “And to work here where there's, you know, something like a pandemic is merely a problem we have to creatively solve and not a reason to stop is, I'm just incredibly grateful."

ideastream is helping with video capture for the Cleveland Orchestra’s streaming concert series

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.