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BSO violist Rebecca Gitter adjusts to her new normal since COVID-19

Under normal circumstances, Rebecca Gitter would have been about to take the stage at Symphony Hall in Boston when we started our interview. Instead, we chose 8pm for our Facetime meeting so she could get 6-year-old Clara fed and off to bed before our call.

Much has changed over the past 3 months for Rebecca and her family, as it has for performing artists around the globe. Rebecca is a violist for the world renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra, but these days finds herself conductor of the family schedule as she tries to blend practice, home schooling, family and personal time since they all began to shelter in place at the beginning of March.

Early years

Rebecca grew up in the Toronto area and began playing violin at age 7. She advanced quickly, until she met her match in a blockbuster part for orchestral violin, Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. “I just said forget this,” Rebecca recalled, “and decided to switch to viola.” She claims that she actually wanted to play cello, but since her brother already played cello, and her parents wouldn’t allow two cellists in the family, she switched to viola.

Rebecca didn’t spend all of her teen years in the practice room, though. In high school, she was an all-star catcher for her high school softball team, and by junior year was being contacted by scouts to play college ball. She was saved the difficult decision of choosing whether to pursue music or softball, though, when she tore both hamstrings during tryouts for a Toronto national softball team. “I was running the bases when I tore the first one, and I didn’t want to stop,” remembered Rebecca, so she continued to run and tore the other hamstring. The injuries ended any hope of playing college ball, but not of pursuing a career in music. Rebecca auditioned and was accepted to the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music.

Straight to the top

While at Cleveland Institute of Music, Rebecca won several prestigious viola prizes, as well as Toronto's Ben Steinberg Jewish Musical Legacy Award. In early 2000, the Boston Symphony Orchestra posted a vacancy in their viola section, so she decided to audition.

Auditioning for an orchestral job is not all that different from applying for any job, at least initially. Candidates send a resume and cover letter expressing their interest in auditioning. A committee reviews the resumes and extends invitations to qualified candidates to attend an in-person audition. That’s when things start to differ.

In Rebecca’s case, she was still in college and had no professional job experience, so the BSO audition committee asked her to send an audition tape as a preliminary screening. Shortly before the tapes were due, Rebecca won her first major job, at only her second audition ever—a position with the Detroit Symphony. With this new position under her belt, she notified the BSO and asked permission to forego the tape round and attend the live audition. The BSO invited her to attend.

Rebecca recalls that “there were about 50 people in the preliminaries,” and she had to prepare “a list of 12 orchestral excerpts and 3 or 4 solos.” She auditioned behind a screen so the committee could not see her, and she needed to get a majority of votes from the panel of 10 or 11 players in order to move onto the next round.

She made it successfully through the first round, so the BSO flew her back to Boston two weeks later for the final rounds. “There were 18 or 20 people in the semifinal round, once again behind a screen, and a final round that was also behind a screen,” Rebecca remembered. “Then there was two of us who were called back for a super-final round where they took away the screen.” Seiji Ozawa, who was Music Director of the BSO at the time, sat on the audition committee that chose Rebecca for the position.

“I remember winning the audition then going outside to use the payphone attached to Symphony Hall to call my parents and my teacher,” she laughed. “That was in November of 2000.”

Rebecca went on to finish her senior year then spent the summer of 2001 playing chamber music in Taos, NM. In September, she attempted to move to the US to start her job with the BSO, but her immigration lawyer had failed to file her papers. “On September 11, 2001, he put my papers, fully signed, into a FedEx drop box. It took two weeks to get to Vermont.” Rebecca finally received her visa and was able to start her new job by the end of the month.

A long and rich musical history

Only 22 when she assumed her position with the BSO, Rebecca was one of the youngest members of the orchestra. She remarked that many of the players had been around for years, and had played under multiple music directors long before she joined the orchestra. “You could learn how the orchestra played based on these connections to the past.”

Much of that past is illustrated on the music itself. “Previous violists would write dates and timings and notes right on the parts—it was like a history lesson just on the sheet music,” Rebecca explained. Some of the parts were twice as old as she was at the time, the pages soft, with corners creased or taped back into place. “New librarians are now bringing in new parts, but there was something very cool about playing with those old parts and struggling to turn the pages.”

The Maestros

Rebecca has worked with 3 music directors since joining the BSO in 2001. Seiji Ozawa was in the final year of his tenure when she arrived, and she reflected that he seemed more interested in her softball skills than her viola. In fact, at her final tenure meeting, Rebecca said that “Seiji didn’t have much to say about her viola playing, but had a lot to say about softball.”

Ozawa was a “true artist” according to Rebecca. “You could just feel the music pouring out of him.” And it was a great season for her to begin work with the BSO—they performed all of Ozawa’s big signature pieces including the Bartôk Concerto for Orchestra, Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and Mahler Symphony No. 9. “We never did get to play softball that summer, though” noted Rebecca.

After Ozawa retired, there was a gap before the BSO announced James Levine as their new music director. Rebecca said that her colleagues affectionately referred to his first concert as “5 easy pieces,” although it was just the opposite, with substantial works by Dvorak, Wourinen and Mozart on the first half, followed by Ligeti and Schumann on the second half. Rebecca noted that Levine had a much different approach than Ozawa and “really changed the sound of the orchestra.” Given his connection to the Metropolitan Opera, Levine performed a great deal of opera with the BSO, and also hired many new musicians including the principal flute, principal timpani and most of the brass section.

