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Houston Symphony pumps up the volume on outreach online

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 4/22/2020 By Chris Gray, Correspondent

Echoing the city’s other major arts organizations, the Houston Symphony has now scratched the remainder of its 2019-20 season. But its musicians are adapting to our coronavirus-induced new reality by rapidly stepping up their production of online content — whether they were ready or not.

One of the first videos to go online in the symphony’s new reality was violinist Rainel Joubert and bassist Dave Connor’s “social distancing duet” on the 1940s standard “Besame Mucho.”

“It’s something that we always thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t that be nice if we could do online work?’ But it never jumbled up to the top,” says Pam Blaine, the orchestra’s chief of education and community engagement. “We were always, ‘Let’s go out and do this live,’ and we never could get to it. Well, here we go.”

In the weeks since the symphony’s last performance at Jones Hall, which already seems like another era, its website and social-media outlets have filled up with short videos. (Go to houstonsymphony.org/listenathome.) Quite a few are lighthearted — percussionist Mark Griffith romps with his family; other musicians transfer Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to bassoon, double bass, and tympani — but others are more serious.

“This forced isolation has made me realize how important that (concert) part of our week was,” says principal cellist Brinton Averil Smith, urging viewers to help defray lost ticket sales by becoming subscribers for next season. “We can still play our instruments at home, but without the chance to share it to you, it feels kind of like a master chef trying to prepare a meal and then having no one to serve it to.”

“I think it was kind of an instant shift, in terms of we could no longer do any of the things that we had planned to do, and there were a lot of things over several months that were on the calendar,” says bassist Connor. “I think that after that initial shock, everybody had a really strong urge to produce some sort of digital content, which I think is really great and really, really important right now.”

Still working with schools

Connor and a handful of his colleagues have a unique perspective on this crisis. They belong to the symphony’s Community Embedded Musician program, in which they perform a few concerts per season with the full orchestra but spend the bulk of their time doing hands-on work with various groups within the community — schools, hospitals, senior centers and so forth.

Since the CEM program began in 2015, a number of other orchestras across the country have begun using it as a model, Blaine says. Many conservatories and colleges, including Rice University and the University of Houston, have also caught on.

“When the students get just a taste of this kind of work, it’s so inspiring to see the change that you can make in somebody’s life right there,” says Blaine. “And so they get excited about it, and it’s just not the opportunities that some of the more veteran musicians ever had early in their career.”

An essential part of the CEM program is the symphony’s partnerships with local institutions such as Texas Children’s Hospital and the Houston Independent School District. But with the pandemic putting most person-to-person interaction on indefinite hold, musicians such as Joubert are being forced to make a tectonic shift in strategy.

“(It’s) like completely night and day for us, not being able to be present,” he says. “Our presence, that’s what makes the difference, so you can only imagine how hard it must be — not only for us, but for the kids to not have us there.”

Joubert is attached to Lewis Elementary near Hobby Airport, part of the symphony’s long-term commitment to help build a viable orchestra program across the Chavez High School feeder schools. Last year, the orchestra treated his violin students to an evening at Jones Hall, he reports, and arranged for them to give a preconcert performance in the lobby.

“After they got to go to the symphony, the program went from 10 to like 40 (or) 50 kids,” Joubert says. “We barely have (enough) teachers that can help with that many kids now.”

Like Harvey

During the quarantine, though, he and another CEM musician assigned to Lewis have made a few instructional videos and are hoping for more, possibly in the form of group lessons via Zoom and so-called “interactive concerts.”

“We are trying to encourage people to stay home, take it serious, but also not forget to have hope and to find hope in different places,” says Joubert. “One of the tools that we can express that, and we can help with that, is through our music.”

Many of Dave Connor’s CEM duties take place at Texas Children’s, where until the virus hit he would haul his bass from room to room once a month. Both nurses and patients like to ask questions, and he enjoys fielding requests. One kid memorably wanted to hear Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”

“It was awesome,” Connor recalls. “It was like a dance party in his room.”

Almost right away, patient requests became the foundation of the CEM-created content for Texas Children’s, Connor notes. Even before that idea took hold, though, he had already made a video performing one of his most-asked-for songs: Ben E. King’s 1961 classic “Stand By Me.”

The bassist likens the orchestra’s current situation — confronting a crisis of near-unfathomable scale — to what they went through after Hurricane Harvey.

“Just to feel like there’s so much chaos going on,” he says, “and (that) even a small contribution that you could make would feel really good, but in that moment there was nothing you could do.”

In Harvey’s aftermath, “I remember really well that feeling of wanting to help and not being able to,” Connor adds. “And also because of that, I know that anything that could be helpful to even one person (means) so much in and of itself. I’m grateful that I’m able to do this stuff.”

Blaine feels the same way.

“I think we’re all finding our ways to keep ourselves feeling like we’re connected to the mission and the purpose and the art form,” she says. “And that can do a lot.”

Chris Gray is a Houston-based writer.

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