Strumming your guitar in front of your laptop on Zoom during COVID has become a cliché. But understandable, because technically, it’s an easy way to get your music out. However, when your goal is to mount a major Beethoven masterpiece with two orchestras in two cities, a quartet, six soloists, a chorus and the renowned pianist Peter Takács, the challenge might seem insurmountable.
Not to Tiffany Chang, conductor of Oberlin College’s Arts and Sciences Orchestra. Logistics too challenging? She worked with her colleagues at Oberlin to recruit high-powered alumni now working in orchestras around the world. She got the Verona Quartet on board, who are in a long-term residence at Oberlin. She had met Rachel Waddell from the University of Rochester at a women’s conducting conference, and they agreed to a long-distance collaboration. Rather than compromise and produce a lame Zoom video concert, she spent the summer months teaching herself to edit video, then spent 420 hours on the final edit.
The resulting virtual concert, designed as part of Oberlin’s ongoing celebration of the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s auspicious birth, and featuring his masterwork Choral Fantasy, Op. 80, among other works, was in itself a masterpiece. And best of all, the Fantasy can be viewed here. And it is truly fantastic. Crank up your headphones or stream it to your smart TV with the volume UP.
As a further gift, Chang agreed to outline her process for CoolCleveland, which she initiated with a behind-the-scenes video and continues with this interview she so graciously agreed to.
COOLCLEVELAND: What is gained, and what is lost (both by artists and viewers) in the complex process that you have engaged in to create this version of the Choral Fantasy?
TIFFANY CHANG: Pandemic music videos of all kinds have quickly become saturated this year on the internet. I did not have the professional resources to produce standout content in the traditional live-stream format nor the new genre of pandemic music videos. And I also understand that nothing can replace a live concert experience for both artists and audiences. So, instead of being apologetic for this not being a live concert, I set out to discover an artistic avenue that creatively embraces what technology has to offer and taps into the deep emotions of distanced and large-scale collaboration — all while still doing justice to and preserving the integrity of the musical composition. That was my starting point, and I ended up with a presentation format that juxtaposes the familiar live-stream concert with the elements of pandemic video production, and it was never conceived as either or.
For the viewers, what is gained is a highly engaging viewing and listening experience where one supports the other. The designs of various shots and layouts always correspond to musical phrases and larger structures and aid the drama of the music–sometimes working with the music in harmony and sometimes in counterpoint. Our visual presentation actually offered another layer of artistic depth that I did not expect to become so powerful. Of course, all of this is not meant to replace the live concert experience, which is ultimately what audiences miss the most right now, but it does encourage another form of emotional connection to the performers and the music performed.
I think the artists got the short end of the stick here. Our recording process involved layering tracks of small instrumental groups of under 20 in the same space. Many musicians supplied individual tracks, which is a lonely performance experience that lacks the thrilling sixth sense of collaboration when performers are in the same room. The process also lacked the full concerto experience and definitely the awe-inspiring experience of being on stage with a full orchestra, choir, 6 soloists, and a pianist. On the other hand, what was immensely gained by our performers was the opportunity to establish human connections that transcended locations, generations, institutions, and professions – some new, some renewed, and some simply beautiful. It was heartwarming to see Oberlin alum recognize their classmates, an Oberlin parent bond with their child while at home singing together in our virtual choir, the Oberlin alum who is a parent of a Rochester student, and a pair of high school friends performing together with one at Oberlin and the other at Rochester.
CC: I assumed a professional video editor did the editing on your program, but apparently you learned the editing software from scratch and did it yourself. How long does it take, and how hard was it to get to the point where you were comfortable?
Prior to this, my video editing skills didn’t go beyond trimming videos, adding tiles, and applying crossfades on iMovie. I never had to do more than that as a conductor. As this project scope came more into focus, I knew I needed to learn something more powerful. So I decided to take the plunge and learn Adobe Premiere Pro over the summer months. I actually tried once in May and I gave up after a few days, thinking maybe I’ll go back to iMovie. I tried again in August, and I was very close to giving up a second time. (It is very true that Adobe Premiere Pro has a steep learning curve!) The artistic vision I had in my head required that I learned it, so I toughed it out and learned through watching YouTube videos and a lot of trial and error.
I used the software as frequently as I could, using it to create social media content for the orchestra, creating samples for our performers on a weekly basis. While there were many versions of segments that never made it into the final video, it gave me a learning opportunity to experiment with the software and learn just how powerful it is.
