McALLEN — The soft, ethereal yet ominous chimes and timbres of the Valley Symphony Orchestra’s percussionist floated through the hall of the McAllen Performing Arts Center earlier this month, but only for an audience of no more than a dozen: two organizers, a pair of journalists and a few cameramen.
Even for novice listeners, it was obvious the music wasn’t complete.
That’s because instead of hosting annual fall and winter concerts, the organization has been recording videos of the symphonies for the community. And to make the videos, the orchestra’s sections took turns performing their part of compositions, which will eventually be edited and pieced together for one sound symphony.
The first concert, “The Symphony Strings” was released in October and is available to view on the VSO’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. The next concert, “Melody and Rhythm” will be released on Nov. 20, and the last, “A Touch of Frost,” on Dec. 18.
Due to COVID-19, it’s been nine months since the orchestra has been able to perform together. Though musicians are unable to perform concerts live to audiences, percussionist Virginia Davis said the community has never needed the healing power of music more.
That evening of filming, Davis along with her colleagues had to imagine that the audience was there, and soon, viewers at home will have to imagine they’re listening at a music hall.
“That’s the thing about music: it waits for you whenever you are ready for it. You can come to it at any time.” said percussionist Virginia Davis, who is also a music professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“It’s time-based, yet not time-based.”
The six percussionists have been playing together for years now, and though it took some extra practice at first to get used to playing together again, percussionist Moses Simon said it was like they never stopped.
The group would meet at his house — observing social distancing precautions — every weekend for the month prior to filming day. In his living room, they would squeeze the array of instruments they use throughout: a pair of bongos, congas, three marimbas, a xylophone and djembe, among others.
“It’s important to show people that it is still possible to live your life and it is possible to accomplish things in a safe way,” said Simon, a band director at a Roma school. “And hopefully by us playing music that people may not have heard, they will be able to nod along and understand and feel like they are in the concert hall.”
That night, for “Melody and Rhythm,” the group performed their parts of “Escape Velocity” by Dave Hall, and “Estudios de Frontera, I. Homage a Nancarrow” by Alejandro Viñao.
The concert video will also include a woodwind and piano ensemble, “II. Divertissement – Andantino” by Francis Poulenc, and “I. Allegro con brio” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Standing in front of their instruments as the filmmakers were adjusting their cameras, the six musicians took off their masks — Simon’s favorite part of the evening.
They looked across at one another with their mallets in their hands, wearing big smiles. It was the first time they’ve seen each other’s faces since February, the last time they performed a concert together.
Percussionist Adan Rosa III added that it could have been his first time seeing a group of people other than his family without masks since March.
As a band director at Edinburg’s Harwell Middle School, Rosa said he hopes his students take the orchestra’s video as a lesson.
“We are all looking forward to putting into play what we teach the kids and showing them, ‘Look, we are in a pandemic, but we are still able to collaborate and get together and make music safely,” he said. “We are continuing to push forward.”
While playing, if their eyes weren’t on their instruments, they were looking at each other, nodding and exchanging smiles. Their feet tapped to the music, and their hands gracefully moving from one instrument to the next. However, there was something heartbreaking about seeing the grand auditorium empty that evening.
Performing for cameras will never replace the energy of a live audience, Davis said.
“There are parts of music that you just can’t get on Zoom or by sending recordings or sending tracks back and forth,” she said. “That’s fun, but it’s not the same as having actual people next to you and breathing together the music — the music breathes when you are live.”
Philip Johnson, the principal percussionist of the group, noted the benefits of recording their concerts. “I think it brings the audience into what we are doing a lot more intimately, and pushes them to have a greater understanding of the kind of dexterity that we need to put into what we are doing,” he said. “I feel like we are in some kind of mission to try to keep fine arts alive in the nation, and I absolutely feel like just here in South Texas, we are doing our part.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, the orchestra has been uploading videos on their social media platforms, and the VSO’s executive director, Katy Coy, said people from Brazil, Europe and Canada have tuned in.
“Musicians across the country and in the world are facing a lot of challenges in terms of their livelihoods, so we are also trying to be a part of what keeps them afloat, what keeps the symphony afloat,” she said. “And we would appreciate the community if they can, if they are enjoying the concerts, to support the symphony as well.”
To view the concerts and donate to the organization, visit valleyorchestra.org.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct typos, and the spelling of Executive Director Katy Coy’s and percussionist Adan Rosa III’s names.