Long wait, joyful return: Holyoke Civic Symphony comes back to the stage in ensemble form

  • Members of the Holyoke Civic Symphony, which last played live in early March 2020, will perform as a series of smaller ensembles in a live concert in Holyoke on Oct. 24.  Courtesy Holyoke Civic Symphony

  • David Kidwell, music director and conductor of the Holyoke Civic Symphony, is marking his 25th year at the helm. Courtesy Holyoke Civic Symphony

  • Soprano Mary Annarella will be a guest vocalist at the Oct. 24 concert, singing with a string ensemble that will perform “Bachianas Brasileiras” by the famed Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. Image courtesy Holyoke Civic Symphony

  • Members of the Holyoke Civic Symphony, which last played live in early March 2020, will perform as a series of smaller ensembles in a live concert in Holyoke Oct. 24.  Image courtesy Holyoke Civic Symphony

Staff Writer
Published: 10/21/2021 10:41:37 AM

Slowly but surely, classical musicians have been working their way back to indoor performances in the region.

On Oct. 15, Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra staged a sold-out concert in Springfield Symphony Hall. The week before that, the Pioneer Valley Symphony performed at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building, in a concert that was livestreamed for audiences.

Now the Holyoke Civic Symphony, which last offered a live concert in early March 2020, is returning to the stage, with a free program on Sunday, Oct. 24, that will feature five ensembles performing five different pieces of music — all of which are designed to lay the groundwork for a return of the entire symphony later this year.

“We’re Back! A Long-Awaited Celebration,” which begins at 3 p.m. in the Leslie Phillips Theater at Holyoke Community College, is “something we’ve all been looking forward to for a long time,” said David Kidwell, the symphony’s longstanding music director and conductor. “We’ve all faced so many different challenges [during the pandemic], and not being able to play music together has been a big one.”

The concert can also be watched on Zoom as a livestream performance; more information is available at holyokecivicsymphony.org.

Kidwell says the Holyoke Symphony, which typically has between 50 and 60 full-time musicians, resumed live rehearsals after Labor Day, using practice rooms at HCC, while the group also began planning for a return of live performances.

But because of limits at HCC for how many musicians can rehearse in specific spaces, and then due to the rise of the delta variant of COVID-19, it made sense to base the Oct. 24 concert on smaller ensemble performances, Kidwell says.

“We also hadn’t rehearsed for a long time — some players were a little rusty,” he noted. “This gives us an opportunity to kind of ease into playing again as a full group.”

The concert features two brass ensembles, two string ensembles and one wind group, all with eight to 10 performers.

Included are compositions for brass by two contemporary American composers, Dennis Eveland and Brian Sadler; a string ensemble piece by acclaimed 20th-century Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos; and string and woodwind compositions, respectively, by 19th-century composers Edvard Grieg (Denmark) and Joachim Raff (Switzerland).

A special highlight of the performance of Villa-Lobos’ work, “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” will be an appearance by guest soloist Mary Annarella, a soprano who will sing in Portuguese.

From a mechanical standpoint, Kidwell says, it’s easier to work with ensembles than the full symphony, given the limitations imposed by the pandemic. Since musicians must sit further away from one another than usual, keeping everyone in a full symphony “on the beat” becomes more of a challenge, he noted.

“They have to listen more carefully” to each other, Kidwell said. “With smaller ensembles it’s not really an issue.”

The concert will be played under full COVID safety protocols, for audience members and performers alike. Attendees will need be masked and to show proof of vaccination, and seating, per HCC regulations, will be limited to 114 socially distanced people.

The musicians will also be masked, as will the guest singer Mary Annarella; some woodwind players also use mounted devices near their mouthpieces to minimize the amount of breath escaping.

“It’s not ideal,” Kidwell acknowledged. “But it’s better than not making music at all.”

It’s a step up from this past year as well, when Kidwell, like music directors for many other orchestras and choral groups, was obligated to learn video editing to produce online concerts for the symphony. Musicians played and recorded their sections at home, then sent the digital tracks to Kidwell, who had to stitch everything together for a complete concert; the group performed four online shows in total.

“Hopefully in this coming year I’ll be doing more live conducting and a lot less video editing,” he said with a laugh.

Kidwell, who’s also the minister of music at Edwards Church in Northampton and previously led the Guilford Festival Orchestra in Vermont, has now been at the helm of the Holyoke Civic Symphony for nearly 25 years — the longest tenure of any music director of the group in its 55-year history.

In addition, he’s a busy composer who has written for orchestras, chamber groups, choruses, piano, organ and solo voice, and he’s been a solo pianist with both the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and the Holyoke Symphony.

“I hadn’t expected to stay this long when I joined [Holyoke Symphony],” he said. “I thought it might be a stepping stone for something else, but the longer I stayed, the more I enjoyed it. It’s very exciting to be part of this, to be able to plan the concerts and select the music I like for the group.”

And now, after a year and a half of being largely shut away from the public, Kidwell notes, “Everyone’s enjoying having the chance to play live, and so am I.”

Donations to the Holyoke Civic Symphony for the Oct. 24 concert are welcome. The full symphony is slated to play a Dec. 12 concert, including works by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, at a venue to be determined.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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