During recording sessions, I gathered an enormous amount of video content, and I was maybe editing on the software for at least 6 hours every day between our first recording session on 10/20 and Thanksgiving. From Thanksgiving on, it was crunch time, and I spent 15-18 hours every day editing until I submitted the final video on 12/10 (I was also editing the 2 other pieces and the supplemental content for our full program). To put a number to it, I spent approximately 420 hours editing this project alone, and an unclear number of hours dabbling and learning the software since August.
Even until the very end, I was learning new things about the software that I wish I had used. After this experience, I still feel like I barely know how to use the software and that I’m just confined to a basic array of functions. If I didn’t have a deadline, I could’ve kept editing and making things more artistic, perhaps learning more in the process!
CC: Because you edited the show yourself, the cuts are done differently than a traditional editor might. You have a deeper understanding of the music, and your choices are both surprising and more sensible at times. Can you talk about some of the choices you made and why?
Honestly, since I am not and don’t claim to be a professional videographer or video editor, I simply don’t know what the expected conventions are for video editing or cinematography, and I was coming at the project from a musician’s perspective. (I wish I had the time to learn, but I didn’t.) I consider much of my work as a conductor as leading people experiencing the music on a compelling journey. This project unexpectedly gave me the opportunity to have full reigns in adding a visual layer to that experiential design. It was certainly my first “directing” experience.
The more active the music, either harmonically or rhythmically, the number of simultaneous shots increased and the more frequently each of those grids changed camera angles. In contrast, the entire Adagio section never used any split screen grids and changed shots less frequently. I also ensured that the grid design matched the orchestration of the music. For example, a call and response texture benefited from a large grid of the pianist surrounded by smaller grids featuring the orchestra. When the piano served a supporting role, it was presented likewise in a smaller, secondary position. I also tried to vary the grid designs so there is a freshness in each “scene.” And when there were repetitions of entire phrases in the choral finale, the visual presentation was purposefully different each time (much like how a stage director may try to not repeat the same staging to repeated music).
There was always the fear of putting too much on the screen at once, and I was mindful of the problem. But I don’t intend for viewers to “see” everything upon first viewing; just like if one were to go to a live choral-orchestral concert, it would be impossible to focus on every part of the stage at once. This problem also certainly prompts repeat views from our viewers, as each viewing may provide a different experience theatrically.
Lastly, the design of the final shot was meaningful as another nod to the live concert experience: I arranged the screen to resemble the traditional placement of the musicians on the stage, with the chorus was in the back, the pianist in front center, and the orchestral shots surrounding the pianist.
Ultimately, I wanted this artistic journey to stir emotions and to elicit feelings of nostalgia, wonder, excitement, and joy. And the presentation methods were crucial in achieving that.
CC: How has your opinion of video presentation of live music been changed by doing this project?
I’ve come to realize that there are more possibilities than limitations, and all I can see is potential. Again, I’m not speaking as an expert, but using video presentation could make any art form more accessible to everyone and spark inspiration in unexpected ways.
CC: Do you now believe every musician should learn video editing?
I think having skills in video editing makes an artist more versatile and allows for the chance to engage in another creative medium that may in turn inform one’s musical work—through exploring storytelling, building artistic structures, and creating relationships with audiences. I certainly don’t think it is required, and there are other artistic avenues where musicians may gain the same experience, ones that I have personally not yet explored. It is really up to each individual whether they see the need and opportunity for it.
This is a massive undertaking with two orchestras, a quartet, six soloists, a chorus and a solo pianist. The logistics of such a project are overwhelming even during the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. Talk about the timeline involved, and the size of your to-do list.
In February 2020, this concert was originally scheduled as a regular concert in Finney Chapel on Oberlin’s campus for October 2020, and I was looking at fairly normal logistical planning for a choral-orchestral concert.
Things took a sharp turn in March for the entire industry and remained uncertain through the summer as Oberlin honed in on its specific COVID safety guidelines for large ensemble activity. Starting from March, I’ve thought deeply about many presentation concepts, and it kept changing as the world changed. I was determined to pivot our regular production to a semi-digital or a fully-digital one. And I wanted to still be able to present this tribute within Beethoven’s 250th year when so many other celebratory projects are being cancelled.
