Composer-in-Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte wears many hats at the HPO, from community and education programming to mentoring our Composer Fellows and of course, her most obvious hat, composing! She has a lot to look forward to in the 22-23 Season with more live events returning and the world premiere of her newest work The Path Illuminates at September’s season-opening concert, Gemma Conducts Rachmaninoff.
“I’m very excited to hear the piece I just finished writing this past month. It celebrates my 10-year anniversary with the orchestra, and I feel very lucky to be here. I’m also excited to get back to hosting our usual programs like the pre-concert talks,Talk and Teas, and our community and education programs. I love sharing enthusiasm about music and connecting with our engaged audience,” says Abigail.
One of Abigail’s more recent endeavors with the HPO has been directing the live streaming of 21-22 Season concerts! Abigail first started live streaming with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, working alongside a film director to capture the orchestra live and project it in the hall so that the audience watching the concert could see close-up shots of musicians at key moments. Next, she worked with Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, “My first job with CPO was to live stream a concert with famous soprano Renée Fleming, so the pressure was on,” says Abigail. “The tech team there is really incredible and we work with 9 cameras on various levels.”
We asked Abigail about what goes into preparing to direct a live stream concert, which requires careful planning to ensure the cameras follow the music and themes throughout the orchestra. Keep reading for her insights and a behind-the-scenes look at her experience, including videos from 20-21 Composer Fellow Matthias McIntire.
In the first video, Matthias demonstrates our live streaming set-up, and both he and Abigail call the camera shots during the Postcards from Buenos Aires concert and rehearsal. In the next video, we see the final moments of Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes being filmed according to Abigail’s direction (scroll down to see the final performance video according to her shots).
HPO – We see in the behind-the-scenes footage of you in action that live streaming is a fast-paced and complex process! Can you tell us a bit about how you prepare before each concert?
Abigail – Live streaming is definitely a big undertaking! Filming live means that a very serious plan needs to be in place for every moment of music, whereas if it weren’t live, cameras could just capture everything to be edited afterward. To prepare, I analyze the music and determine what should be shown and which camera will capture it. Solos are obvious but there are other great moments with the conductor or subtle percussion instruments, for example, that a listener may not even register unless shown. It is also important to consider where the cameras are placed and what they can capture – sometimes a shot just isn’t possible because a camera that could capture it is already filming something else. They need a moment to reset between shots unless there can be a smooth shot from one instrument to another.
These changes generally happen very quickly, with me calling out the shot change as well as the upcoming shots so the camera operators can get ready. I’m following the music in a special truck out in the loading dock, sitting next to the “switcher” (person who switches from camera to camera) and other technical personnel. The camera operators are silently listening to me on their headsets while filming in the hall. While I’m doing this, I try to keep one eye on the score and another on the camera shots on a screen in front of me. It is a wild adrenaline rush and the concert seems to be over in a flash, there is never a dull moment!
HPO – With that in mind, would you say that being a composer yourself informs your technique and enhances your abilities in this area?
Abigail – I would say that a conductor would be well trained to do this as it is more like conducting than composing. You have to know what the most important musical element is and coordinate other people to act based on specific timing. As a composer, I can certainly handle musical analysis, but I have gotten better at refining my language to be economical and precise in directing the camera crew in stressful situations. I’ve also become more realistic in choosing my shots based on experience. I sit in all rehearsals, listening in real time and practicing my calls, while gradually refining the calls to minimize dangerous moments.
HPO – Can you share with us any works that you particularly enjoyed live streaming?
Abigail – I loved filming Ginastera’s Variaciones Concertantes, which was like a tour around the orchestra. We also had some extended solos in that piece, where I could pass the reins over to our splendid team at Hills Video and let them make some video magic with two or three cameras on the same instrument to create some artistic shots and transitions between them.
HPO – How about any situations that presented a unique challenge?
Abigail – The work that posed the biggest challenge was my own, Making Light, for our December 2021 concert Hometown Holidays. Acting as composer and live stream director was not an easy fit. At that point, I was stationed up in the sound booth at the back of the hall. First of all, directing the live stream meant that I couldn’t be involved in rehearsals of my piece. To make it even worse, I couldn’t even listen in as we were still getting the tech worked out and I couldn’t hear any of the speaking or questions from the conductor or players. In the show itself, I had to prepare the team to cover the last few measures of the previous piece, take off my high heels and sprint past the audience to the stage. I calmly introduced my piece on stage, took off my shoes again, and sprinted to the back of the hall to get back to live streaming. I had to do it again for the bow at the end of the piece. I really should have left my shoes by the stage but I didn’t think about that until afterward.
Other challenges are when there are last-minute musician seating changes, like, “we’re moving the harp to the other side of the stage.” Normally this wouldn’t matter at all, but when all movements of all cameras are planned to fit like a jigsaw puzzle, a move like this means a lot of eraser use and maybe a swear word or two.
Challenges can also arise with new team members, such as replacement camera operators due to illness. Even with a detailed seating plan, it is really hard for people unfamiliar with western orchestral music to know the difference between a clarinet and oboe, or violas and violins, or horns vs the brass section in general. That’s when having one eye on the camera angles is essential. I sometimes start shouting, “No, up a row, to your right, the guy with the blond hair…” etc. I then apologize for shouting but it’s hard not to in the moment when the shot of the solo is about to be lost. All of this happens while I’m still trying to follow along with the score so I don’t lose my place. We get one practice session but even that can be tight for someone just jumping into this type of music for the first time. Live streaming is always an adventure!
HPO – What would you say viewing a concert recording or live stream can add to the viewer’s listening experience?
Abigail – Whatever seat you have in the hall, you cannot see all of the great expressive movements of the wind and brass players because they are buried too deep in the orchestra. In the recording or live stream, we see the musicians as if we’re sitting right in front of them, as well as the conductor from the front, as musicians do.
When live streaming, I am trying to guide patrons in understanding the music and knowing what to listen for, like a listening guide by a composer would do. For example, the first time a theme is heard, I’ll show you the melody instrument, but the next time you might see a flash of a beautiful supporting line that you may not have noticed otherwise. I guarantee you’ll see every player up close and notice the techniques of the way they play, from breathing to bowing to the speed of percussion mallets.
HPO – Thank you so much, Abigail, for taking us behind the scenes with you! It has been so wonderful to see you and our video production team working together to make every recorded concerts even more polished and high-quality than the last.
We look forward to the 22-23 Seasons’ three Online Concerts: