West Hartford’s Hall High School Pops ‘N Jazz show will be virtual this year, a move that has created new challenges, creative opportunities, and learning experiences for the cast, crew, and staff.
By Ronni Newton
The singers, dancers, and instrumental musicians have been preparing for the 63rd annual Pops ‘N Jazz show in a COVID-safe manner – in cohorts, in separate rooms, behind plexiglass, wearing masks, with special bell covers on their instruments – and although things are different in 2021, the show will absolutely go on.
The separation of the ensembles in no way creates dissonance, but rather has given the students and directors the opportunity to learn new skills as their performances are woven together into an elaborate production that will be able to showcase their enormous talents and will be available for viewing on video in April.
Unlike most years there isn’t a “theme” for this year’s extravaganza, but the major story is really the production of the production.
At a recent recording session, James Antonucci, Hall High’s director of Bands and Jazz Band, sat behind a computer in the auditorium where audio and video of physically-distanced musicians was being recorded as they played a toe-tapping medley of Billy Joel songs from the show “Movin’ Out,” arranged by Director of Orchestras Emmett Drake.
There were vocals as well – coming from the Choraliers stationed in the chorus room down the hall. “They’re singing into their stick microphones and it’s going into my computer,” Antonucci said.
The Jazz Dancers would arrive for recording of their pieces on a different day, Antonucci said, as would the selective string group I Giovanni Solisti and the Jazz Ensemble.
Technical Director Spencer Bazzano was videoing while Maceo Hertz-Velazquez played the riff from “Angry Young Man” on the piano on stage, while Drake conducted and another crew of students focused in on some of the musicians spread out in the audience area of the auditorium. In addition to being the videographer, Bazzano has the overall responsibility for stage management, lighting, and audio.
The confluence of support from the Town of West Hartford, the Board of Education, and the Ellen Jeanne Goldfarb Memorial Charitable Trust has provided funding for the purchase of high quality video cameras and extra microphones to accommodate the creation of the show.
“With the support and advocacy of Hall’s Principal Dan Zittoun, the Town of West Hartford graciously funded the capital improvement project for the Hall Auditorium sound in the fall of 2019. This was a long duration project led by Town Facilities Director, Bob Palmer, who supported the completion in so many ways. In doing so, the town provided the internal network, live mics, sound board, and processing computer ‘brain’ which is the backbone of the technology used to produce this year’s PnJ,” Antonucci said.
“This fall, the generous support of the Hall performing arts parents, in conjunction with a challenge grant from the Ellen Jeanne Goldfarb Memorial Charitable Trust, raised approximately $20,000 to purchase special video cameras that sync up with our audio capabilities so that we can record and stream audio and video simultaneously from the Hall auditorium. This technology was installed (along with many training hours) by North American Theatrix, a local Connecticut company led by project manager Kenny Beaudette and lead tech Wayne Francis.
“Lasly, teacher technology upgrades as we entered distance learning last spring, supported by Dan Zittoun and Fine and Performing Arts Supervisor Andy Mayo, gave us the digital audio and video editing workspace to actually assemble the hundreds of video clips and hours of audio recording into the final product that will be ‘released’ for free, on hallhighjazz.com the first full week of April,” Antonucci said.
The technology to produce the show wasn’t even in place until late January/early February, Antonucci said.
He’s technically running what he called a “socially-distanced sound stage,” on equipment he had never even touched before. “A month ago, I never knew how to turn on this board,” he said.
The 2021 version of Pops ‘N Jazz includes roughly 100 student performers. As is tradition, the eclectic selection of pieces is a blend of American jazz classics from all eras, performed in big band and combo settings, highly choreographed jazz productions, and featured solo performances.
While this year’s show won’t be performed live, and won’t include musicians from the elementary and middle schools, or outside professionals as guest performers, the talent level among the Hall students is exemplary and the undertaking involved with creating the production is remarkable.
“One of the things we take for granted is just how talented our high school students are,” Antonucci said. “We’re very lucky.”
Antonucci said having the students spread out creates visual challenges, which are being overcome during the editing of the visuals. “We’re trying to focus not he students as much as possible,” he said. About 30-35 different shots go into the creation of the visuals for a four-minute song.
“The students are part of the creative process,” Drake added.
