NICHOLE JIANG – STAFF WRITER
After a year of endless Zoom calls, social distancing and uncertainty, the School of Music returns to the stage with a highly anticipated season.
The school — which includes the Voice Program, Piano Program and the Music School Festival Orchestra — faces various challenges every year, but 2020 may have presented the school with its biggest challenge yet: COVID-19.
“The largest hurdle was trying to develop our safety protocols so that we could offer a great learning experience for the students but also keep it safe. Since things with COVID-19 changed so much, sometimes daily or weekly, we had to continuously assess our plans and alter them,” said Sarah Malinoski-Umberger, manager of the Chautauqua Schools of Performing and Visual Arts. “It was a lot of research. We also decided to reduce our enrollments, so that affected the way we structured the programs and what artistic offerings we wanted to prioritize.”
With the pandemic resulting in the school holding its entire 2020 season virtually, most students are returning to the stage for the first time since February 2020. With all events held virtually last season, the students’ new normal was practicing, rehearsing and meeting through a computer screen.
As COVID-19 regulations loosened statewide, there was a scramble to put together a season that would be like no other.
“The pandemic was a moving target,” said Timothy Muffitt, artistic and music director and conductor of the MSFO. “Between when we started planning and when we got here, we now have a level of vaccination that we didn’t think would be feasible. Our planning was not based on people being vaccinated, but then once you put that ball in motion, you have to kind of keep following through.”
Music School Festival Orchestra
The School of Music’s orchestra will be the first program to return to the stage with their opening night performance at 8:15 p.m. Monday in the Amphitheater. Muffitt will lead the orchestra in pieces by Harlin and Schumann. Chautauqua Institution will also welcome this year’s David Efron Conducting Fellow, Joshua Hong, who will be conducting Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz for opening night.
“We get many applicants from all over the world, and Joshua just really stood out from the crowd in terms of being the complete package,” Muffitt said. “He has a personality that I thought would work well in this environment, but mostly he’s just a terrific conductor.”
The MSFO will then continue their season with the Independence Day Celebration, two more Monday night performances, a special performance with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and then finish their season with a performance of The Marriage of Figaro with the Voice Program on July 19.
Many students weren’t able to showcase their talents onstage in 2020.
“They auditioned for last season, but then all they got was a virtual experience,” Muffitt said. “We wanted to honor our commitment to them and let them come back.”
“What’s so beautiful about it is that each of us are coming from our own respective places but we all come together,” said Joseph Brozek, MSFO trumpet player. “By the end of the summer the orchestra just sounds so good because we’re just so used to each other. It’s a process of individual betterment and also how we can work together to sound our best. I love being able to perform onstage, but the greatest part of it all are the friendships I’ve made through music. The friendships live on even after a summer experience.”
Not only is the Voice Program returning to the stage, Voice Chair Marlena Malas also returns to Chautauqua for the first time in years. Though the Voice Program won’t hold any in-person weekly recitals this season, there are still plenty of performances to look forward to. The newly built Performance Pavilion on Pratt will host the opera performances of Hansel and Gretel and The Marriage of Figaro, which Malinoski-Umberger is most excited for.
“We’re one of the only festivals putting on a staged opera with live orchestra this summer, so it was very ambitious,” Malinoski-Umberger said. “It’s going to be amazing to have all of that talent back on the stage.”
Due to COVID-19 dorm restrictions, the Voice Program has just 24 in-person students and 11 virtual students.
“I think we’re all just grateful to be here in person, no matter if it’s 20 or 40,” said Lydia Graham, who is performing the role of The Countess in Marriage of Figaro. “I’m sad that a lot of really talented singers can’t be here in person, but I always love a small group because it can get more tight knit.”
The Chautauqua Piano Competition Winners’ Recital on July 11 will be the only time the public will be able to listen to the talented pianists of the Piano Program. Coming fresh off of a virtual season in 2020, this year’s pianists are eager to participate and really showcase their talents, even with a shortened four-week season.
“Pretty much all the students participate in the competition, and this will be the only chance for the public to see the winners,” said Nikki Melville, co-chair of the Piano Program. “It’s just such a nice way of celebrating their playing. It’s going to be a very special thing.”
There are still other piano performances to attend: Heintzelman Family Artistic Adviser Alexander Gavrylyuk performs July 4, Piano Program faculty member Alexander Kobrin performs July 6, and artist-in-residence Jon Nakamatsu performs on July 13. All performances will take place on Steinway pianos, as the School of Music is one of only four official Steinway festivals.
Like other programs, the Piano Program was affected by COVID-19, forcing them to downsize to 19 students due to constant last-minute adjustments as well as contingencies based on international travel.
“Normally we like to have things in place months in advance,” said John Milbaur, co-chair of the Piano Program.
Another obstacle the program faced was maintaining connections with the community.
“Keeping in contact with the people who love our students and faithfully come to every single thing we do is super-important to us,” Melville said. “I know it’s frustrating for them that they’re not able to come to events this season.”
After such a tough and stressful year, everyone can’t wait to be creating music on stage once again.
“It’s just so exciting to be making music again,” Muffitt said. “I just truly look forward to that moment when we’re all on stage in front of an audience.”