On the stage of a virtually empty Elliott Hall of Music, Purdue Bands and Orchestras performed a series of livestreamed concerts to an online audience, the first since the department canceled all indoor ensemble performances in March.
With nearly 1,100 students enrolled in the department of Bands and Orchestras, the department introduced a large number of coronavirus protocols over the summer.
Along with disinfection stations and social distancing measures, less obvious changes peculiar to an instrumental ensemble were adopted, such as bell covers to eliminate aerosol from wind instruments and pocketed masks that allow the insertion of reeds and mouthpieces for playing.
Both the orchestra’s wind and percussion sections were gutted and feature only string instruments, and all official concerts are closed to the public.
As for the music, the selections were as familiar as the current conditions are unfamiliar and odd. The department found itself retreating into old classics during the destabilizing times of the present.
On a similar note, Jay Gephart, Purdue Bands and Orchestra’s director and professor of music, highlighted past challenges after the Spanish Flu pandemic and World War I; and subsequent innovations by artists, as a source of confidence for musicians today.
“When you look at what happened in the 1920s,” he said, “the arts began to thrive again, more than ever, in the United States.”
He cited Gustav Holst, Percy Grainger and John Philip Sousa, three of the largest names in band music, as artists who produced some of their greatest work in the wake of the 1918 pandemic.
“After very tumultuous times, composers can draw on their emotions to write music that is incredibly compelling,” Gephart said. “I think that’s what we’re going to see in the coming months and years.”
For many students, playing music in Purdue’s ensembles is therapeutic, offering a kindred artistic outlet and communal reprieve from weariness, both coronavirus-induced and otherwise.
“All of us have come from musical backgrounds,” said Zachary Carpenter, a sophomore in the College of Engineering and violist in the Philharmonic Orchestra. “Everyone is passionate, and talented, and wants to be here.”
The reduced size of the orchestra and other preventive measures took away some of that sense of community though, Carpenter said.
“I enjoy having the diversity of musicians around me,” he said, “and we lost that diversity this year.”
The director also found that some measures made communication difficult.
“With the masks on, you lose all the nonverbals with someone’s face,” Gephart said. “As a conductor, it’s really important to communicate not only with your hands and eyes, but also your face.”
Without a live audience, Carpenter said, “the biggest difference was not the pressure or nerves, but a lack of excitement and energy.”
Along with the lessons of the past and the challenges of the present, Purdue Bands and Orchestras’ performance looked toward the future. Among the pieces played was a composition titled Reunion, written by Hispanic American composer Giovanni Santos. Purdue’s Concert Band performed the world premiere of the piece on Oct. 4.
Though audiences aren’t permitted to watch concerts in person, the department is looking forward to the planned Hagle Hall, a new, state-of-the-art technical and rehearsal building, according to Gephart.
“The Elliott Hall of Music was constructed in the 1940s, which was suitable for a band of 120 military performers,” he said. “But you look at the numbers we have now, 1,100 students and counting — we outgrew that space a long time ago.”
Hagle Hall is also planned to be near the center of campus, which will allow Purdue Bands and Orchestras to be closer to the student body than ever before.
“We call ourselves the heartbeat of Purdue,” Gephart said. “Imagine us being right there in the center of all the action.”