By Eric Dundon
A deafening silence hung in the air following the final note of “Amazing Grace” at the First Baptist Church–St. Louis. Vocalist Kennedy Holmes, a St. Louis native, delivered an emotional rendition of this solemn hymn, backed by a string quartet of St. Louis Symphony Orchestra musicians.
Everyone in the room felt the power of the moment—the music, the setting, and the context melded together for a moving experience. Standing on the pulpit and in the choir loft of the historic church, the musicians were here for Songs of America.
Released daily June 28–July 4, these video segments from the SLSO showcased the variety of voices in American music, recorded at Powell Hall and filmed with the backdrop of St. Louis landmarks and released through several digital outlets.
Conceived as a response to the challenges of today as the country celebrated its Independence Day, the SLSO pulled off the project from start to finish in about three weeks. Here’s a look at how it was done.
Dawn of Songs of America
The SLSO is St. Louis proud. Being unable to perform live for our community has been difficult. We miss the audience and we miss making treasured connections through music. With the COVID-19 pandemic putting a temporary halt on live performances, we couldn’t share the joy of music in person in schools, colleges, healthcare facilities, or at Powell Hall.
“Our team discussed how, with everything going on in the world and America, this Fourth of July felt different and we needed to do something musical for our community,” said Ian Kivler, the SLSO’s Artistic Administrator.
From that desire to connect to St. Louis in a way that honored the moment, as well as a way to provide a new music experience, the SLSO settled on Songs of America in June. With a little more than three weeks to spare, members of the SLSO staff secured venues, identified repertoire, and solicited musician volunteers. SLSO staff collaborated on putting plans in place for a successful launch of the project the week of July 4.
Then, for the first time since March, Powell Hall reverberated with the sound of music.
Back in the Hall
To assure the highest-quality audio, musicians gathered on Powell Hall’s Emerson Concert Stage to first have pieces professionally recorded.
Before musicians entered Powell Hall, they were trained on the new COVID-19 protocols for entering the building. For those who regularly work concerts at Powell Hall, welcoming musicians back was a powerful moment.
“It’s a very weird feeling when you first come back to a space that you’ve spent so much time in doing things a certain way,” said Maggie Bailey, SLSO Director of Operations. “Everything is the same, but at the same time the way you do it is anything but typical, and it just takes a bit to get used to the ‘new normal.’”
Each small ensemble played on the stage for about an hour, first in rehearsal, then with two or three recorded takes. Members of the SLSO Artistic team took detailed notes about the recordings to make a master track heard in the final videos.
Videographers Jason Pippi and Austin Ratanasitee filmed the entire process at the hall and in the community.
Around St. Louis
Once each piece was recorded at Powell Hall, musicians, videographers, and members of the SLSO operations team headed into the community, donning face masks at each of the five locations used in filming.
Pippi and the Operations team scouted the locations in advance to check for light levels at the time of day filming was scheduled to take place. Scouting trips provided information that slightly changed filming plans. For example, the sun shone too bright at the selected location at Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park, site of “America the Beautiful.” After the scouting trip, the shooting location changed to a shadier spot.
At each of the locations, Pippi used the music as inspiration to develop shots and a narrative arc for each installment.
“Each piece really had its own personality and story to tell, and that really dictated how we filmed,” he said. “’Easy Winners’ was so fun that I jokingly suggested we should film some of the musicians sitting on top of the bar at the Joplin house.”
In the final product, that suggestion became reality, with three musicians sitting on the bar top of the Rosebud Café, a recreated turn-of-the-century bar and gaming club.
“The somber reverence of ‘Amazing Grace’ was the driving force of filming at First Baptist,” Pippi said.
And at the Soldiers Military Memorial Museum and Kiener Plaza, the crew found thematically appropriate backdrops, but occasionally had to film around inquisitive onlookers. At each location, Pippi and Ratanasitee took 3-4 takes with the full ensemble, at times moving the entire group to different locations on site. But were the players actually playing? Yes, but with the aid of a track recorded at Powell Hall and played over a speaker. This maintained the same tempi throughout filming.
“Each location also graciously provided a staff person to assist while we there, and everyone was so accommodating and helpful to us,” Bailey said. “At the locations that were open to the public, we had people come up and ask what we were doing, take pictures, etc. People told us stories of the last concert they went to, asked about our new music director, and in general were so positive about what we do. That was really great to experience.”
Pippi used clap points to sync the music with the filming, so when a viewer hears the music, the musicians’ movements are at the exact same spot every time.
“Before each take, you clap so that when you line up the final audio with the video you see a spike in audio waveform visualization. Match those two peaks and video is synced to audio,” Pippi said, explaining that some of the recordings were amalgamations of several takes requiring precise notes from SLSO staff. “It was a very collaborative process.”
St. Louis Responds
Once all the filming and editing work took place, the SLSO Creative team designed visuals to turn the individual videos into a series, while the Marketing and Communications Teams prepared videos for distribution, wrote accompanying articles, and built a social media campaign.
Nearly everyone on staff touched the project in some way.
“It was a team effort to put performances together for the first time in three months,” Bailey explained.
The project was released on the SLSO’s YouTube channel, social media outlets, and on SLSOStories.org. In the first week, the series reached more than 175,000 people in St. Louis and across the country. Many people shared enthusiasm and appreciation for the project in dozens of comments, likes, and shares. The project was picked up by the Nine Network of Public Media in St. Louis and KMOS in Warrensburg, Missouri, and the St. Louis American and Classic 107 covered the project in their outlets.
Viewers of the series said:
“This rendition gives me chills. What a beautiful and powerful message!”
“Raised the hair on my arms in the first ten seconds!”
“Absolutely beautiful and so very moving! Thank you, SLSO!”
Eric Dundon is the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s Public Relations Manager.