WHEN the Orchestra of Opera North’s concert performances of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra were cancelled as the coronavirus pandemic intensified, two members of the ensemble decided that the show must go on – virtually.

Richard Strauss’ 1896 ‘tone poem’ is one of the most famous pieces of music of all time, thanks to Stanley Kubrick’s use of its blazing opening fanfare in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and its borrowing since then by everyone from Elvis Presley to the World Wrestling Federation. Its celebration of humanity’s questing, resourceful nature took on a special resonance for Opera North’s Acting Section Principal Cello Daniel Bull and Principal Viola No 2 Lourenço Macedo Sampaio, as they worked out how they could bring 40 of their colleagues together, in sync and under social distancing restrictions, to perform its opening five minutes.

They got in touch with Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg, who had been due to take the podium for the concerts at Huddersfield and Leeds Town Halls, to see if he could help.

“The idea sounded rather crazy,” said Tobias, “but it kind of fitted in with how crazy the world is right now, so I thought we had to make it happen. But how could I, here in Sweden, go about conducting a large orchestra in England, with each member recording their parts individually?

“I contacted my dear friend and chamber music partner of almost 30 years, the extraordinary pianist Bengt Forsberg. We met in a gorgeous little wooden church in Stockholm, where Bengt runs a chamber music series, and did a couple of takes with my phone camera turned on me as I conducted him on the piano. I sent the film back to Opera North, and wished them luck!”

Daniel and Lourenço sent that footage out to 40 of their colleagues, each of whom donned full concert dress and recorded their parts individually at home, in time with Tobias’ baton. They filmed themselves in kitchens, spare rooms, gardens – even, in the case of percussionist Chris Bradley, as they took their daily exercise.

“They sent their recordings back to us, and we added instrument by instrument, part by part, until this amazing ‘performance’ took shape,”said Daniel. “It has really felt like watching a huge building being constructed, and with Tobias’ musical vision as a starting point, the resemblance to the creative process of an actual rehearsal and concert has been remarkable.

“After the iconic and very famous opening fanfare, there is a hymn-like section played by the strings which ends in a sublime resolution involving 17 independent string lines, which seemed like an appropriate conclusion for our excerpt.

“It’s not been short of its challenges, but in these challenging times, it has meant that we’ve all been in regular contact, and that we are still able to make music together, even when sitting at home in our living rooms!”

Richard Mantle, General Director, Opera North, added: “This extraordinary initiative came directly from our musicians and I am incredibly proud of what they have achieved with the support of our brilliant AV team.

“We hope that those who watch it will feel the same sense of connection through music as a powerful shared experience, that we have felt in creating it.”

Watch the performance online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nt8FhIVmR8M