As we all sit here at the end of 2021 — a full 21 months since the global pandemic began to dominate all of our lives — and we are still looking for signs of a clear end to this unique crisis, it may seem premature to speak of rebirths and resurrections, but that is indeed what we are about to experience at the Traverse Symphony.

On Sunday, Jan. 16, the orchestra will present it’s first full orchestra concert since February 2020, nearly two full years since our last full performance.

This is a truly landmark event. In the 70 years since the orchestra started, there has never been a break in performances like this. That fact alone assures us that it will be a legendary performance. To be clear, we have done many performances with smaller ensembles, and indeed we had the incredibly significant and immensely fun debut of our Traverse Symphony Jazz Orchestra in October at the City Opera House. Returning to the stage of Corson Auditorium however with approximately 70 musicians in a program of the music representing the reason the orchestra was founded in the first place by Elnora Milliken 70 years ago, is one of the most momentous occasions I can imagine.

People have asked me with a certain degree of skepticism how I can be so enthusiastic and optimistic about this performance when the evening news is dominated by concerning reports, negative developments, and everything other than the stories we had all hoped for. My answer is relatively simple … because that is what a symphony orchestra is. Let me explain.

An orchestra is one of the most improbable creations ever conceived. That 70 people should gather and do something, anything, in complete unity of vision and purpose is an insane idea! An orchestra is predicated precisely upon this idea that things will be better tomorrow. Optimism that we can realize the genius of the composers we play, optimism that together we are stronger than we are separately.

For that synchronicity to happen in the way it should, we also need scores of people to be in the room with us experiencing what we play, listening and experience the beauty of sound, idea and thought along with us. During the pandemic, just as everyone sat at home on Zoom meetings, I and my friends and colleagues around the world did our work in isolation. It was not fun.

While there are many jokes about not having to wear proper clothes and now having to deal with work colleagues, I completely feel those attempts at levity were the only defense we had against this attack on our very humanity which this virus represents. Not being to communicate with people through music was one of the worst periods of my life. When my parents died when I was 14 and then 18, it wasn’t as difficult as it might have been because I could go directly to a rehearsal or performance and be with people in that special way I am allowed because of music.

Turning back the clock to long before there were orchestras, humans found that ultimately life was better with more of us around each other. There was protection and companionship in that togetherness. In other words, one stood a lesser chance of being killed by a predator animal, the skills of one group could complement the skills of another group. When not engaged purely in survival activities, there were others to talk to. At some point one early human did something that others found “entertaining” whether that was a painting on a wall, or maybe imitating an animal in a way we would now call humorous. I’ve often thought the game of “charades” must’ve been the first performance art, which was surely first followed by rhythmic beating on something. Flash forward quite some time and we have a symphony orchestra, one of the most complex ideas ever created to not involve technology, playing for an audience of many who experience some of the most glorious and uplifting sounds humans have ever created.

I feel what our return to the stage represents is a true necessity right now. We know how to do this with a high degree of relative safety after 23 months. We have protocols in place in terms of masking in the audience, which is the only way to safely gather in the numbers we will. Our musicians voted on even stricter protocols for themselves onstage in a completely democratic process. I put it in context like this … driving to the concert hall is not without its risks; being in a room full of people has always carried a certain amount of risk, for some greater than others, but ignored or unaware, it was always there. It’s time to get back to life, in a smart way to be sure, but it’s time.

When I started thinking about what we would play for this momentous occasion, I had as a motto that I wanted to play so-called “feel good music.” It was clear to me that people need comfort. There were other very real considerations, after nearly two years, it would be wisest to play music with which I could count on our musicians having a fair degree of familiarity. This, coupled with the fact that our concert would come so close to the start of the New Year, made me decide to play a program with mostly shorter smaller pieces or movements from larger works, rather like a New Year’s concert of fun, mostly lighter works representing as many composers as possible.

Highlights of the program include Ravel’s “Bolero,” the finales of Beethoven’s “5th Symphony,” Saint-Säens’ Organ Symphony, movements from symphonies of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, selections from the theater including Wagner, Verdi, Stravinsky, Copland, and to add to that New Year’s feeling, “The Blue Danube.”

I think this could count as an ultimate feel-good concert, and isn’t after all what we all need right now? We need to feel good, and I sincerely promise that if you attend this concert on Jan. 16, you will feel good.

Kevin Rhodes is the music director of the Traverse Symphony Orchestra and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts. Learn more at Traverse

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