The coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of Albany Pro Musica’s 2019-20 season, but its artistic director, Jose Daniel Flores-Caraballo, vowed not to call off the next season, the choir’s 40th, as well.
Given requirements for social distancing and crowd limitations, “The question we had to answer was how we could produce something that still speaks to the quality levels we aspire to in every performance,” said Flores-Caraballo, who was named to lead APM, the region’s pre-eminent choral ensemble, in 2014. He succeeded the late David Griggs-Janower, who founded Albany Pro Musica in 1981 and ran it until his 2013 death.
The solution was a combination of virtual and televised concerts. Three of the season’s four formal concerts will be shown on the local PBS affiliate, WMHT-TV, and the fourth will stream online, as will two-season extras: a Sept. 20 fundraising compilation program and a high school choral festival in February. All are free, though a donation is requested for the Sept. 20 event.
For the televised programs, including the first, set for 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18, on WMHT, APM members will record music in the group’s acoustically pristine home venue, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The October concert will feature new videos of small ensembles of four to 15 singers performing at six iconic Capital Region locales: the Empire State Plaza, outside the Troy Music Hall, Schenectady’s historic Stockade, the grounds of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, in Lake George and at the Helderberg Escarpment at Thacher State Park. The audio will be from the sessions at the music hall.
Composers on October’s concert, with a Renaissance theme, are Gibbons, Greaves, Morley, Ward, Weelkes, Wilbye and others. The chorus also will perform the world premiere of a neo-Renaissance composition by it honorary composer-in-residence, Steve Murray.
Madrigals and similar period pieces have the advantage of being written for small ensembles, a necessity when the full, 64-member APM is not yet permitted to be together, and they bring a thematic connection to the Renaissance, which was important to Flores-Caraballo.
“This is a rebirth of the arts, on a small scale,” said the conductor. “We have gone through a crisis (and) …. we want to celebrate being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
December’s online concert will be a compilation of video recordings of popular holiday programs of the past, with new commentary from Flores-Caraballo and others. The concerts return to WMHT in March, with a program of Celtic music and accompaniment and individual performances by the local instrumental ensemble Musicians of Ma’alwyck, again shot with fresh video components and new audio recordings.
The season-closer next May, when restrictions on group sizes are hoped to be relaxed, is expected to feature the APM chorus divided in half, with about 26 singers in each, performing a program titled “From Despair … Light!” According to promotional material, “As our world emerges from the tragedy that the COVID-19 pandemic has shrouded us in, Albany Pro Musica will take you on an emotional journey from fear, conflict, and death to joy, peace, love, and redemption.” Two world premieres will be presented, as well as works by Morten Lauridsen, Arvo Part, Eric Whitacre, Jake Runestad and Gabriel Fauré.
Not having paying audiences for the canceled programs earlier this year or for any in the 2020-21 season put a huge crimp in APM’s budget, said Flores-Caraballo. And producing a 40th-anniversary season of this scope is expensive.
“We have half a million dollars we need to raise from donations,” he said, adding, “Our board of directors had the vision and the courage to say that what do we and what it means to our community is just too important to let it be completely dark for the whole year.”
“When they first started talking about it, I had serious concerns about participating,” said Daniel Washington, a baritone going into his eighth season as a member of APM. An employee of the state Department of Health, Washington was keenly aware of the dangers and uncertainties of the coronavirus, and he knew that 45 percent of the 122 members of a choir in the Pacific Northwest were sickened by COVID-19 early in the pandemic, with two dying.
But, Washington said, he also knew New York’s efforts to battle the virus’ spread had been largely successful in the intervening months, especially upstate. He was reassured enough to agree to be part of the new season after learning that Flores-Caraballo and other staff members involved in planning the season had consulted extensively with an APM member who is also a doctor with advanced training in epidemiology and infectious diseases.
“It was weird and a little sad, because everyone wasn’t all there” during a recent recording session at the Troy Music Hall for October’s concert, Washington said. Only eight members were present for the octet they were recording, spread at least 12 feet apart among the seats and aisles of the music hall’s orchestra section. Flores-Caraballo conducted mostly from the stage.
“I was happy to be singing again, but when we took our breaks, we had to put our masks back on to talk to each other,” Washington said. “There was something very dystopian about that. I think we all want it to end as soon as it’s possible to be safe.”