University Orchestra

Masks Up, 6 feet apart, and still making art

October 5, 2020


Finding ways to operate amid COVID-19 safety precautions requires creative problem-solving skills, but faculty and staff in the arts are showing off what they do best — enhancing the student experience through creative measures.

Take UR’s symphony orchestra for example.

The orchestra is typically the largest ensemble in the Department of Music, gathering anywhere from 72-80 student, faculty, alumni, and community musicians.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, this year’s orchestra is made up of only 18 students, who sit masked and physically distanced across the Camp Concert Hall stage for rehearsals, while playing only string instruments.

“We feel so lucky that we can be back on campus and play the music we love so much,” said Alexander Kordzaia, artistic director and conductor of UR’s symphony. “This new structure gives us a chance to play a repertoire we would not play with the large ensemble before COVID-19.” 

Kordzaia, who usually conducts the orchestra behind a podium, decided that the smaller group called for conducting in a more active way. As a pianist, he’s replaced his podium with a harpsichord and directs the orchestra from behind the keyboard.

For the Modlin Center for the Arts, COVID-19 affected its ability to present performances, so Modlin shifted its focus to supporting faculty in the arts who would be holding classes in Modlin’s performance venues. 

Sean Farrell, Modlin’s production manager, and others spent the first two weeks of classes adapting each venue’s classroom equipment to meet the needs of faculty and students. 

“Zoom only allows one audio input, so we needed to determine a way to mix the audio before being fed into Zoom,” said Farrell. “For example, the audio from a microphone placed on an instrument and one placed on a professor need to merge so that those listening on Zoom get the best experience.”  

Farrell’s solution was to retool the production-level audio mixers in the venues. Now, whether it’s a music, theater, or dance class, the technology accommodates the numerous teaching styles and classroom scenarios of those teaching the performing arts.

In Boatwright Memorial Library, Lynda Kachurek, head of rare books and special collections, is teaching a first-year seminar favorite titled the “Secret Life of Books.” The course requires a lot of hands-on, creative work such as bookmaking and paper folding. Yet having students pass around art materials during class wasn’t an option this year.  

Kachurek, with the help of Book Arts Program Director Jen Thomas, made the decision to prepare individual supply bags for each of her students. The bags not only ensure the safety of her students but also help Kachurek and her students stay organized and prepared for each class. 

“At the end of the semester, students are going to be able to keep their bags to hopefully keep their creativity flowing,” said Kachurek.  

In University Museums, new exhibitions have continued to be installed on campus such as “Memories + Inspirations: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art” on display in the Harnett Museum of Art and “Conceptualizing Arts and Sciences at 30: Prints from the Harnett Print Study Center” on display in the Modlin Lobby.

While complying with the University’s physical distancing framework, museum staff have had to get creative to identify ways for the community to engage with the exhibitions.

In addition to private visits with students and faculty in groups of nine or less, UR Museums has also gone virtual, leveraging social media as a way engage with the community. 

“We’re planning to use Instagram Live and Zoom to curate opportunities for discussion about exhibitions, the art, and its collectors,” said Martha Wright, assistant curator of academic and public engagement. “It’s going to very much feel like our usual gallery talks and exhibition programming, but all online.”

The Department of Theatre and Dance has chosen to see the challenges brought on by current events as an opportunity to identify new and engaging opportunities for students.

In professor Chuck Mike’s “Theatre for Social Change” class, students are gathering interviews about individual’s experiences during COVID-19 and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. The interviews will inspire a performance at the end of the semester, which students will create and perform.  

Distance didn’t stand in the way of University Dancers in mid-September, as they auditioned via Zoom with Alexandra Damiani, a French-born choreographer, artistic director, and movement specialist based in New York. Many dance students are also now exploring how to integrate technology into their own works of choreography.

“Artists are collaborative and creative problem solvers,” said Anne Van Gelder, director of dance. “It’s in our nature to look at what is possible, instead of allowing ourselves to become stymied by what is no longer possible. Within boundaries, creativity can still flourish.”