Composer Amanda Harberg wrote “Hall of Ghosts” in 2020, a piece for solo piccolo created as an elegy to the collective loss of the pandemic, particularly in the performing arts. Premiering Thursday on CSOtv, “Hall of Ghosts” stars Chicago Symphony Orchestra piccoloist Jennifer Gunn and dancer Alyssa Allen of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.
The streamable dance film, part of CSO Sessions Episode 16, is available through April 23 with additional selections by Gabrieli and Bach.
“In the beginning of the lockdown, when we were all figuring out what to do with the situation and how to make meaning out of it, I heard that the national flute convention had been cancelled,” said Harberg in a phone call. Trained as a pianist, Harberg has written several compositions for flute and piccolo. She is drawn to the flute community in part because of their enthusiasm for new music.
“I felt the collective disappointment of my community with the flutists," she said. "I was in the kitchen with my husband [documentary filmmaker Micah Fink] and we were trying to figure out if there was any way we could offer something of musical comfort.” The result was a new arrangement of Harberg’s work “Prayer” for virtual flute orchestra, which materialized as a video, edited by Fink, of National Flute Association musicians in now-familiar Zoom boxes playing together from their homes.
“People were so eager to collaborate. Everybody was sitting around at home wanting to make music together,” said Harberg. One of the flutists who was part of the “Prayer” orchestra was piccoloist Gudrun Hinze, who’d filmed her part alone at Gewandhaus Chamber Music Hall in Leipzig, Germany. Harberg said she "felt the presence of the hall — the memories, the history and countless concerts that had been presented there over the years. It felt like ghosts. Gudrun’s playing felt like an invocation to bring the music back.”
The rich, lyrical tone of the piccolo’s lower register reverberating in an empty concert hall compelled Harberg to create a new solo piece for the instrument. CSO piccoloist Jennifer Gunn came across Hinze’s recording of “Hall of Ghosts" and knew she wanted to play it. Gunn approached Harberg and brought the piece to the CSO’s administration. "Hall of Ghosts" marks Harberg’s CSO debut.
It was Gunn’s idea to add a dancer to the mix. She approached CSO photographer and videographer Todd Rosenberg, who is also the contracted photographer for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. “I thought it would be really moving to have a dancer there,” Gunn said in a phone call. Rosenberg put things in motion by approaching Hubbard Street associate artistic director Jessica Tong and Allen, who developed an improvisational score to accompany Gunn in an otherwise empty Orchestra Hall.
“There’s so much femininity that comes through with the piccolo. I fell in love with the piece immediately,” Allen said in a phone call. “[Tong] had full confidence in me to think on the spot and dance what the piccolo was making me feel.”
Because of the fast-moving air required to play piccolo, the instrument produces a high volume of aerosols that limited Gunn and Allen’s ability to be on stage at the same time. Allen dances through the seats of Orchestra Hall and at various points around the stage. Rosenberg used this as an advantage in creating the film, incorporating video effects to give an even more ghost-like quality to the women. Allen wears a purply frock reminiscent of Isadora Duncan, her movements inspired by a muddling of Duncan and other 20th century modern dance luminaries with more recent influences like Camille A. Brown and Sirr Tmo Sama, a Chicago-style footworker paired with Allen for Hubbard Street’s 10x10 Crossbody Collaborations.
“The piccolo doesn’t get enough credit," said Gunn. "It’s been pigeon-holed into what the orchestra role is for us, but each instrument on the stage has a soloistic quality. Composers are taking new interest in the piccolo because it has this untapped beauty to it.”
As a young artist early in her dance career, Allen can relate. She graduated with the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance in May, 2019. She joined Hubbard Street as her first professional job after spending the summer dancing in Canada, Italy and Bosnia. Within a matter of months, Allen was back at home in Los Angeles during the early lockdown of the pandemic. “I find so many similarities between me as a dancer and the piccolo as a solo instrument,” Allen said. “I haven’t been able to do solo work in a theater — that’s unheard of in my life. It’s all tied together: this unorthodox instrument being beautiful and this unorthodox dancer and time.”
Harberg, Gunn and Allen all found motivation and inspiration working together on the project, which is part of the CSO’s recognition of Women’s History Month.
“The way [Allen] moved her body or the way she moved her hands influenced the way I played a phrase,” Gunn said. “It was an organic, magical experience.”
Allen felt community between artforms that she hadn’t experienced since before the lockdown. “During quarantine I had my dance community but I was disconnected from visual artists and musicians,” she said. “Being able to appreciate and complement each other gives praise to other artforms. I missed it so much.”
CSO Sessions, Episode 16: Harberg, Gabrieli & Bach streams from March 25-April 23 on CSOtv. Access to individual episodes is $15. A 20% discount is available for purchases of three or more premium online episodes. For more information, click the event page below.