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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City, residents self-quarantined in their apartments emerged on balconies and rooftops every evening at 7 p.m. to applaud, en masse, the front-line workers who were keeping the hospitals, grocery stores and pharmacies running.
“I like to think the 7 o’clock moment is more than celebrating workers. It’s celebrating survival,” said composer Valerie Coleman, whose new composition, “Seven O’Clock Shout,” will premiere this weekend by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“We’re isolated during the day, and we’re not in contact with the outside world as we know it. We look forward to when we all lean out our windows, communicating what’s in our hearts at that moment,” she said. “It’s a powerful catalyst to base the music around.”
“Seven O’Clock Shout” was written and performed during the pandemic shutdown. The musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra have not gathered together in the same room since March 12, when they performed for an empty Verizon Hall. This new composition is designed to be performed together, in isolation.
Using an electronically generated MIDI mock-up of the piece, conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin filmed himself alone in his Montreal home “air-conducting” to nobody. That video was then sent to each member of the orchestra in their respective homes, along with the sheet music, where they individually recorded themselves playing their parts.
All those parts were then sent to the Orchestra’s sound editors, who edited and mixed them together into a single orchestral piece. That piece, “Seven O’Clock Shout,” will premiere Saturday as part of an online event, HearTOGETHER.
“There has been so much darkness in this moment,” said Orchestra CEO Matias Tarnopolsky. “We really wanted to have a beacon for the future, a moment of celebration and joy.”
Saturday was supposed to be the Orchestra’s online gala event, with a lineup of celebrities like Steve Martin, Wynton Marsalis and Lang Lang, along with a concert program by the orchestra including the premiere of “Seven O’Clock Shout.” It was to be called HearNOW.
However, the orchestra changed plans as protests beset the city in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. The original HearNOW gala has been postponed to June 20.
The Orchestra retained some elements of that gala for a different event this weekend, renamed HearTOGETHER, featuring the Coleman premiere, a performance by Wynton Marsalis and a conversation between the two of them.
The Coleman piece has its technical challenges, wrangling over 50 individual sound files into a coherent piece of music. That the musicians are isolated from one another seems antithetical to how an orchestra normally operates, but Coleman says the Fabulous Philadelphians are uniquely suited to pull it off.
“They have communication like a chamber ensemble. They breathe together, they move together, their internal rhythms are aligned,” she said. “I wrote with all of that in mind.”
Coleman highlighted that communication with a section that asks musicians to vocalize the cheers of an actual 7 p.m. moment in New York (the piece is presented as an online video, so some of their gestures will be visual), and a call-and-response section as musicians answer a trombone melody.
“Seven O’Clock Shout” is a composition of the moment, written in just two weeks during a pandemic lockdown at the request of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Coleman hopes that whenever the pandemic lifts and “normal” life returns, the music will resonate for future audiences.
“It has to. It has to,” she said. “So often we are within our own comfort zones, forgetful of our humanity. In our day-to-day of responsibilities, we forget to say hello to our neighbors and do acts of kindness that count. I like to think ‘Seven O’Clock Shout’ reminds us of a time when we were all forced to pause and think about what’s important in our lives.”
“It’s not a commemoration,” said Coleman. “It’s a reminder.”
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