The size of the to-do list was enormous as this was largely a “DIY” project. There were two big components in the planning of the production:
- Gathering the forces
- Planning a meaningful procedure (executing it was the easy part)
GATHERING THE FORCES
The decision in August to finally pivot to a digital presentation actually meant that I could engage guest performers from anywhere in the world. That was liberating. It also meant a lot of recruiting for performers and production artists.
I began with securing the cast of soloists. Pianist Peter Takács was on board from the very start and I was fortunate to have him stay on, as the piano solo is the backbone of the work. In the last portion of the work, there are six vocal soloists that present the first stanzas of the text. They eventually meld into the full choir. With the help of Kendra Colton on Oberlin’s voice faculty, I was able to curate a lineup of high-profile Oberlin alumni who are successful and active in the field. It was important that the soloists were of the highest caliber and represented Oberlin’s proud contribution to the industry. And it was purely accidental that the work calls for a solo string quartet for one of the variations, and Oberlin had just welcomed the Verona Quartet as its Quartet-in-Residence. The choice to invite them for what I called a “cameo appearance” could not have been more obvious.
The collaboration with University of Rochester came about as my colleague Rachel Waddell and I were exchanging ideas during the summer about our respective orchestra programs and our similar COVID challenges. We had met the previous year in The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors. As I was already planning to involve remote musicians from our end, the thought for the Rochester orchestra to join us remotely just made a lot of sense.
Then there’s the virtual choir, which I began recruiting for in September and continued through to December. It was important for me that the choir was beyond local and not just composed of students. This was a great opportunity to bring together the various corners of the Oberlin community: I reached out to Oberlin faculty, staff, parents and alumni and solicited participation. The word got out to other musicians via the Oberlin connection and my own connections to musicians in the Boston area. We ended up having non-Oberlin singers sign up from other choral organizations, such as the Oratorio Society of New York and Cecelia Chorus of New York, plus the University of Rochester Chamber Singers and its conductor Julie Covach joined the project en masse. We had singers from Germany, France, Brazil, and all over the U.S. from Hawaii, Texas, to Maine.
In terms of production staff, I enlisted the help of two videographers (one student and one freelancer) for our Oberlin sessions, and we used up to 4 cameras to capture various shots. The University of Rochester recruited their own videographers from their student videography club and WRURTV.
As effective as we may be able to present the video footage, this is still an orchestral concert, and the audio quality was of utmost importance to serve the music. The Oberlin audio recording was done via a self-record system available in the Oberlin facilities, and of course was later arduously edited with all remote layers by our fantastic audio engineer Stephen Roessner.
In these ways, the production was bare bones and lacked the full professional support I would’ve wanted for a really high quality product, but we ended up with something I think we can all be proud of, all considering.
PLANNING THE PROCEDURE
We did not simply just perform the piece from beginning to end and called it a day. The inherent sectionalized nature of the work was perfect for this pivot to a digital performance. I devised a detailed plan to record the music section by section, layer by layer. The final product was then stitched together. Once we began our first recording session on 10/20, I was constantly working on it and began the editing process as soon as I could with the raw material. We ended up with about 80 hours of video footage for our entire concert — and about 40 of those were of the Beethoven.
The plan was designed to allow time to create, using our on-campus recordings, an elaborate guiding track (as opposed to a simple click track) for remote performers–a video that audiences never got to see. It was important that, as much as possible, the remote musicians can feel like they are performing in the actual concert hall with the actual soloists and orchestra and to be able to see them and watch the conductor.
I didn’t want this to just be any recording experience for the virtual choir, so I treated it like any other serious choral endeavor. I also enlisted Oberlin student conductor Olivia Fink to serve as chorus master. Fink provided sheet music annotated with performance instructions, tutorials for German diction, videos for musical rehearsal notes, and rehearsed an on-campus quartet of choral section leaders.
All the remote video content came in by the end of November, and I had a deadline of 12/10 to complete the editing.
Caring for the logistics and ensuring we stayed on track was all-consuming, and we found time to publicize and keep the audience informed in between all of that. My collaborators at the University of Rochester were particularly stellar in helping achieve all of this. I am so grateful.
It is truly a miracle that everything fell into place and we were able to follow through with the project.
CC: You were able to generate an audience more than ten times larger online than you would have if it had been presented traditionally in a concert hall on campus. Does this change how you approach your work going forward?
