Music as it was meant to be played: Pioneer Valley Symphony returns for first full, in-person performance in over two years

  • The Pioneer Valley Symphony returns March 19 for its first full in-person concert in over two years.  Image courtesy Pioneer Valley Symphony

  • Proximity to other players is a crucial part of orchestral performance, notes Tianhui Ng, who will conduct the Valley Symphony when it returns to live performance in a March 19 concert at UMass. Pioneer Valley Symphony

  • Cellist Amos Yang of the San Francisco Symphony will be a featured soloist at the March 19 PVS concert. Pioneer Valley Symphony

  • Tianhui Ng, music director of the Pioneer Valley Symphony, says the group is thrilled to be returning to live performance. Tianhui Ng website

  • The Pioneer Valley Symphony has rehearsed over the last few months at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building, where they’ve also done some livestreamed performances. Pioneer Valley Symphony

Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2022

As tough as the pandemic has been for musicians, it’s been a particular challenge for symphonic groups. Between COVID restrictions in venues that limit how many people can be on a stage, to the need for social distancing among players, live performance opportunities have been limited at best.

The Pioneer Valley Symphony is no stranger to those circumstances. But after testing the waters with some livestreamed shows last fall, PVS is returning for an in-person concert titled “Fire & Rebirth,” to be held March 19 at the Frederick C. Tillis Performance Hall at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

It will be the first in-person, indoor public performance by the symphony in over two years, says conductor and music director Tianhui Ng — one that members can’t wait to take part in.

“It feels absolutely amazing to be coming back,” said Ng, who has led PVS since 2018 and also directs the Mount Holyoke College Symphony Orchestra and a number of other groups. “To perform in front of an audience is such a different experience than gathering online.

“We’re a community group, and we’ve missed that close connection we’ve had with the community,” he said.

Fittingly enough, part of the program for the March 19 concert is the world premiere of “Vox Concerto,” a piece by Argentinian bassist and composer Andrés Martín that he wrote as a musical response to the isolation of the pandemic. The featured soloist for that performance will be cellist Amos Yang of the San Francisco Symphony.

PVS will also perform Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird Suite,” from the early 1900s, a piece about a creature wielding a magical feather to help overturn a fantastical tyrant. And that’s not all: The symphony recently added works by Thomas de Hartmann to the program in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

De Hartmann, born in Ukraine in 1885 when it was part of Czarist Russia, was a contemporary of Stravinsky whose music was well regarded at the time, Ng notes, but is not as well-known today. But the composer continues to be celebrated in Ukraine, says Ng, who took part in a recording project of de Hartmann’s music in Ukraine last fall.

PVS “wanted to express support for Ukrainians by playing his music,” Ng said.

The symphony has been slowly laying the groundwork for the coming live concert. Last spring, for instance, most of the 80-member group played an outdoor show at Black Birch Vineyard in Hatfield, and last fall, a smaller group performed at Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton.

Also last fall, the full orchestra staged three livestreamed performances at the Northampton Community Arts Trust building; those concerts were filmed by Northampton Open Media.

Very limited audiences — mostly family members — were allowed to attend those Northampton shows, Ng says, which were staged in The Workroom, the large, partially finished space at the Arts Trust building. Symphony members have also used that space to rehearse.

Given the safety protocols such as social distancing that PVS has had to observe during these sessions, “We’ve had to use every inch of the [Northampton] space,” Ng said with a laugh.

COVID protocols have been a challenge for all orchestral groups. Musicians typically base their playing in part “on visual and physical clues,” Ng said, that are more difficult to follow when they’re seated several feet apart. As a conductor, he’s worked to help musicians adjust by simplifying some of his movements and even using colored batons that are easier to see, he said.

Alex Meade, principal bassoon for the orchestra, said the distance between players affected the sound to some degree. “In a normal orchestral setting, you get a lot of audible clues from the people sitting next to you,” he said, noting that more separation between players can make the overall sound a bit diffuse.

But today, after regular testing for COVID and careful adherence to mask wearing and social distancing, PVS members feel confident about performing live, Ng said. String players, while still masked, are sitting side by side again, though wind and brass players maintain more distance from one another.

The symphony also found some silver linings during the pandemic. Members connected online to talk about music, and small ensembles based on “pods” of players who could eventually be together practiced and shared their work online with Ng in what he calls “coaching sessions.”

PVS also produced online programs with guest speakers that examined lesser-known composers, especially female, Black, and Latin American musicians. Some online, prerecorded concerts helped keep players involved as well.

Meade, the bassoon player — his day job is building bicycles — said he used a lot of pandemic down time to practice on his own. Now, though, “I can’t wait to be in front of a live audience again,” he said.

“Fire & Rebirth” takes place March 19 at 7 p.m. at UMass, in the main concert hall at the Bromery Center for the Arts, also know as the UMass Fine Arts Center. Tickets and additional information are available at pvsoc.org or through the PVS box office at (413) 773-3664.

There will be a pre-concert talk at 6 p.m. with Martín, the composer of “Vox Concerto,” and David Schneider, professor of music and European Studies at Amherst College.

Following the concert, a pop-up event will take place in the Bromery Center lobby with members of the Bethesda Ukrainian Church of West Springfield; concertgoers can listen to Ukrainian vocal music and donate to ProjectHOPE, a humanitarian organization providing support for refugees from the war in Ukraine.