Popular Multiband Pops concert at UMass Amherst goes online this year

  • Members of the UMass Amherst Wind Ensemble rehearse using social distancing protocols: outside and spaced apart. Photo courtesy UMass Amherst Dept. of Music and Dance

  • The UMass Vocal Jazz Ensemble rehearses remotely during the pandemic era. They’re one of about a dozen university groups who will be part of the virtual Multiband Pops Concert on Nov. 20. Photo courtesy UMass Amherst Dept. of Music and Dance

  • Music rehearsal at UMass Amherst in the time of COVID: face masks and social distancing. UMass Vocal Jazz Ensemble

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2020

For almost 50 years, the Multiband Pops Concert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst has been a big event and a celebration of sorts: performances by all of the school’s key musical groups in one setting, with the performances offered to the general Valley community and to over 3,400 students from area public schools, brought to campus each fall for matinee shows over a two-day period.

Past shows have been in October and, of course, they’ve been live. This year the show takes place Friday, Nov. 20, and it’s all online — but it’s still happening.

Jeffrey W. Holmes, who directs the UMass Jazz & African American Music Studies program, is also the producer of the Multibands Pop concert, which features 12 different instrumental and vocal ensembles, including the UMass Symphony Orchestra, the Wind Ensemble, the Chamber Choir and a Trombone Choir. Holmes says it’s been a challenge to pull all this together for a virtual show, but one that’s been worth it.

The concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 20 and can be viewed for free on the YouTube channel of the UMass Department of Music and Dance.

“This has always been the one time during the year that the whole department gets to collaborate, and that feels especially important this year,” said Holmes. “I wanted to see if we could find a way to come together and feel a sense of unity when so many of us have had to separate ourselves. We want to show that we’re still making music.”

The different ensembles have all been rehearsing for months, Holmes noted, and doing so under varying conditions. Members of the Wind Ensemble, for instance, have rehearsed together but done so outside, near the school’s Fine Arts Center, to maintain safe distance from one another. Rehearsals for the Jazz Ensemble, by contrast, have taken place remotely.

Remote rehearsals have been needed in some cases both for safety reasons and because not all the student musicians are on campus, Holmes notes. For Friday’s concert, the performances by all the ensembles — including one by a scaled-down version of the Minuteman Marching Band — will be prerecorded, which in some cases has required stitching together separate rehearsals from different sub-groups of specific ensembles.

Putting all this together, with accompanying videos, has meant the Multiband Pops concert, now in its 46th year, is taking place in November rather than its customary October slot. “We’ve needed that extra time to pull of these different parts together,” said Holmes.

But he adds that the wait has been worth it, especially for the students. Last spring, when the campus had to shut down abruptly because of the pandemic, all of the department’s concerts had to be canceled, he noted.

“We didn’t want that to happen this time,” said Holmes. “It’s really important that students feel they’re working toward an end goal … and that they have the chance to share what they’re doing with the public.”

Public schools that have been invited to past concerts are being given special access to the Nov. 20 virtual performance as well. Holmes says the UMass Music and Dance is also planning to host two virtual jazz concerts, on Dec. 6 and 8, respectively.

He hopes that next semester, when UMass plans to welcome back approximately 8,400 students to campus if COVID-19 can be kept under control, may bring some opportunities for more in-person practices and shows, perhaps outdoors. “That’s what we’re planning for,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

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