UCLA Philharmonia’s Long Journey Back to Live Performance

2 min read

“There’s something interesting about playing live; you’re in the moment.” – Herb Alpert

On Saturday, October 30, 2021, UCLA Philharmonia returned to live performance after more than a year and half of remote work. The concert was an exciting embodiment of music’s resilience, strength, and of the spirit of the faculty, staff and students of The UCLA Herb Albert School of Music. Many factors coalesced to make this long-awaited event a familiar success as well as a harbinger of change.

Preparing for this live performance meant meeting the challenges presented by the LA County COVID protocols for rehearsing and performing. These protocols limited the ability of the instrumentalists to play together as a full ensemble until a couple days before the Saturday performance and required woodwinds and brass musicians to rehearse with slitted masks, bell covers and six-foot spacing. Fortunately, the ensemble navigated with unusual rehearsal setups, variable rehearsal coaching from instrumental faculty, and the efforts of support staff throughout the process.

The evening also gave the audience a preview of the changes underway at The Herb Alpert School of Music. These developments are largely in response to the school’s strategic plan, led by Inaugural Dean Eileen Strempel, with the primary focus identified as “reimagine our curricula.” The school is engaged in multi-leveled shifts geared towards re-centering works by historically underrepresented composers. This emphasis on “undersung” works was the focus of Professor Neal Stulberg’s special topics course, “Creating Inclusive Orchestra Audition Lists.”  Professor Stulberg’s class was one of numerous special topics courses that promoted collaboration among the school’s departments of musicology, music, ethnomusicology, along with our music industry and global jazz programs.

The concert highlighted pieces featuring French composer Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) and American composer William Levi Dawson (1900-90) along with a rousing rendition of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony. In addition to the repertoire selected, the preparation for this performance also moved in a new direction. During one of the Philharmonia’s rehearsals, Diane White-Clayton, Director of the UCLA African American Music Ensemble, paid a special visit to the orchestra. What started as a rehearsal became a celebration of the genre of the spiritual, which included a sing-through of “Hallelujah;” one of the spirituals Dawson used as source material for the finale of his symphony. 

The flexibility and resilience of the Philharmonia was further tested by a last-minute crisis brought on by the sudden indisposition of the lead trumpeter for the Dawson symphony, who was responsible for playing an extremely difficult and crucial part. Fortunately, a doctoral student substitute was willing to step in with confidence and professionalism and saved the evening, despite minimal rehearsal time.

This triumphant concert was a celebration of discovery, innovation, doubt, persistence, improvisation, and last-minute heroics in the time of COVID. It was a tour de force that exemplified the spirit and commitment of the student instrumentalists, their faculty instructors, and the excellent support staff infrastructure of The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. The excellent attendance, both in person and via livestream, heightened the sense of excitement among students about returning to live orchestral performance, and signaled the potential for increased audience access.

UCLA Philharmonia’s next performance will be on December 5th, 2021, including an excerpt from the opera “Lo Schiavo” (The Slave) by Brazilian composer Antônio Carlos Gomes conducted by UCLA DMA candidate Bruno Nascimento. Also featured are Beethoven’s sparkling Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring second-year Master’s student and 2019 Atwater Kent Concerto Competition winner, Brandon Zhou; and the orchestral showpieces by Bartók and Debussy. RSVP