French orchestra plays on despite lockdown

A screen grab from a video in which members of the Orchestre National de France perform Maurice Ravel's Bolero in split-screen. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • A French orchestra has found a way around the coronavirus lockdown to record a 51-instrument rendition of French composer Maurice Ravel's Bolero.

Alone in their kitchens, lounges or dining rooms, individual musicians of the Orchestre National de France (ONF) played as their mobile phones recorded their parts in Ravel's thrilling orchestral score.

Then the magic: A technician arranged the parts into a video mosaic to create a near flawless, combined performance of woodwinds, brass, percussion and strings.

"I would never have imagined synchronising the sound of instruments not playing together," said Mr Dimitri Scapolan, the Radio France video editor in charge of the project.

The ONF is one of two orchestras of Radio France.

"When I overlapped all the pieces recorded by the cell phones on my computer, to my great astonishment, everyone was in perfect harmony," he said.

"All I had to do was to adjust the levels a bit and add some resonance - it mixed itself. It was a pleasure."

This unusual rendition of Bolero, one of the world's best-known pieces of classical music, had been reworked by conductor Didier Benetti into a condensed four-minute version.

The original work is about 15 minutes long and written for 80 musicians.

The ONF clip has been viewed more than a million times on YouTube since it was uploaded on March 29, 12 days into France's campaign of home confinement to curb the coronavirus pandemic.

The video begins with the artists introducing themselves one by one.

The music then starts, with instruments being played on three split screens, then four, and more and more as the piece crescendos.

"At the end, when we have all 51 musicians, I amused myself by recreating the positioning of the orchestra on the screen," said Mr Scapolan. "It highlights Ravel's orchestration and how this music works."

For the participants, it was a chance to not only escape their own confinement - at least mentally - but also to boost others' spirits.

It "provides a feeling of union" in a time of confinement, said violinist David Riviere, who recorded his part while listening to the piece through headphones. "It is a virtual reunion; we're gathered on the cloud, but we have our colleagues in mind while playing."

For Mr Riviere, it was also a way to spread joy, "something universal in this particularly difficult time", which has led to the ONF cancelling all its concerts.

"It is awful to not be working," said Mr Michel Orier, music director at Radio France. "But with this moving video, we wanted to say to the public: We are still there for you."

The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra completed a similar recording with German composer Ludwig van Beethoven's Ode To Joy, as did the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with American composer Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring - each bringing together some 20 musicians.


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2020, with the headline French orchestra plays on despite lockdown. Subscribe