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For the Fresno Philharmonic’s Bruce Chrisp and Gabrielle Wunsch, love and illness in the time of Covid-19


1.

She got sick first. When the symptoms appeared, she barely noticed them. But the tightness in her chest steadily got worse. This was back in the first, dark days of the pandemic. There were no tests at that point. The low-grade fever wouldn’t go away. Fighting for breath, she ended up in a Vallejo emergency room.

Pictured above: At top left, Gabrielle Wunsch and Bruce Chrisp on a London holiday. Top right: a screenshot of the Oakland Symphony’s ‘This Land is Your Land.’ Below: Fresno Philharmonic conductor Rei Hotoda and Chrisp.

He got sick next. This was at the beginning of March, before the complete lockdown. He played his last live concert on March 9, and he probably passed the virus along to others. Covid-19 didn’t hit him as hard as his wife, but it still gave him a good pounding. Months after he recovered, he was still experiencing heart palpitations.

This would be an interesting story even if we just focused on the illness: Trombonist Bruce Chrisp and violinist Gabrielle Wunsch, a married couple who are both players with the Fresno Philharmonic, survive Covid-19 and return to play with the orchestra. But the truly fascinating part of the story — the part about initiative, about seizing the creative moment, about resilience — is when you discover what else these professional musicians have accomplished during this pandemic year.

“Bruce gets bored,” Gabrielle says with a laugh, expanding on her husband’s restless and productive personality.


2.

That drive to keep busy would explain Bruce turning their garage into a state-of-the-art recording studio. His deep dive into audio and video recording. His success at stitching together seamless ensemble musical performances under socially distanced conditions. His work on the Oakland Symphony’s tremendous virtual performance for a citywide inauguration special celebrating Kamala Harris. His YouTube channel, which includes goofy forays into TV theme music made with musician friends. His stint as a “virtual producer in residence” at University of the Pacific teaching students about the ever-more-important intersection of live classical music and the internet.

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All this while maintaining ties and performing under strict safety protocols with the orchestras he belongs to, including Fresno. Bruce performs with the Fresno Philharmonic in “American Visions,” a concert that digitally debuts at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, and is available on demand thereafter. (The program, which celebrates American composers, includes Copland’s “Appalachian Spring Suite,” Jasmine Barnes’ “Resistance” and Florence Price’s “The Deserted Garden.”) Gabrielle, who has been with the orchestra for just a few years, has had a much longer recuperation period after Covid. But she will be in Fresno next week, along with her husband, to record the orchestra’s next two virtual Masterworks concerts.

While live performance is, of course, the ideal, both are happy that musical organizations are figuring out alternate ways to deliver music.

“I think some orchestras have actually gained audiences because of the digital format,” he says.


3.

They met at the Carmel Bach Festival in the Green Room. They’d actually played at the festival together for nine years without meeting each other, but at this particular concert, Gabrielle had been banished to backstage status because the music only called for a certain number of violins. Trombonists and other brass players are used to this; they often get long breaks when the instrumentation calls for it. Violinists, meanwhile, are used to marathon concerts, playing almost constantly in every piece of music.

“I would definitely take the trombone over the violin,” Bruce says, after I ask Gabrielle if she ever gets jealous because of her spouse’s “work schedule.”

He makes up for that perceived leisure when he’s not performing, however. Even before the pandemic, he’d been training himself in audio and visual production, mostly through LinkedIn Learning tutorials, YouTube videos and practice.

In other words, he had been getting a head start on skills that the performance world would be seeking after the pandemic hit.

That’s good timing.


4.

The Fresno Philharmonic concerts are filmed and recorded as an ensemble using social-distance protocols and multiple cameras. This is a popular practice by orchestras during the pandemic. Bruce — who plays in a whopping nine orchestras (mostly in the greater Bay Area) and commutes to each from Vallejo — has done similar “live” recordings with the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Santa Rosa Symphony. (He is a player in the Fresno concerts and has been a member of the orchestra for nearly 20 years, but in Sacramento, he played in the concerts and was in charge of recording them.)

It can be a challenge to perform in such an environment, he says. Take, for example, Joan Towers’ “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman,” which features a good part for trombone. The way the chairs were set at Shaghoian Hall during recording, he was seated at least 10 feet away from and in front of the other brass players in the performance. He could hear the other players well, but he’s sure that they had a harder time hearing him, especially because the trombone is such a directional instrument.

