By Richard Byrne
Illustrations by Sarah Jones
How the post-pandemic push to think big again is paying off.
There is a palpable buzz of expectancy in the Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall on this gray Monday afternoon in February—and for good reason. Almost three years after COVID-19 swept across the globe, delaying a long-planned recording of Professor of Composition and Pulitzer Prize winner Du Yun’s acclaimed multimedia work, Where We Lost Our Shadows, the project is finally in motion.
Members of the Recording Arts and Sciences team adjust an array of onstage microphones. Student musicians warm up. Soloists Ali Sethi and Sofia Jernberg arrive for their first in-person rehearsal.
At the edge of the stage, conductor Joseph Young (AD ’09, Conducting), Peabody’s Ruth Blaustein Rosenberg Artistic Director of Ensembles, pores over the score with percussionist Shayna Dunkelman.
When the rehearsal begins, Young maneuvers deftly through key moments in the piece. Yet this is no mere exercise in polishing. Active energies of interpretation and collaboration are much in evidence. One key objective is to clarify and articulate the diverse threads woven into Where We Lost Our Shadows—a work for orchestra, video, and soloists written by Du Yun with Palestinian videographer Khaled Jarrar. It is a work that deploys a range of modes (raga, opera, bold percussive elements) to illuminate the violence and loss of selfhood that accompany the powerful currents of human migration.
At one point, Du Yun suggests a bolder approach to one passage. Young prods the players in that direction: “Even bigger! Surprise us!” Soon, a heightened intensity and coloration emerge. Du Yun smiles broadly as she watches it happen.
The recording of Where We Lost Our Shadows is one of many larger events and initiatives being pursued by the Peabody community as pandemic restrictions ease. It is part of a broader return to “thinking big” that is happening in classical and new music institutions and venues across the globe. Concert halls are reopening for audiences, and orchestras are embarking once again on tours, such as the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s series of U.S. performances this past fall, led by internationally acclaimed conductor Marin Alsop, director of Peabody’s Graduate Conducting program.
At Peabody, these larger projects also include a long-delayed performance of Du Yun’s Mythological Creatures triptych in May, conducted by Alsop. Productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Baroque composer John Blow’s opera Venus and Adonis, held off-campus at the Baltimore Theatre Project, are also part of the wave.
While COVID-19 tested Peabody’s resilience, these new projects demonstrate how the pursuit of artistic excellence and community engagement remain at the heart of the Peabody curriculum. It is a concerted effort to reclaim spaces and rediscover the possibilities on offer when artists come back together to work.
“From my experiences, when you have good people in the room, magic’s going to happen,” observes Du Yun.
HOW WE SPENT OUR PANDEMIC
When COVID-19 took hold in late winter 2020, governments and institutions met its unique and pervasive threat with a rapid and authoritative response. Peabody was no exception. The institute’s operations adjusted significantly, adapting performances and transforming pedagogy in the face of the disease.
That’s the big picture. Look closely and you’ll also see that Peabody’s artists, creators, teachers, innovators, and student performers felt the loss of community and collaboration keenly. “It was a shock for all of us,” Alsop says.
“We couldn’t perform or rehearse,” continues Michael Repper (DMA ’22, Conducting), who is working with Young and Alsop this semester on a number of new projects. “Couldn’t . . .”
Alsop finishes the thought: “Gather.”
Few conductors are as in-demand as Joseph Young, who holds positions as Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony and Resident Conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America at Carnegie Hall in addition to his faculty appointment at Peabody. He says that the pandemic moment “gave me a chance to slow down and figure out what music could be, and also what music could be to me.” Lockdowns and cancellations “challenged us to make sure we look at new perspectives on our approach to music.”
The pandemic did not prevent Du Yun from creating new work and finding collaborative opportunities. As an artist who pursues global partnerships, she found opportunities to pursue them in the varied course that the pandemic took worldwide. “Every country has their own timelines,” says Du Yun, who lives in New York. “So, when we were locked down in New York, Germany and China were open.”
The challenges posed by the sudden uncertainty of lockdowns converged with the growing opportunities to weave art forms such as video into composition and performance. The pandemic put the need for artists to better capture their own work for posterity—and find the resources to do so with fidelity—on the front burner. “People understand why it’s important to have documentation,” Du Yun says. “And why recording is important.”
GETTING BACK ON TRACK
Du Yun is not alone in seeing recording as an essential enterprise. And it is no accident that capturing Where We Lost Our Shadows rose to the top of Peabody’s post-pandemic agenda. The ambitious blend of music, video, and text in the piece pushes boundaries of performance, and requires broad collaboration across the institution to capture it.
Du Yun recalls that Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein, who attended a performance of Where We Lost Our Shadows at the Kennedy Center in 2019, initiated conversations about the project. “We just talked about the possibility of actually recording it,” she recalls. “Making a documentation.”
Spurred on by the award of a Johns Hopkins University Catalyst Grant, the recording project was planned for the spring 2020 semester. Then COVID-19 forced its postponement.
The immensity of the challenge is clear as Assistant Dean of Performance Activities Andrew Kipe runs through the logistical hurdles and technical requirements. The schedules of acclaimed and in-demand performers must align with available dates. Outside videographers would also be part of the mix, tracing the process of recording the piece.
