National Philharmonic launches virtual concert series at Strathmore and AMP

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews virtual National Philharmonic (Part 1)

Orchestral music will soon echo off empty halls and straight into your living room.

The National Philharmonic is launching a virtual concert series at Strathmore and AMP.

“We took the view, listening to scientists, that literally through the summer of 2021, life as we know it [was] not going to happen,” maestro Piotr Gajewski told WTOP. “Our motto became that anything that we plan would have to be doable under the current conditions, [not] based on hopeful improvements. … We were right on that guess.”

Instead, they’ll stream the concerts on the National Philharmonic website.

“It’s all geared to an audience watching online,” Gajewski said. “We had to basically reimagine everything. These are not two-hour-long concerts. … Think of them more in terms of 60-minute television shows. … All the latest technology, multiple cameras, a jib that floats over the orchestra. … We don’t do fake applause [or] cardboard cutouts.”

Instead, expect 35 musicians spaced out on stage in front of empty seats.

“String players can be distanced 6 feet apart, wearing masks, everybody’s safe,” Gajewski said. “Once you get to playing wind instruments where they’re putting … bad stuff into the air, that becomes complicated. They need to be spaced out much further. … I’m definitely masked like everyone else. I’m distanced probably about 8 feet.”

The virtual series kicks off Sunday with a 250th birthday bash for Beethoven, bringing together National Symphony master Nurit Bar-Josef and Baltimore Symphony master Jonathan Carney for the first time with the National Philharmonic at Strathmore.

“We’re kind of bringing the community together,” Gajewski said. “They’re each playing a different romance by Beethoven. Beethoven wrote two romances that are about nine minutes long, so each of them gets to play one of those. … Then we’re also performing Beethoven’s first symphony, which is fascinating. It doesn’t get much play.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews virtual National Philharmonic (Part 2)

After that, new concerts will stream every two weeks on Sundays at 2 p.m.

“We’re doing works by Jessie Montgomery, who is a hot, hot, hot composer, an African-American woman just getting played by all major orchestras at this point,” Gajewski said. “We’re also doing a piece by Melinda Wagner, who’s a New York-based composer. … She actually won the Pulitzer Prize for that [flute] concerto in 1999.”

Additional concerts will be held at Strathmore’s sister location AMP.

“What we’re doing at AMP is chamber music, which is … usually up to eight musicians, but typically four or five,” Gajewski said. “That’s being curated by our new concertmaster, Laura Colgate, also doing all kinds of music by women and lots of music by people of color as well, so just a fascinating program throughout the year.”

What’s the forecast for future seasons?

“We are hopeful that by September of ’21, we will be back in the concert hall with the audience,” Gajewski said. “Having said that, I don’t think anyone at this point expects that we are going back to anything that used to be. … What we will be planning for fall of 2021 will probably incorporate some of the things that we invented this year.”

Listen to our full conversation.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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