“Achieving an ensemble sound has been difficult on all the live projects I’ve played on,” he says.


5.

The other option during the pandemic (besides simply not performing, which has been the choice of two Bay Area orchestras, Symphony Silicon Valley and the Santa Cruz Symphony) involves a lot more work on a computer. The shelter-in-place style of recording involves musicians performing individual tracks, which are then stitched together by an audio engineer.

For the Musicians of Oakland Symphony (MofOS), Bruce spearheaded a performance of “This Land Is Your Land,” a project that included him arranging the piece. (He wears a lot of hats.) Musicians recorded this one themselves, mostly from their living rooms and backyards.The Woody Guthrie song calls for singing, but a professional chorus wouldn’t have sounded appropriate. So Bruce asked the Oakland players to also sing the lyrics. He ended up with 180 separate sound and video files to compile into a performance.

Scott Choate singing

The result is touching and musical. I got such a kick out of watching Scott Choate, principal tuba for the Fresno Philharmonic and Oakland Symphony, as he sang the lyrics that I wound back and watched the performance again. Choate’s endearing, tentative earnestness tackling the vocals — as opposed to his confidence in playing his instrument — somehow adds a deeper human touch to the proceedings.


6.

Next came another ambitious project: a 78-minute celebration of Oakland native Kamala Harris’ inauguration as vice president. Oakland Symphony brass players performed Richard Strauss’ “Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare.” The song is one of a number of performances and tributes offered by Oakland arts organizations.

More than 13,000 people viewed the video of the performance in the first few days after release.

Most of the musicians for the Strauss recording came to Bruce’s Vallejo studio, which he beefed up considerably in terms of equipment during the pandemic. (He and Gabrielle spent their pandemic relief funds investing in microphones.) Not only did he do the audio and video editing (and Gabrielle the title design), he played all five tenor trombone parts, and he put video of himself playing three of those tracks into the finished product. Yes, there are three Bruces. How can you tell them apart?

Different colored ties.


7.

All this, for both Bruce and Gabrielle, as they confronted Covid and its lingering effects. Bruce decided that playing the trombone would be therapeutic and help him overcome his breathing difficulties.

Gabrielle has had a much harder time of it. Her low-grade fever lasted three and a half weeks. She would get light-headed taking just a couple of steps across a room. She developed pleurisy.

She felt particularly awful through July.

It was harder for her to return to her violin. Affected by a persistent “brain fog,” she struggled to transform the notes on the page into cogent musical expressions. She stopped playing for many months. This upcoming performance with the Fresno Philharmonic will be her professional return to the violin.

“My healing was gardening,” she says. “I’d putter around in the backyard.”

She’s definitely feeling better. On Feb. 14 they posted a video titled “Latin Valentine” that included a version of “Besame Mucho.”


8.

They have a promising path ahead of them. Even when live performance returns, Bruce thinks many orchestras will continue to offer digital programming of some sort. And the fact that Bruce and Gabrielle are both accomplished musicians will make their technical expertise even more valuable.

“I think some orchestras realize they’re reaching a different demographic,” he says. “Partially that’s because younger people are more into digital performance. And some older people who are still most vulnerable to Covid are not going to feel comfortable sitting crammed in an audience. People in that age group are the biggest supporters of classical music. I hope there will still be stuff produced for them.”

Another bright note for them is that Gabrielle got pulled in by Bruce’s fascination with audio recording. She learned the workings of the studio. She can listen to a recording now and pinpoint what was wrong with the editing or miking.

That’s good, because there is so much studio work to do right now that Bruce can’t handle it all by himself.


9.

So it emerges that Bruce Chrisp and Gabrielle Wunsch, who were driving all over the state performing in orchestras before the pandemic, are just as busy — or busier! — in what we now hope is the tail end.

He thinks back to that time when he was sick. He couldn’t do much more than rest, lounge and dabble on fun projects. He doesn’t have as much time for that.

“I do yearn for the early Covid days,” he says.

But he doesn’t mean it.

Not one bit.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (1)

  • Steph

    Beautiful story perfectly told. Thank you Donald.

    reply

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