Live-streamed concerts demonstrate the talent and perseverance of the orchestra.
Putting on a concert with a full orchestra while balancing the demands of medical school is no small feat under any circumstances, but add in a global pandemic and the challenge is heightened even more. Nevertheless, fourth-year Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) student Bettina Cheung and MD student Michael Wang, who founded the Northwestern Medical Orchestra (NMO) in 2018 and now serve as co-president and music director, respectively — along with about 50 other musicians made up of students, faculty, staff and alumni — met this challenge with determination and grace. On April 30, the NMO performed their second virtual concert for a remote audience of more than 300.
The event included pieces by Piazzolla, Mozart, Brahms and more — seven of them live-streamed and 13 pre-recorded. For the first time, the orchestra also featured vocal performances, sung by Rosalind Hurwitz, a research speech-language pathologist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, and Melanie Burbules, an executive assistant at the AbilityLab.
Not only was the music of exceptional quality, but so was the technical execution. For Mozart’s “Rondo Alla Turca,” four musicians played their parts from separate locations. Some were on campus in their apartments, while one resident was out-of-state. The musicians used an app called Upbeat to rehearse each week and sync all of their parts.
Recently, Cheung shared how the many moving parts came together for this event and what it takes to produce a concert in the midst of a pandemic.
This event was a big undertaking. What were you most worried about going in?
If there’s one thing Michael and I know about concerts with a lot of moving parts, it’s that we always need to expect the unexpected. No amount of preparation and equipment testing precludes the possibility of something going wrong. This year’s concerts were especially difficult, as there was a lot more technical A/V equipment. Michael and I are very experienced with concert logistics for in-person performances, but, this year, we had to become streaming experts.
I researched and tested all the A/V equipment and software we would need for a higher-quality stream, and Michael and David Fei-Zhang worked for hours on making sure our pre-recorded videos would run smoothly. Despite all that, 15 minutes before the concert, the machine we were using to handle most of the streaming stopped playing the pre-recorded videos smoothly. Thankfully, some quick thinking and stellar teamwork resulted in us seamlessly transitioning that portion of the concert to David’s computer. He wasn’t even on campus with the rest of us, as we had asked him to handle something else during the concert!
What were you surprised about?
A very pleasant surprise was the interaction with the audience in the Zoom chat! We hadn’t anticipated that being one of the best parts of the concert. The incredible support and lovely comments from everyone watching was a constant stream of positivity that definitely helped fill part of the hole left by not having an in-person audience.
We were also surprised by how many people tuned in! We typically have 300-400 audience members at our in-person concerts. To have that many tune in to a webinar, when everyone is probably already Zoom-fatigued, just speaks to how music will always have the power to bring our communities together.
What did you love most about preparing for and playing in this show?
I love being able to provide a musical outlet for the members of our community as well as provide a musical performance for everyone to enjoy. I’m always so delighted that so many musicians want to play and that so many people in our community want to listen. I loved hearing musicians saying how much they enjoyed making music with their group each week (even those who had to so remotely), and I’m still bumping into people on our research floors who said they enjoyed the concert!
How has the orchestra grown or changed since you started it in 2018?
While the orchestra has been strong in numbers since the start (we’ve always had about 50 musicians!), I think we’ve grown in many other different ways. First, our members have continued to grow musically since the group’s beginning under the leadership of our artistic director and principal conductor, Taichi Fukumura. He coached many of the groups that performed at the concert and led webinars that many other Feinberg community members attended to learn about music.
Second, I think our mission has really expanded and matured since we started in 2018. I’m so proud of our orchestra’s mission statement, which our student board worked hard to redefine last year. We have so many exciting initiatives in the works, thanks to the incredible partnership and support of the Office of the Dean and the Augusta Webster Office of Medical Education. We’re aiming to play more works by underrepresented and living composers in the near future, and we’re hoping to partner with other local organizations and artists to really increase our impact.