Orchestral quarantine: Orchestre de la francophonie – One step ahead

par Réjean Beaucage

Cancellation, postponement, de-quarantining, a possible second wave… What will autumn look like? How to reconcile concerts and social distancing? In our new dossier series, we’ve asked the artistic directors of Quebec classical ensembles and orchestras a few questions, to get a sense of what’s in the works. Second topic in our series: Jean-Philippe Tremblay, founder of L’Orchestre de la francophonie.

L’Orchestre de la francophonie has given itself an educational mandate that leads it to renew its pool of performers every year. All these fine people hit the road for summer concerts at the end of a residency during which each new member of the ensemble learns his or her repertoire. What about during the pandemic?

The current situation obviously upends the plans of Jean-Philippe Tremblay, founder of the orchestra in 2001, but unlike all those who have discovered Zoom in recent weeks, one could say that the OF was one step ahead. The conductor explains:

“We’ve been using the Acceptd platform for four years now, which was specifically designed to allow us to audition online. Of course, we also like to do live when possible, but we started working with it when the number of auditions exceeded 100 – we’ve had years with over 400 auditions.”

The one good thing that happened with COVID-19, Tremblay also points out, is that it gave L’Orchestre de la francophonie time to reorganize.

“The auditions were over and we invited 37 musicians to join the orchestra this year, so we still wanted to give them something. I consulted Maurizio Ortolani, Senior Director of Digital Experience at the National Arts Centre. He’s a specialist in distance learning and he helped us set up our tools. We bought about 50 cameras with built-in stereo microphones, so that musicians and teachers could interact. There will be group classes, but also private lessons, which for us is a novelty directly related to the situation. There will also be lectures, master classes, etc. Each musician will also be required to give a 30-minute recital.”

For the summer of 2020, the OF’s Plan A consisted of travelling to festivals to give interpretations of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, the complete works of which the OF released in 2010 on Analekta.

“We had to do it with a slightly smaller orchestra than usual,” Tremblay explains, “because we’re conserving our resources for a big hit next year, as the orchestra celebrates its 20th anniversary.”

Tremblay has many other things on the go besides leading the OF, so he has a fairly good overview of the situation.

“For the past year,” he says, “I’ve been working with the University of Ottawa and, of course, in the fall it will be online as well? I hope to be back in July 2021 with L’Orchestre de la francophonie, but while I’m saying that, I’m looking at my international guest conductor engagements and, over 16 weeks, I’ve already cancelled or postponed 13 of them… At the moment there are cancellations until the end of May 2021 in Europe… There will no doubt be restrictions, but I hope that we will finally be able to put all these people together. Because that’s the beauty of our work, the beauty of our art.”

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