The brass and woodwinds are walled in behind acrylic panels, the strings socially distanced and wearing face masks. On the stage of an audience-free Met Philadelphia, three soloists and a conductor keep far apart.
It’s only 38 pieces rather than the usual 65 or so, but here is an actual orchestra — the Philly Pops’ big band and strings, all assembled in one room at the same time Monday, rehearsing Gershwin and Stevie Wonder in the middle of a pandemic.
It’s been months since any major Philadelphia ensemble has physically gathered, and this year’s Independence Day concert by the Pops will be unlike any other it has done over the past four decades.
The orchestra won’t be sitting in front of Independence Hall before a vast lawn of listeners. Instead, the Pops has pre-recorded its Wawa Welcome America concert, with some players in face masks sporting stars and stripes. The show will be streamed Friday evening on the Pops and Welcome America websites.
If virtual performance represents a new direction for the Pops, the same is true for the ensemble’s artistic chief. This concert is David Charles Abell’s inaugural one as music director after years of well-received appearances as a guest on the podium. The conductor approached making music under COVID-19 conditions as something of an experiment.
“Frankly, I was dreading it,” said Abell. “But as we got closer, I realized, ‘OK, steps are being put in place. We do have a chance of making this work.’ And on the day of the rehearsal, I was really, really heartened and engaged and even moved at times with what we were doing. I think it was a healing moment for us.”
Monday’s rehearsal and recording sessions required precautions. Flutes were jettisoned — “because flutes are dangerous. They spew aerosols too far,” said Abell.
The flute parts in Copland’s Simple Gifts were adapted and turned over to the clarinets.
Trombones and other winds playing in acrylic booths meant those players would hear a lot of themselves and less of the rest of the ensemble, so ear buds carrying the orchestra sound helped to guide them. Audio was captured with microphones one to a player, and then mixed and balanced by sound engineers.
“It was a big relief. It worked much better than I thought it would,” said Abell. “Much better.”
Abell, 61, who spent part of his childhood in Philadelphia, has made a career in opera, orchestra, and music theater. His first outing with any pops orchestra was with the Philly Pops seven years ago. Since then, he and the organization have deepened their relationship over a number of artistic projects and, in something of a shot-gun marriage, announced their union in February after previous music director Todd Ellison departed, unexplained, just a few months into the job.
Last month, Abell and husband Seann Alderking sold their London house of 24 years and are now looking to settle on Cape Cod.
The tall, affable conductor arrives as the Pops grapples with the same question faced by all performing arts groups: how to continue in a way that’s safe for the artists and audience.
And like other groups, the Pops can plan only tentatively. This virtual concert is seen as a trial balloon.
“We’ll see how people react to what we’ve done,” said Abell. “We are the first performing arts organization in Philadelphia to get back to performing. I am very proud of what the team did to make it possible. I hope the audience will be happy with what they see and hear.”
The group hopes to do some combination of performing for a live and at-home audience in coming months. The annual Christmas show faces long odds of happening in Verizon Hall. For one thing, the Kimmel Center is all but closed. For another, the Pops’ Christmas program is largely centered on singing, considered an especially risky activity for infection.
Abell is sensitive to the fact that celebration has been key to the Pops experience — Christmas, Independence Day — and that may not sync up with the national mood right now.
“I loved surfing on that vibe, as it were. And now suddenly it’s not really about celebration,” said Abell. “There is an element of that, and we should celebrate the Fourth of July. But we also have to acknowledge the damage done and find a way forward,” he said, referring to police brutality, racism, and COVID-19.
“Maybe addressing those issues is more than a pops orchestra can do, but I want to engage people where they are.”
Everything will no doubt be received differently this year. Pops president and CEO Frank Giordano introduces the hour-long Welcome America show with a speech noting that the Pops’ long-running Salute Series is “dedicated to those who choose a life of service, in the military and veterans’ communities, and in our police and fire departments.”
The concert includes traditional tunes like “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and “God Bless America.” But through much of his programming, Abell addresses the headlines. A newly commissioned piece by Robert Wendel is a tribute to frontline workers and features trumpeter Terell Stafford, the Pops’ artistic director for jazz.
The Pops commissioned a new arrangement of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” that, in a gesture suggested by vocalist Allison Blackwell, ends with a quote from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black national anthem.
The arrangement by Nick Lombardelli “brings the tune in softly and then builds to the end,” said Abell. “It is defiant, but it starts softly and grows, which again is sort of a metaphor for what we’re going through. It’s important to me that even something like an orchestration or arrangement can mirror and comment on what’s happening in our society.”
Some other tunes take on new meaning, if subtly. “Philadelphia Freedom” has long been performed by the Pops. But in this concert with vocalist/pianist Michael Cavanaugh, it appears in an arrangement that shifts into another tune: “I’m Still Standing” — “which seems like the perfect lockdown song.”
Abell wanted works that caught the spirit of persistence or could soothe.
“I am very aware that people have been damaged by recent events to a great or lesser extent. No one has come through it and is the same person that they were.”
As an organization, the Pops has to acknowledge that, and must still inspire listeners, he said. “It’s weird because I didn’t imagine that a patriotic pops concert would become this sort of story and this commentary or engagement with the zeitgeist. But it sort of did.”
And now that it has, he’s OK with it. “It’s much more interesting for me than playing the Sousa marches and rah-rah-rah tunes.”