In most years, Pops ‘N Jazz involves months of daily rehearsals, and several dress rehearsals before the six live performances spread out over two weekends. Last year they got as far as the dress rehearsals but the show was canceled just days before the scheduled March 13 premier.
The Greenwich Village set remains on the Hall stage a year later, and is being used as the backdrop for this year’s production.
Rehearsals have been held in the evenings, once a week, since November, Drake said. The students weren’t even allowed to play their instruments at school in the beginning of the year, and have had to do a lot of rehearsing on their own. “The students have been very flexible,” he said.
When the musicians – anyone singing or blowing into instruments – are together, there are strict protocols, said Antonucci. “We can only sing and play for 30 minutes at a time,” he said. That’s followed by a 25-minute aerosol break to allow the air to refresh.
Sari Eisen, a senior, has been a Jazz Dancer all four years at Hall. “It’s definitely different to learn to play with the camera. … The camera actually become a character,” she said, but one advantage of recording the show as opposed to doing it lives is the ability to do multiple takes.
However, she added, “It’s definitely different not having the energy of the audience.”
Like the other students who are part of Pops ‘N Jazz, especially those who had their experience grind to a halt before the show even started in 2020, Eisen is grateful to have the production take place her senior year.
“It’s definitely been one of my favorite things at Hall,” she said.
“My grandparents took me to see Pops ‘N Jazz when I was in elementary school,” Lily Silverman, who plays baritone saxophone, said. “I always wanted to be in it.”
She also plays clarinet, but picked up baritone sax in middle school. A junior, this is Silverman’s first year in Concert Jazz Band.
She was optimistic that the show would somehow happen this year. “I knew Hall just wouldn’t go two years without Pops ‘N Jazz,” she said.
While creating a recorded show is different, it allows them to listen to what they’re playing, to re-do pieces when there are mistakes. “It’s still the same amount of work, and the same amount of fun,” Silverman said.
The “Movin’ Out” medley is her favorite piece to play. “Every song has a part that I really like,” she said.
“Last year we were about to put on the show, and I got to experience what that was like,” said Will O’Connell, a senior member of the Choraliers.
The good thing about filming the show is the ability to do more takes.
What’s bad about it, he said, is missing the vibrancy of performing in front of a live audience. “That’s one of the biggest parts people look forward to with the Choraliers.”
O’Connell said he knew going into this year that there likely wouldn’t be a live performance, and really appreciates the quality time being part of the PnJ experience, especially since other Choraliers activities – the winter concert, singing telegrams – haven’t been able to happen this year.
The Billy Joel medley is his favorite piece, O’Connell said. “It’s one of the most fun. We’re all dancing along to it.” He also has a solo performance in “I’ve Loved These Days.”
Senior Delaney Fox was also part of Pops ‘N Jazz with the Choraliers in 2020, and sees a lot of positives in this year’s show where the students have had the ability to be more involved in the production aspect and showcase their own creativity.
“There’s more trial and error,” she said. “We’ve recorded songs multiple times to see which would sound best.”
The students have helped create what are essentially music videos for each song. “I think it will be interesting, surprising to see,” she said of the performance.
While the students were still in hybrid mode in the fall, Fox said it was great that those who were in the show had that once a week in-person connection with the other Choraliers who weren’t in school at the same time. It was nothing like rehearsing every day with the full group, but was still fun, she said.
Fox’s favorite piece in the show: “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens.”
More information about the April release of Pops ‘N Jazz will be available on Facebook () and the website . The show will be available for viewing at no cost to the public.
Pops ’n Jazz is co-produced by Antonucci and Drake. The Choraliers are under the direction of Hall’s Director of Choirs Brett Boles, and the Jazz Dancers are under the direction of Choreographer Tessa Grunwald.
“The commitment of our community and our administrative leaders to the arts, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, is producing very positive results,” Hall Principal Dan Zittoun said. “Students work incredibly hard, learn to persevere, are brave, and collaborate in diverse, interdisciplinary teams, and doing so they gain skills that we all need in today’s world. Pops ‘N Jazz also contributes to our town’s reputation as a center of excellence in music and arts. Funding from the Goldfarb foundation has enabled the program to make the experience available online to a much broader community than ever before, while maintaining social distance. Don’t miss it.”
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