The last time the Anchorage Civic Orchestra performed, we lived in a very different world. Crowds flocked to the PAC, musicians warmed up in the cramped backstage, and audiences sat shoulder to shoulder, filling every seat. This week, ACO’s fall concert will look just a little bit different. 

Originally, the plan was to perform live, but to present the concert exclusively virtually. Unfortunately, with Covid-19 cases surging nationally and here in Alaska, the group had to adjust on the fly. With a few quick course corrections, the ensemble got together for one final time to pre-record the entire concert.

There have always been innumerable hurdles in putting together a concert, but producing a concert in the time of Covid has required substantial additional considerations. Musicians were spaced out, masks were required at all times, and the orchestra was reduced to only fifteen players, a mere fraction of the whole ensemble. If any of these additional obstacles were a nuisance, however, the musicians never gave it away. 

The group kept in remarkable spirits, ever as their recording session carried them well into the evening. For many, the idea of performing again was well worth the extra effort. “It’s just people who love to play. So there is no financial incentive, but I think people like to see each other, they like to play together,” says concertmaster Dr. Emily Madsen, “It’s really exciting, it’s been an asset to my mental health the last couple months.” 

The shutdowns have been especially difficult for many performing artists, whose home is the concert hall and whose family, the orchestra. ACO and other arts organizations are learning from one another and finding ways to safely bring people together through the arts. 

“We really tried to use best practices, and it helps that we have a good wealth of knowledge in the ensemble itself,” said Madsen. For this very reason, ACO elected to perform with only string players, as studies of aerosol properties have made it nearly impossible for winds to participate. 

As concertmaster, Madsen plays an essential role in the orchestra. This time around, however, the job is so much more - part musical, part logistics coordinator and part technical director. Throughout rehearsal, Madsen was always buzzing around. Setting up recording equipment, moving the piano, setting up chairs, fielding any number of random questions, and then of course tuning up and leading the orchestra through the challenging program. 

The concert features pianist Dr. Tamara McCoy in a performance of Bach’s D minor keyboard concerto, as well as Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and the great Hungaria Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. Music Director Dr. Oleg Proskurnya has always enjoyed challenging the orchestra, and this program is filled with daunting technical passages and breathtaking melodies. I suspect, with all the pent up energy and excitement to perform again, the orchestra will be more than up to the task.

ACO isn’t the first ensemble in Anchorage to make the switch to a virtual concert experience. The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra and Alaska Chamber Singers have been recording and presenting virtual concerts over the past few months to great success. With no end in sight for the pandemic, these ensembles are reimagining and adapting to make sure the lights stay on and the music keeps playing. 

If you closed your eyes, rehearsal wouldn’t sound all that different. The orchestra goes quiet, the tuning note slowly builds and fades. Then, the orchestra starts to play. But looking at my colleagues and friends, spread out, faces covered, things are very different these days. There are new challenges, new procedures, new technology, and the Anchorage Civic Orchestra is finding new ways to bring great music to audiences hungry for some concert magic.

The Anchorage Civic Orchestra, under the direction of Dr. Oleg Proskurnya, presents their fall concert this coming Sunday, Nov. 22 at 4:30 pm. The performance can be found here and donations are encouraged. 

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