Joy. Gratitude. Relief. Those were some of the emotions coursing through Orchestra Hall, as a small group of Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians, technicians and stagehands returned for the first time in six months.

They gathered to launch CSO Sessions, a weekly series of small-ensemble concerts that music lovers everywhere can enjoy on demand beginning Oct. 1 via the new CSOtv video portal. The first program, which features seven musicians and lasts about 45 minutes, marks the start of the orchestra’s modified 2020-21 season.

“It was the best thing ever,” said Cristina Rocca, vice president of artistic administration. “It was wonderful to see the musicians back on stage and to see them looking well and smiling and just being happy to make music together again —  not just one or two at home or in the garden in the summer [on video]. And to see everyone else, the stage managers — it was a very special moment.”

“It was great to be back in the hall,” says Keith Buncke, principal bassoon, of the first taping for CSO Sessions. “Also, it’s nice to remember the challenge of performing.” | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2020

Since mid-March, due to public-health mandates designed to squelch the deadly coronavirus, the CSO, like scores of other arts organizations nationwide, had to cancel the rest of its season. Subsequently, it became clear that it would not be able not to  present at least the first half of its 2020-21 line-up of concerts announced in January.

So what could be done? Since audiences couldn’t come to Orchestra Hall, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association decided to take its concerts to them. And since it couldn’t put a full orchestra on stage because of mandated capacity limits, it turned to ensembles of reduced forces. The result is CSO Sessions, a series of high-resolution concert videos recorded on the Orchestral Hall stage and added weekly to the CSOtv portal through 2020. Programs have been announced so far for each Thursday in October.

“It’s all brand-new for everybody,” Rocca said. “We’ve never streamed [on a regular basis] before. It’s a huge effort for everybody — for the musicians, for the people backstage. We are lucky that we can do it, that we have our own home. We feel blessed, because not every orchestra has this possibility.”

Starting in November, some programs will incorporate works for small chamber orchestra, but the first five concerts all feature chamber ensembles ranging from duos to octets. While the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music Series typically features visiting string quartets and similar groups, it is rare to see CSO musicians playing music in this format outside the CSO’s two chamber-music series.

“It feels pretty unusual to be up at the front of the stage playing in just a quintet,” said Principal Bassoon Keith Buncke. “It’s a completely different experience than playing farther back in the hall in the orchestra. It was a foreign feeling the first half-hour or hour of rehearsing, but I felt like we acclimated and adapted fairly quickly, and now it feels quite comfortable.”

In this context, the musicians are in the spotlight for the virtually the entire time they are onstage. “In orchestra life, we might be playing constantly for an hour, but we aren’t really heard for an entire hour.” said flute and piccolo Jennifer Gunn. “There are different of focuses on different instrument groups. It’s just a different kind of feeling, for sure.”

“In orchestra life, we might be playing constantly for an hour, but we aren’t really heard for an entire hour,” says flute Jennifer Gunn. | ©Todd Rosenberg 2020

The repertoire was chosen by the CSO’s artistic staff, with input from Music Director Riccardo Muti and the musicians. “It’s a little bit of taking things from everyone’s suggestions,” Rocca said. “I’ve been talking to [Muti] regularly and taking on board his ideas, of course.” Muti recommended, for example, the inclusion of Rossini’s Sonata No. 6 in D Major for two violins, cello and double bass, which will be featured on the Oct. 29 program.

The October lineup ranges from chamber staples such as Nielsen’s Wind Quintet and Brahms’ String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111, to lesser-known works such as Ingolf Dahl’s Music for Brass Instruments (1944). Also included is one contemporary work: Boris Kerner by Caroline Shaw, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013.

“For myself and, I think, for all my colleagues, it’s been really exciting,” Buncke said. “It was great to be back in the hall, playing in a nice, big, rich acoustic. Also, it’s nice to remember the challenge of performing and the focus it demands.”

Expressing delight at the chance to finally reconnect with her fellow musicians in duos by Pierre Gabaye and Heitor Villa-Lobos, Gunn agrees. “I wanted to play music with somebody in person,” she said. “I miss my colleagues.”

Before each taping, the players are first tested for COVID-19 and then arranged about eight feet from one another, with the string players wearing masks. Such seating arrangements might seem like an impediment when it comes to blending and generating a sense of ensemble, but it should be remembered that instruments on opposite sides of stage are often share a dialogue in orchestral concerts. Therefore, collaborating from afar is nothing new to these musicians, and they are drawing on that experience in this setting.

While nothing can take place of live performance, the CSO Sessions streaming format does offer some advantages. The format gives audiences an up-close look at musicians that is not possible in the hall, as well as the opportunity to hear these concerts anywhere and anytime. “It’s a different way to enjoy the music,” Rocca said. “It’s a more individual, almost one-on-one way to enjoy the music and to enjoy the musicians. And it’s what we hope will keep our audiences engaged.”

Beyond his appearances Oct. 1 and 8, Buncke is scheduled to take part in some future CSO Sessions, and he is looking forward to them. “It’s great to have something to work toward,” he said. “It’s not a live performance, but it certainly feels like it, and it’s nice to have a really good reason to practice.”

Access to individual episodes of CSO Sessions costs $15, with a 20-percent discount for a bundle of three or more. For more information, visit cso.org/tv.

TOP: CSO musicians perform on the Orchestra Hall stage for CSO Sessions. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2020