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2020: An Isolation Odyssey

When our concert performances of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra were cancelled as the coronavirus pandemic intensified, two members of the Orchestra of Opera North decided that the show must go on – virtually.

Richard Strauss’ 1896 ‘tone poem’ is one of the most famous pieces of music of all time, thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s use of its blazing opening fanfare in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its borrowing since then by everyone from Elvis Presley to the World Wrestling Federation. Its celebration of humanity’s questing, resourceful nature took on a special resonance for Opera North’s Acting Section Principal Cello Daniel Bull and Principal Viola No 2 Lourenço Macedo Sampaio, as they worked out how they could bring forty of their colleagues together, in sync and under social distancing restrictions, to perform its opening five minutes.

They got in touch with Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg, who had been due to lead the concerts at Huddersfield and Leeds Town Halls, to see if he could help.

“The idea sounded rather crazy”, says Tobias, “but it kind of fitted in with how crazy the world is right now, so I thought we had to make it happen. But how could I, here in Sweden, go about conducting a large orchestra in England, with each member recording their parts individually?

“I contacted my dear friend and chamber music partner of almost 30 years, the extraordinary pianist Bengt Forsberg. On 21 March we met in a gorgeous little wooden church in Stockholm, where Bengt runs a chamber music series, and did a couple of takes with my phone camera turned on me as I conducted him on the piano. I sent the film back to Opera North, and wished them luck!”

Next, Daniel and Lourenço sent the film of Tobias conducting the piece to 40 of their colleagues, each of whom donned full concert dress and recorded their parts individually at home. They filmed themselves in kitchens, spare rooms, gardens – even, in the case of percussionist Chris Bradley, as they took their daily exercise.

Orchestra of Opera North's Acting Section Principal Cello Daniel Bull performing with the ensemble © Justin Slee

“They sent their recordings back to us, and we added instrument by instrument, part by part, until this amazing ‘performance’ took shape”, Daniel says. “It has really felt like watching a huge building being constructed, and with Tobias’ musical vision as a starting point, the resemblance to the creative process of an actual rehearsal and concert has been remarkable.

“After the iconic and very famous opening fanfare, there is a hymn-like section played by the strings which ends in a sublime resolution involving 17 independent string lines, which seemed like an appropriate conclusion for our excerpt.

“It’s not been short of its challenges, but in these challenging times, it has meant that we’ve all been in regular contact, and that we are still able to make music together, even when sitting at home in our living rooms!”

Also Sprach Zarathustra is my favourite piece of all time”, says Lourenço. “I’d been looking forward to playing it since the dates were announced about a year ago, and I just couldn’t have it taken away like that, so when Dan told me about this idea I jumped at the opportunity!

“This project has been incredibly meaningful to me as I have been away from my home country for a long time now and in these circumstances, I still don’t know when I will be able to visit my family back in Portugal.

“It just brightens my day to feel that Opera North as a company is fighting this challenge and doing so together. The reason we all make music is to connect with one another and with our audiences, and it couldn’t feel more empowering to continue doing what we love most in these unprecedented and difficult times.”

Richard Mantle, General Director, Opera North, comments:

“In such challenging times for the country, for individuals, and for our industry, Opera North is committed to responding to the ongoing crisis with creativity and resilience. We will continue to bring music to people’s lives in whatever way we can through the coming weeks and months – as proved by the determination and ingenuity of so many of our wonderful musicians working together virtually, even while we are all physically isolated. We hope that those who watch it will feel the same sense of connection through music as a powerful shared experience, that we have felt in creating it.”

Visit our Watch online page for details of more Opera North productions currently available for streaming, including the complete Ring cycle and our recent production of The Turn of the Screw.

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