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Five Minutes of Remote Magic from the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra

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Virtual performances have become the new currency in the music industry since the beginning of the confinement. With the impossibility of crowds gathering, fans and performers have turned to technology in order to connect around music. I was happy to see the classical genre was able to reach the public, and was even making headlines, during these challenging times. The Andrea Bocelli Youtube live-streamed Easter concert broke many audience records, with a live following of almost three million and a view count of twenty-eight million after just twenty-four hours of being on the platform.

A few weeks ago, my sister sent me a beautiful remote performance through our weekly musical recommendation email thread and I could not be more excited to share it on the blog today. I was completely seduced by the breathtaking soundtrack and beautiful production of the video titled “100 musicians of the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra Play Charlie Chaplin for UNICEF”.

This remote concert was an initiative by the orchestra as a call for donations to UNICEF in order to support the most vulnerable during the pandemic. Directed by Mikko Franck, each of the musicians remotely recorded “Love Theme” from the movie Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin (1936). I reached out to two of these wonderful performers to hear about their experience working on this unusual production.

Emmanuel André, violinist of the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra for over 25 years

Emmanuel André joined the orchestra as a brilliant young violinist twenty-five years ago, before even graduating from the Conservatoire de Paris (CNSM Paris) with a diploma in Music History and winning the first prize in violin from the Conservatoire de Lyon (CNSM Lyon). André explained to me that the beginning of the quarantine was first marked by a short period of disappointment: the upcoming orchestra season that he was looking forward to was cancelled and the teen music camps in the French Riviera where he usually teaches during the summer were removed from the calendar as well.

André then got over his initial frustration and took the time to organize his (numerous) music sheets as well as focus on playing pieces he enjoyed most at the time, until the UNICEF project happened. When it came time for a music selection, he explained to me that “The Modern Times soundtrack was proposed by a young double bassist [of the orchestra] and was adopted by everyone.”

The musicians then only had two days to prepare and record the piece which was a challenging exercise. “There were many technical constraints [...] [we had to] get the music sheet rolling on the computer screen, build a scaffolding for the phone to record and...the wood floors would creak when you’d least expect it!” The last part of the video, which required the musicians to hum the melody along in unison, actually took the violinist about a full day to properly capture.

Anne Villette, violinist, self-recording at home for the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra video for UNICEF

I also had a chance to interview Anne Villette who has been with the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, also known as the “Philhar” for short, since 1986. Her resume also includes playing for the Chamber Orchestra of Europe as well as being part of a jazz band and a tango orchestra. While she recognizes that her musical playing has not really been negatively affected by the confinement, the adventure of creating the Modern Times video was really emotional. She had to really soak in the original theme by listening to it many times before starting to play along to the reference soundtrack that was provided for her to play in her earbuds while recording.

“The soundtrack was ultra minimalistic with just piano, harp and bass as well as the famous ‘click’ for a perfect synchronisation.” The click is a tempo setting track that acts as a metronome and helps musicians stay at the designated pace during a recording. Each of the instrumentalists had to make sure to follow its beat to guarantee a successful superimposition of all of the soundtracks during the final editing.

Recording at home came with a “great feeling of solitude” according to Villette. She recounts having to imagine the other musicians in order to feel the energy of the piece and playing her part as best as she could.

Upon seeing the final video, she felt the production was a “great success.” “I was also happy to see my colleagues that I hadn’t seen in a long time!” Villette is looking forward to resuming playing with other musicians at last on June 5, even though it will have to be in a downsized group for health and safety reasons.

Emmanuel André playing the violin.

So what’s next for the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra? André says they “hope to give [their] first concert on June 6th, in less than usual conditions.” The opening programme, Metamorphosen by R. Strauss will be played by 20 strings only, and with no public in attendance. The current sanitary restrictions also mean that all tours are cancelled until November, but “there will still be many exciting productions ahead with conductors Daniel Harding, Leonardo García Alarcón as well as singer Barbara Hannigan.”

To listen to more music by the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, you can turn to Amazon, ITunes or Spotify to listen to their latest album in which Finnish conductor Mikko Franck leads the musicians as they interpret two pieces by French composer César Franck. You can follow the orchestra’s page on the Radio France website and Youtube channel as well for exclusive content and videos.