Classical goes virtual: Local colleges host live-streamed performances of Renaissance and classical music

  • Italian Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso inspired many composers of his day to set his words to music, especially vocal compositions such as madrigals. submitted image

  • Emiliano Ricciardi, who teaches music history at UMass Amherst, has organized this weekend’s virtual symposium and concert on the Renaissance music inspired by the poetry of Torquato Tasso. Gazette file photo

  • Pianist Jiayan Sun, a visiting artist and music lecturer at Smith College, will play a virtual concert of piano sonatas by Franz Schubert April 16 as fundraiser for local COVID-19 relief efforts. Photograph by Derek Fowles/courtesy Smith College

  • An 1875 painting of  Franz Schubert, based on an earlier watercolor portrait of the Austrian composer. Painting by Wilhelm August Rieder,at Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien/public domain  

Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Singer-songwriters are live-streaming shows from their homes. Writers are holding workshops via Zoom. Artists have offered online painting lessons and more.

In the era of COVID-19, classical musicians are also turning to virtual performances to stay in touch with the public and build on the natural connections music can forge.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst this weekend, a long-planned symposium and music performance built around the legacy of the Renaissance-era poet Torquato Tasso will take place via Zoom video conference, with music historians and literary scholars examining how Tasso’s verse became an inspiration for composers of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

In addition, the April 17-19 Tasso and Music Symposium will include a streamed concert on April 18 at 2 p.m. by the Italian vocal ensemble Palma Choralis, which will perform musical versions of Tasso’s poems — and do so from the northern city of Brescia, an area hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak, and just down the road from the equally hard-hit city of Bergamo, where Tasso’s family once lived.

On tap as well this week is a virtual concert by Smith College pianist Jiayan Sun, who will perform — from an empty Sweeney Concert Hall — sonatas by Franz Schubert.

The live-streamed show, which can be accessed at 8 p.m. on April 16 through the college’s music department website (and will be available for viewing for about a week afterward), is part of a year-long series led by Sun called “Schubertiade,” a reference to gatherings of Schubert’s friends with whom the composer shared his music, since he rarely performed in public.

At UMass, the Tasso Symposium has been put together by music history professor and violinist Emiliano Ricciardi, whose research has specialized in Italian madrigals, a 16th-century genre in which various texts were used for vocal musical compositions, typically performed by a small number of singers.

In 2016, Ricciardi, a native of Italy, organized a two-day festival at UMass on Italian madrigals, and he later received a $260,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create the “Tasso in Music Project,” a digital record of the early music spawned from Tasso’s poetry. Much of the project’s work consists of gathering original sources of this music from different countries and transcribing it into modern notation so that it can be performed by contemporary singers.

In a phone call, Ricciardi said he began the planning for this weekend’s symposium over a year ago, but then switched to an online format when the COVID-19 outbreak worsened and UMass closed its doors. “There is a lot of logistical work involved in putting together an event like this, so it distressing to have to make changes,” he said.

But he also noted that with a video conference, “We hope to reach a much wider audience.” As of April 10, 70 people had already registered for the event, he added.

Ricciardi says Tasso is still considered one of Italy’s great poets — “You can find a square or a street named after him in almost every city and town” — and that the symposium will ideally help raise awareness of his work and his enormous influence on composers of his era.

Palma Choralis, a small ensemble headed by two Italian early music performers and researchers, had been scheduled to perform live at this weekend’s symposium. Given the duo hails from Brescia, said Ricciardi, it now seems especially fitting their virtual performance will be part of the symposium, bringing “a moment of relief” to Italians in the stricken northern part of the country.

At a date to be announced, another ensemble that specializes in madrigals, the American group Les Canards Chantants, will also perform a live-streamed concert of Tasso musical settings, Ricciardi says. 

For a video link to the symposium and concert, which is free, visit umass.edu/music/tasso-and-music-symposium-concerts to register for the event.

For COVID-19 relief

Beginning last fall, Sun, an acclaimed pianist who has played with orchestras across the world, put together a series of concerts at Sweeney Hall at Smith College on selected works by Schubert — both solo piano performances and small ensemble concerts including violin, cello and voice — to celebrate his love of the composer’s music.

Though the last two concerts in the Schubertiade series have been postponed until the fall, Sun, a native of China who is a visiting artist and a lecturer in music at Smith, said he wanted to do a performance now, in part to raise funds for the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM) to help with local COVID-19 relief efforts.

In a phone call, Sun said that in 2003, he was 13, living in Beijing and studying piano, when the SARS virus outbreak took place in the city. “I remember the sense of fear, the isolation we experienced,” he said. “It was a difficult and frightening time, and now here we are again.”

The most recent Schubertiade concert in the series, performed at Sweeney Hall Feb. 27, was also staged as a fundraiser, that time for people in Hubei Province in China, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak. This time, Sun says he wants to help fight COVID-19 locally — but he also wants to keep forging musical bonds with listeners, even if they have to be made remotely.

“This will be my first and hopefully my last virtual performance,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s important that we have music at this moment, and maybe we can reach a wider audience” over the internet.

Though he said there’s an undeniable energy in playing before a live audience, Sun noted that he has held classes at Sweeney Hall with just a relative handful of students in attendance, so performing before empty seats is not a completely new experience for him. Smith music officials, meantime, say a new sound and video system installed at Sweeney now allows for the recording and live streaming of events.

According to the music department, the April 16 program features two piano sonatas by Schubert, in D Major (D. 850) and B-flat Major (D. 960), along with an incomplete “yet exquisite” movement in F-sharp Minor (D. 571). The two sonatas, Sun notes, “occupy special places in my heart.”

The performance is free, but listeners will also be given a link to make a donation to the CFWM. A link to the concert will be made available at smith.edu/academics/music shortly shortly before the show.

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