Kipe adds that plans to record Where We Lost Our Shadows in 2022 were ultimately pushed back to this year. “The COVID protocols would not make for a good recording,” he recalls. “Everyone was stressed about that.”
Yet the energy and enthusiasm needed to succeed in 2023 was already growing, especially in Peabody’s Recording Arts and Sciences department. “You could tell the hunger was there when the students first started coming back,” says Scott Metcalfe, chair of the Music Engineering and Technology department. “We were really ready to get going.”
Recording Arts and Sciences Manager Ed Tetreault has been at the center of the planning, working out how best to integrate the efforts of Peabody colleagues and students into the sprawling and ambitious project. “Peabody being able to get back into doing these things is really important,” Tetreault says. “These projects allow us to show that we’ve got a lot of things going on here. And it’s really high-level work.”
THE RIGHT SOUND
As Peabody takes the leap forward into these bold new initiatives, it does so with a powerful sense of what has changed over three years. “I don’t think anybody expected us to just hit a reset button and go back doing everything the way we were doing it in 2019,” Kipe says. “I think we’re still trying to find our way.”
The rewards of doing so are already apparent. For instance, student musicians involved in the recording of Where We Lost Our Shadows will have the experience of working with a global musical superstar in soloist Ali Sethi, whose recording of the genre-melding mega hit “Pasoori” has received almost 520 million views on YouTube and ranks as one of the most popular global songs of 2022.
As a composer, Du Yun shares Sethi’s tastes for expanding the traditions and practices within a particular work. Yet her work seeks to bring varied modes into a proximity that sparks conversation between them, rather than simply juxtaposing them. “I always say that I believe in multitudes,” she says. “Multiple realities coexisting. That is not collage, right? It’s woven together.”
At one moment of the rehearsal, Young harnesses this powerful notion to coax the orchestra to find a dialogue that Du Yun has constructed between Ali’s raga solo and their own parts. “You’re not responding,” he says. “There is call and response.”
Young presses the players to find the conversation. Soon enough, you can hear these disparate forms converge and speak together. Young beams with approval as it happens.
Alsop believes that working on large projects allows students to get a sense of the world that awaits them after Peabody—and embrace it. “What we do is we try to treat them as professionals,” she says. “And they just experience it. And then, they internalize that. . . . We’re not really looking at it as ‘How can we use this to teach you?’ Because it’s the process that teaches them.”
And it is not only Peabody’s student musicians being put to the test. “This will be the biggest thing we’ve done since coming back,” says Metcalfe, of the ambitious recording aspect of the production.
Students in the Recording Arts program will also experience working on a project where little is straightforward or usual. Where We Lost Our Shadows was envisioned as a multimedia piece, so the process is a complex and layered one that encompasses image and sound at every level. “[The recording] won’t be like a video of a concert,” Kipe says. “It will be an integrated video product.”
Tetreault says Where We Lost Our Shadows is precisely the challenge his students need as they will seek work in a fast-changing world for classical and new music. “It’s becoming much more commonplace for a visual aspect to be part of these artistic projects,” he says. “We’re seeing it in our normal day-to-day operations. We get requests for degree recitals where students want to have some sort of visual component added. I think it’s really healthy. We need to be thinking outside the box a little bit and starting to push those boundaries.”
Metcalfe says the chance for his students to work this way is unique—and a direct result of the new vistas found in the wave of reopening projects. “It’s pretty rare for a school program to be able to have the students involved in a production [of this] scale,” he says. “So, it is really valuable for us.”
WHAT WE TAKE FORWARD
Members of the Peabody community found many ways to stay creative during a global public health crisis. Yet Michael Repper says that the commitment to record Where We Lost Our Shadows “even in the midst of the craziness of the pandemic” demonstrates a persistence and vision that “speaks to the strength of the institution. . . . I think everybody is thrilled to be getting back and doing it. A lot of other places probably would have just canceled it. Permanently. Which is not the case here.”
The work on Where We Lost Our Shadows will reach audiences later this year. “We are negotiating with a national recording label to distribute the recording and film with a goal of a fall 2023 release,” Kipe says.
Peabody’s reclamation of the opportunities offered by broader post-pandemic reopening is not restricted only to its Mount Vernon home. For instance, Kipe is enthusiastic about the possibilities on offer when Johns Hopkins University opens its new Pennsylvania Avenue NW facility—and performance space seating 375 people—in Washington, D.C., in fall 2023.
“The payoff [in reopening] is huge,” Kipe says. “Both from a branding and perceptional standpoint but also from the instructional standpoint.” The combined efforts across Peabody to think big again “speaks to the innovation that the institute is focused on as we go forward. It’s about giving students opportunities that are going to be seminal in their future careers.”
Alsop agrees. “It’s definitely a beacon,” she says. “And it’s symbolic in many ways of the strength of the institution, the innovative leadership under Fred Bronstein, and also the talent pool that we have within Peabody.”
Reflecting on his own work on Where We Lost Our Shadows, Young observes that those involved with the project will take away more than a mere sense of accomplishment. “It is so important for students to see that—as faculty members and as staff members—that we are not in our silos,” Young observes. “We are trying to band together and prepare something large and special to bring back to the institution. I want our students to see that we’re learning together. We are playing together. We are growing together. And, please, take this collaborative feeling away with you when you become a professional musician yourself.”