We were able to reach over 3000 viewers for our concert premiere. The typical Fall 2020 Oberlin Conservatory large ensemble digital programming usually received around 300 views, upon my quick survey of the Oberlin YouTube Channel.
For my orchestra’s pre-COVID’s live concerts, we’d be lucky if we had 100 people in the audience. That is certainly something I’ve worked hard to improve through my leadership and we were making strides immediately before the pandemic hit. The reception to our Choral Fantasy now was an unexpected giant leap for us.
Moving forward, I certainly hope to take advantage of the digital stage and connect with audiences beyond our physical campus. The internet can be so powerful if utilized effectively – not just for getting our work out there, but for making a serious impact – like with this project. I am, like everyone else, learning all of it as I go.
Ultimately, I hope to send the message that the artistic work avocational musicians do seriously are often worthy alongside their professional counterparts. There is always potential for compelling and impactful work, and it is my job as the professional artist-leader to show them the way.
CC: Musicians often talk about missing the feedback of a live audience when they perform for cameras. But it could be seen as just another rehearsal, where the performer certainly brings everything to bear. In fact, famously, artists will talk about how they often performed a work so much better in rehearsal because of their ability to focus, lack of nervousness, etc. Did you and your musicians find the lack of a live audience to be a drawback, or just a red herring?
Yes, I think the energy level of the recording sessions was certainly lower compared to that of a live performance. The buzz simply was impossible to replicate. In my experience, the presence of an audience and spontaneity of live performance often unleash the best out of performers, especially those who don’t get to be on stage on a daily basis.
Also, the method in which we recorded made it very challenging to imagine the power of the collective work – since none of the musicians heard the music as it was intended by Beethoven with the full forces all in the same room. That was a major drawback.
CC: What are some of the licensing and rights problems or issues that you had to deal with?
We did not have any licensing problems with the Beethoven. The only issue we ran into was with another piece on our program (David T. Little’s Haunted Topography), which prevented the original concert broadcast video to remain public beyond the initial 24 hours. As a result, we’ve re-uploaded the archival recording of the Beethoven for further viewing here.
CC: What did you learn, and what would you do differently next time?
I learned so much, and not just in the area of video production. I learned about engaging with digital audiences, collaborating remotely, working with an audio engineer, being a more effective leader, marketing, and about my own creativity as an artist.
In the future, if there were a project, I would definitely improve the quality of our video and audio recording.
I’d create a screenplay in advance and engage in conversations with the videographers so that the recording sessions can be more streamlined and informed. Our videographers were fantastic and captured compelling shots, but I had to use the content I got from them to generate each scene rather than ideally starting with the vision of the scene in mind. I just didn’t have that foresight and we were fortunate that it all worked out for the most part (there are certainly scenes that I am not happy with).
I would also improve our audio recording setup using more individual microphones, individual headsets, and an on-site engineer. This way, the recording process can be more meaningful for the musicians and we can mix and balance more effectively. There were nuances we simply could not adjust in the editing process, and it was an awkward way to experience the concerto experience, both simply due how we recorded the audio. If it’s going to be a recorded digital performance, we need to be able to do more in depth editing and everyone should be able to hear the soloist. Those are big regrets for me regarding the performer experience.
Also, I would want to be better at using the video editing software so the artistic quality improves with the presentation of the content!
The Arts and Sciences Orchestra at Oberlin College presented their groundbreaking virtual concert at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 15, on YouTube premiere. The wide-ranging program features music from the Hollywood film Captain Marvel by Pinar Toprak, the emotionally charged Haunted Topography by David T. Little, and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Op. 80. as part of Oberlin’s ongoing celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
Performers included: Beethoven specialist Peter Takács, piano; six distinguished Oberlin Conservatory alumni singers (Caitlin Aloia ‘20, soprano, Julia Dawson ‘11, soprano, Rebecca Printz ‘16, mezzo soprano, Carlos Santelli ‘14, tenor, Daniel McGrew ‘15, tenor, Elliott Hines ‘12, baritone); and the acclaimed Verona Quartet (Oberlin Conservatory Quartet-in-Residence).
Audio was engineered by Grammy-winning audio engineer Stephen Roessner.
The cross-country and global collaboration involved remote participation with the University of Rochester ensembles and a virtual choir of voices from around the world – all-in-all involving over 200 performers.
The Beethoven Choral Fantasy, Op. 80 is available free for further viewing here.