The first time Rebecca worked with the current BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons was at Carnegie Hall. Levine was taken ill, so Nelsons filled in at the last minute with just one rehearsal before the performance of Mahler’s poignant Symphony No. 9. “He made quite an impression on the orchestra,” she recalled. Nelsons is just one month older than Rebecca, and was considered very young to assume such a prestigious position when he was appointed music director in 2013. “He really listens and reacts and molds the concert based on what is happening at the time,” she said. Rebecca said Nelsons has recently been approached about doing a virtual recording, but he declined. “He doesn’t just ‘conduct,’ so he can’t pantomime it and stay true to himself.”

Rebecca remarked that 2020 is Keith Lockhart’s 25th anniversary as conductor of the Boston Pops. “There were lots of guests artists planned and big events that had to be cancelled because of the pandemic,” she said. Rebecca regards Lockhart as very kind-hearted and civic-minded, and said annual concerts at Spalding Rehabilitation and Children’s Hospital are especially meaningful for him. Lockhart and the Pops have done a number of live movie collaborations and were planning to perform “The Empire Strikes Back” this spring. Rebecca has played a number of these live movie score events with Lockhart and is impressed with how Lockhart can keep 90 players in line with the movie action with no click track—the responsibility lies squarely on his shoulders to make sure video and sound are completely synchronized.

COVID and its Impact on Daily Life

Rebecca said that during the BSO season, it can be a struggle to find time to practice. “I spend most of my time doing scales and learning music for the concert series each week. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday there’s just no time to practice if I have to commute into Boston twice a day.” Since the Coronavirus pandemic shuttered concert halls around the world, Rebecca has made time to practice every day. Without the worries of having to prepare orchestral programs every week, she has the freedom to practice what she wants, including solo music she hasn’t been able to practice for 20 years.

But Rebecca is a mom first, world-class violist second. Since the pandemic struck, she and her husband, Aaron, have made adjustments to fill in the gaps that online kindergarten has created for their daughter, Clara. Rebecca recognizes that “teachers are doing as amazing a job as they can. This is no way to have kindergarten. I am doing the virtual introduction before this year’s July 4 concert and plan to give a shout-out to teachers and how they have had to turn on a dime to keep a connection to their students.”

These days, Rebecca divides parenting duties with her husband, Aaron, so that Clara feels as little impact from the virus as possible. Clara, who has flatly refused any suggestion to take piano, viola or cello lessons, sings constantly throughout the day. She even borrows Rebecca’s phone to record albums of herself. Rebecca said, “Clara gets focused on things she likes,” and “thanks to the Cincinnati Zoo, she is now creating home safaris online every day, complete with inflections of the different zoo keepers.”

Aaron, a professional chef, has planted impressive vegetable gardens on their property and encourages Clara to understand and participate in what they are growing. “Clara eats greens like candy,” boasts Rebecca, as Clara munched on a pea picked fresh from a vine. Aaron is using this time to explore his chef side in a little more of a “home chef” sort of way. He has also begun to put out a fresh vegetable stand at the end of their driveway on Saturdays so neighbors can purchase some of the fresh produce he harvests.

Performing Arts in COVID Times

Rebecca describes the impact of COVID-19 on the performing arts as “massive.” “Concerts depend on people being able to gather,” she explained, and it is now a “waiting game for a vaccine or treatment that audiences need to have to feel comfortable back to the concert hall.” Recently the Pops season and Tanglewood have been cancelled for the first time in their histories. In looking ahead to the 2020-21 BSO season, Rebecca said “many think the whole season will be lost.” She is encouraged, though, that European orchestras are starting to find ways to space out and hold live concerts. Rebecca feels like there are many options that can be explored to make concerts safe, including removing seats from Symphony Hall or performing smaller chamber ensemble concerts.

In the interim, Rebecca, Aaron and Clara do their best to keep daily life as normal as possible. Until COVID hit, Rebecca had trouble finding time to practice. “I spent my time learning music and practicing scales. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I often would have no time to practice as I’d have to commute into Boston twice.”

These days, Rebecca has time to practice and, since she doesn’t have to learn orchestral programs, is practicing music she hasn’t touched in 20 years. “I make time each day to practice 1-1.5 hours. I also bike about 20 miles per day, then spend the rest of the day home schooling or helping with the Zoom kindergarten class.” She has also made time to give back, performing free concerts at Carlisle Court for senior citizens. “It felt good to perform and I found solace and joy and playing music at home. I felt a strong need to share and to take other people’s minds off the current public health crisis,” said Rebecca.

While it was hard to meet people when they first moved to Carlisle in 2012, Rebecca and her family have really come to enjoy their neighborhood. They take walks every day and chat with neighbors at proper social distance. “You can really depend on your neighbors,” she said, then chuckled. “Sometimes we feel like we’re on the old TV show ‘Home Improvement,’ as if we are chatting over the fence with the invisible Wilson.”

In Rebecca’s mind, COVID has really brought out our community. Since Clara started at Carlisle Public Schools this past fall, they have come to feel more supported and connected in town. “We’ve never been here in the summer,” said Rebecca, “but we are looking forward to being here, as well as visiting our families in Maine and near Tanglewood when it’s safe to do so.”

While Rebecca wistfully looks forward to the time when concerts can resume, she really doesn’t look forward to opening her locker at Symphony Hall when she finally returns to the building. “We were playing school concerts when everything shut down. I think I left shoes at work, and maybe a smelly shirt in my locker,” she joked. Unfortunately no one knows right now when that might be possible.


This article was published in the online issue of The Carlisle Mosquito on June 12, 2020:

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