Recording in a time of COVID: Bates returns for 'Philharmonia Fantastique'

Mason Bates (center) and conductor Edwin Outwater consult with Associate Concertmaster Stephanie Jeong during a recording session for “Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra.”

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Note: This month, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra welcomed former Mead Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates (2010-2015) back to Orchestra Hall for a week of rehearsals and recording sessions connected to his new work Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra, a co-commission of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra; the CSO was originally scheduled to perform the premiere last March.

Careful planning in accordance with COVID-19 health guidelines allowed Bates, conductor Edwin Outwater and CSO musicians to make music together safely over five separate sessions. The result will be a soundtrack for the film version of Philharmonia Fantastique, and future concert performances by the CSO and the other commissioning orchestras. The film, a collaboration by Bates, director Gary Rydstrom of Lucasfilm and animator Jim Capobianco of Aerial Contrivance Workshop, explores the instruments of the orchestra with the help of a magical Sprite.

In a recent post on his personal website, Bates wrote about the experience:

So many fascinating revelations have occurred while recording Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra this month with Chicago Symphony under conductor Edwin Outwater. The soundtrack for this 25-minute animated film, which journeys inside the orchestra to see how instruments work, is a vivid concerto. A symphonic recording with an orchestra during COVID is no small feat — and a real-world illustration of the film’s key theme: the orchestra as a beautiful example of “coming together.”

All film scores are recorded with a click track — i.e., a metronome — to ensure tight synchronization between music and images. For safety reasons, we’re recording in smaller groups — in this case, by instrument families — and then putting everything together in post-production. Our recording engineer Shawn Murphy is a master at this, having just recorded Spielberg’s "West Side Story" (and several other films) in this manner. His Jedi Knight skills aren’t only required in the studio afterward; the engineer also needs to set up the sessions so the players are as comfortable as possible.

So Shawn and his assistant Erik Swanson have made it possible, for example, to play back the violins while the low strings record, or play the brass when the woodwinds lay down their parts. That’s crucial for pitch and texture.

Sprite, the central figure of "Philharmonia Fantastique," leads the audience on a journey inside an orchestra's instruments to explore how they work; she eventually helps all of the instruments to come together in harmony.

Lucasfilm

While there are obvious challenges to recording in isolation, some advantages have become obvious with this project. Because the film’s Sprite flies inside various instruments as they’re playing, we need some very close miking of specific instruments. (The film’s poster art shows the Sprite inside the cello, for instance.) Spreading out the recording sessions over five days allows us to take the time to capture those close-up sounds.

Additionally, it’s interesting for the cello section to lay down its part without the brass blasting over it, allowing the cellists to really focus on their sound. One possible pitfall is precision obsession: in some orchestral tutti passages, players lean into their instruments more aggressively than they do when isolated. The orchestra rages euphorically at the climax of Philharmonia Fantastique, and we’re encouraging players to add grit to their sound at those moments. The accumulation of those intense instrumental textures is what makes a climax so thrilling.

After a year without orchestras, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion during the first session with violins. Just hearing them tune provoked a visceral reaction; it’s been so long since I’ve heard a section tune. The lack of public discussion about the plight of the performing arts — especially when compared to, say, restaurants — has made the pandemic especially challenging for so many artists.

It’s nice to be back with an orchestra I love, finding creative ways to make music again.

Let’s hope orchestras look to September 2021 as a time to come back together in big ways. While that may be a challenge, it’s so crucial to the well-being of our collective cultural psyche. Orchestras are defined by the act of coming together, so let’s look to them as we emerge from this long year.

Reprinted with permission from masonbates.com.

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