NEC Concert Choir Performance Persists Through Innovation

Conductors Joseph Nizich '21 MM and Jennie Segal '21 worked alongside NEC's Director of Choral Activities, Erica Washburn and the NEC Concert Choir to bring this digital performance to life.

Jennie and Joseph take a selfie in Jordan Hall. Both are wearing concert blacks and masks, and the Jordan Hall stage is behind them.
Conductors Joseph Nizich '21 MM and Jennie Segal '21 MM take a selfie in Jordan Hall, wearing masks and concert blacks.

At the culmination of the fall semester, graduate conductors Joseph Nizich '21 MM and Jennie Segal '21 MM, with Director of Choral Activities Erica Washburn, led the NEC Concert Choir in a creative project in digital performance, innovating and finding new ways to collaborate during this hybrid learning time.

How do you rehearse during a pandemic? Singers take turns rehearsing in person, while others join via video conferencing.

“The pandemic has required us to try our hand at replicating the traditionally intimate experience of choral singing while standing 16 feet apart, masked, and in some cases, separated by thousands of miles,” said Washburn in her program notes. “What this pandemic could not change is [students'] passion for choral artistry.”

In preparation for the digital concert, ‘Great Music for a Great (Virtual) Space,’ students in the Concert Choir rehearsed both in person and virtually via Zoom throughout the semester.

“Coming into this year, we weren't sure what we were going to be able to do,” shared Jennie, “but I'm thrilled with everything we've been able to do, and we've been part of a lot of new innovation.”

In order to enable COVID-safe distancing during rehearsals, real-time rehearsals included 10 choristers in the rehearsal hall at a time, wearing masks and maintaining 16 feet of distance. The remaining singers joined the group via video conference.

What was it like to lead an ensemble while masking, distancing, and working via video?

For the concert itself, music was pre-recorded, with hybrid student singers performing in Jordan Hall itself, while remote students recorded themselves from wherever in the world they are studying this year.

This year, NEC's recording engineers played a key role, working with the conductors to mix the recordings into the audio heard in the final concert.

The repertoire for this concert featured works ranging from contemporary to historic. "We found it important to use our platform to recognize the contributions of underrepresented groups,” said Segal. “We made it a point to incorporate a number of pieces by female composers and composers of color.”

Repertoire included works by Isabella Leonarda, Pärt Uusberg, Johannes Brahms, Stacey V. Gibbs, Florence B. Price, Larry Nickel, and Caroline Shaw.

“I really enjoyed working on the Caroline Shaw piece 'From Rivers.' For the choir, it was an interesting experiment in aleatoric music, and it was a really great opportunity to connect with other musicians from outside our department,” said Nizich. “Sameer Apte ’21 MM did a fantastic job with an unconventional cello part, and it was an amazing experience to work with our talented vocal soloist from the jazz department, Astgrik Martirosyan ’22 MM.”

Joseph and Jennie describe their favorite pieces from the digital concert program.

“My favorite piece to work on was Larry Nickel's 'Long Black Arm,'” shared Segal. “It really challenged me as a conductor and required a lot of gestures that were outside of my comfort zone.”

"As a conductor, it's a little fear-inducing knowing that the people you're trying to connect with can't actually see what you're doing. It makes you want to increase the size of your gesture and increase your clarity...but the actual answer is to really trust the ensemble and react to the musicality," said Nizich. “It was a really big exercise in trust for me, and I feel like I'm a much better conductor because of it.”

Director of Choral Activities Erica J. Washburn recognizes the challenges, and the successes: “Knowing your ensemble musicians can't see your breath, or each other's, because we're all masked, there is an impulse to compensate,” she says. “But the hard truth as a conductor is that you have to find it within yourself to trust your ensemble, respond to your musicians, and help them navigate their communal musicianship.”

Singers in Jordan Hall had to stand 12 feet apart with masks
The digital concert included students singing in Jordan Hall itself, while masked and distanced, mixed with remote students who self-recorded.

Watch the full performance here: