Over the past two weeks, Bowdoin’s campus has seen the culminating performances of many of the College’s instrumental groups—from chamber music groups, to jazz ensembles, to the Middle Eastern Ensemble and the Bowdoin Orchestra, the latter of which concluded this series of concerts on December 7 and 8.
“A highlight has been working with a group of new people. A lot of [the other instrumentalists] were first-years and sophomores that I hadn’t ever played with,” said Paris Wilson ’23, who plays violin in the Bowdoin Orchestra and a chamber music group. “Just being able to play your music again after [such a] long [time] not playing was really nice.”
For Robert Beckwith Artist-In-Residence and Director of the Bowdoin Orchestra George Lopez, preparation for the direction and conduction of these orchestral performances began early this semester.
“I’m all about participation in terms of getting as many students to be involved in the Orchestra and in the performance as possible,” Lopez said.
Lopez intentionally constructs a concert’s repertoire around the skills of student performers, with hopes to engage them and to showcase their strengths to the College community.
“For the last three years, we’ve had two harpists on campus who are in the Orchestra, and so I’ve always chosen pieces that include the harp,” Lopez said. “We played two symphonic works in the concert that included both of them, and then they played a duet on their own.”
Once Lopez has selected a repertoire, he begins to outline rehearsal plans. With only three hours of rehearsal time a week, Lopez believes that it is crucial to distribute proportionate weight to every song and section.
“I map out what absolutely needs attention right off the bat, and I’ll point out to them things to start working on right away,” Lopez said. “Generally, it goes from the most difficult parts to the least difficult, and that becomes the rehearsal process.”
Lopez believes that the undertaking of this project has been made significantly easier by the willingness of the Orchestra to adopt unorthodox rehearsal methods—and, on occasion, compromise their comfort—for the sake of performing music.
“We started [by] rehearsing outside [and continued] through the third week of October, the winds and brass separate from the strings, and I got fingerless gloves for them because their hands would get cold,” Lopez said. “It was challenging, because I didn’t have the Orchestra together for very long, but when we were together, what we were able to accomplish was extraordinary.”
The Orchestra’s short rehearsal-to-performance turnaround resulted in Lopez being even more reliant on some of the ensemble’s “key players.”
“With violins and violas and cellos, you’ve got multiple people playing the same part, so if one or two are missing, it’s not as big a deal as if one of your flutes is missing,” Lopez said. “In the past, I’ve doubled clarinets and flutes and oboes, but I didn’t have that option this semester.”
Wilson added that, along with the challenges posed by the pandemic, there were also standard, technical challenges that she observed both in her chamber music group and in the Orchestra.
“I think that the biggest challenge was making sure that we stayed together, ensemble-wise,” Wilson said. “But I think all that came through very quickly.”
Tuesday and Wednesday’s concert attracted a diverse sample of the Bowdoin community—from music faculty to student supporters with little-to-no background in instrumental music.
“I never get to watch string instruments perform—they’re so graceful with their arms,” said Sofía Hamby ’23, who attended the concert on Tuesday night. “I feel like I was watching them a lot of the time.”
“The third section piece was my favorite,” added attendee Elijah Rowland ’23. “It was very upbeat and cheery—a nice balance with the rest of the pieces.”
Like Lopez and Wilson, Hamby enjoyed the opportunity to return to an in-person orchestral concert for the first time in over a year.
“Some of them had their masks off for trumpet,” Hamby said. “It was nice to see faces performing on stage again.”
In the future, Lopez looks forward to recognizing this year’s senior players—flutist Nana Hayami and harpists Joshua Lin and Gillian King—in the spring semester.
“I sort of honor the seniors who have really given their time and commitment to the Orchestra by allowing some of them to play a solo piece with the Orchestra—a concerto, they’re called,” Lopez said. “That’s going to be fun.”
While Lopez is optimistic about the upcoming semester, he also wants to allow space for the Orchestra and other student instrumentalists to recuperate after what has been a challenging period for many members of the College community.
“For all of us, but especially for those who do the arts, you need to have a certain kind of communicative energy,” Lopez said. “I would want continued emotional and spiritual healing for the students.”
Even in the face of this semester’s many difficulties, Lopez commends student instrumentalists for their dedication to their ensembles and to the process of creating live music.
“I think that when you are living in dark times, the tendency is to go completely inward, but when you’re trying to communicate art, especially music that’s in the moment and live, you need a certain amount of emotional strength,” Lopez said. “That’s what made last night even more amazing—the Orchestra gave what they had and they did their absolute best. I’d like to call them warriors for art.”