Nell Flanders seems more of a dancer than conductor on her website’s video of her leading the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 — dubbed “The Dance Symphony.”
Her active style promises to continue when she, the PSO, and video come together again on Sunday, November 15.
That’s when Flanders, the recently named the PSO Georg and Joyce Albers-Schonberg Assistant Conductor, and the orchestra present a program with guest violinist Elina Vahala.
The program includes Florence Price’s String Quartet in G Major’s “Andante moderato,” Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Chaconne” from Partita No. 2 in D Minor, Edvard Grieg’s “Holberg Suite,” and work for solo violin to be announced.
But this time, the video will be the main event — rather than a useful follow up — and part of the orchestra’s effort to maintain its presence in the community during the pandemic — without missing a beat.
“It’s a very safe way the orchestra gets together,” says Flanders during a recent interview.
The safety for the series that started in October involves a reduced orchestra that makes it more possible for the musicians to keep socially and healthily distant.
“They are separated by six feet. They wear a mask. And I wear a mask,” she says.
Flanders adds that after spending months unable to bring musicians together to perform that the recent performance series “was wonderful.”
She also says — despite the asking concertgoers to spend more time in front of a screen — virtual performances are a new and different experience that the orchestra is learning to use.
One interesting element, she says, involves the camera angles that allow audience members to see the performers differently and focus on the instrumentation.
While she says it is vastly different from their regular concert venue, the acoustics-rich Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton University campus, “you hear things differently.”
Another new PSO activity she appreciates is the socially distanced chamber series developed in cooperation with Morven Museum and Garden in Princeton that started in September.
“It was meaningful to share music with audience members,” she says, adding that listeners sat in distanced sections of pods and faced an equally distanced and masked orchestra using the museum’s education center as its performance stage.
She says another benefit was that the informal setting attracted families whose children could experience the music without feeling constrained.
And while the above efforts were design to deal with a public health problem, Flanders muses that orchestras will continue doing more virtual and small group concerts, and there will be unanticipated “things that work and that we’ll continue to do.”
Flanders, who is also a violinist and pianist, joined the PSO in the fall of 2018, when an endowment was established to support the position of assistant conductor.
The endowment honors the late Princeton area businesswoman, investor, and biochemist Joyce Albers-Schonberg and her husband, inventor and Merck & Company research scientist Georg, both music lovers and PSO supporters.
In addition to presenting PSO concerts, such as “Holiday Pops!” program, the PSO assistant conductor is also the principal conductor for the Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey.
The PSO entered a partnership with the West Windsor-based YOCJ in August — highlighting the PSO’s interest in fostering new talent and a shared history: Both organizations were founded by the late Portia Sonnenfeld.
Noting on her website that she is “deeply committed to educating the next generation of musicians and music lovers,” Flanders says that it continues her work of conducting youth orchestras in New York.
That includes her work with the Precollege Symphony Orchestra at the Manhattan School of Music and the Chelsea Symphony.
She says she especially appreciates the PSO’s partnership with the YOCJ.
“It is a wonderful opportunity to have a home orchestra — and finding ways to involve the PSO players with youth orchestras.
“It’s like having your home sports team. You get to know the players and interact directly with them. And when you go to a concert you see the person and make a connection.”
While currently frustrated she is using Zoom to work with the young musicians, Flanders says, “This is beginning of the relation — it will happen over time.”
She says her interest in working with the PSO was connected to the group’s stature. “The orchestra is known in the music world,” she says.
The connection came from PSO music director and conductor Rossen Milanov who, she says, “has a strong reputation, and part of it is that musicians loved working with.”
She says in addition to professionally interacting with Milanov she got to know other people connected with the orchestra. That included meeting executive director and violinist Marc Uys during a musical workshop.
Flanders’ background, interests, abilities, and connection to members of the staff made her a fit.
“It is like a big family,” she says about becoming part of the organization.
Flanders continues the family-theme and talks about growing up in Pelham, New York, and her subsequent evolvement in music.
“I grew up in a family of amateur musicians — everyone played something. There was no escaping that. You’re going to play music,” she says.
The daughter of a father who was a circuit court executive and a poet mother, Flanders says, “For a long time I didn’t want to be a professional because you have freedom being an amateur.
“(But) when I graduated from high school I decided I wanted to do music. It was my primarily love, and going to Oberlin was a wonderful thing for me.”
Regarding leaving her seat in the orchestra to stand on the podium, she says, “I love playing the violin, but what inspired me was conducting” — something she experienced when she created a college orchestra and then sought out community orchestras after graduating.
“Conducting brought many things together in me. Many of the members of the orchestra are violinists, and I understand them.”
She adds that playing the piano gave her a “larger vision” of a work — rather than one section.
Flanders says she approaches conducting a musical piece by putting herself in the place of the musicians and says an important thing is “to offer professional players something that is new to them.”
For the composition, she says, “There is no definitive way for a piece of music to be performed. The notation doesn’t give you all the information. Anything the composer has written should be respected. There is enough there to guide you. But even composers change their tempos.
“And (the performance) depends on the concert hall you’re in. The metronome marking gives you an idea of what energy you’re playing, but you are a unique person in a unique place, and to have a performance to speak to time and space is more profound.”
While she says she is willing to engage all types of music, certain works engage her more directly. “I love rhythm. I really enjoy music that has a rhythmic vitality. I think that is connected to when I was playing in a Chicago blues band,” a style where you “need a drive in the music. It made me realize that (classical composers) have that same groove” — something she physically demonstrates in her website videos.
She also credits her mother, American poet Jane Flanders. “My mother was a fantastic amateur pianist. She understood the rhythm of language.”
“Another thing is tone color,” she continues. “I think with a tactile quality of tone. There’s texture and even smells. It isn’t a dry experience. My experience is more physical, tactile, and sensual. That’s a priority with me.”
Flanders says the upcoming concert — videotaped by Brian Dixon Videography in Lawrenceville — was developed by Milanov and designed in cooperation with Finnish violin virtuoso and soloist Vahala.
“This program is good,” says Flanders, pointing out her interest in conducting the “Andante moderato” by Florence Price, an American composer of African background whose work combines the European classical tradition and African American music.
“Working with (Price’s piece) has been inspiring,” she says.
Flanders says on her website and during the interview that she is interested in expanding the interest in classical concert music and has some ideas of how to accomplish it.
One is perception. “We have this idea of music in different categories and the hierarchies of all these different genres. But most music has things more in common than different.
“Part of what can be done is an orchestra can present music with unexpected sounds — to hear a Latin tune played by an orchestra is exciting. When we do something new stylistically, it opens us up, which is good.”
She also sees value in engaging young people.
“I don’t think you need any education at all to connect to music,” she says about approaching the music through education first, “When you go to a good concert you feel it.
“On the other hand — education enriches your experience. And it will help you have a context for the experience.”
She says providing students directly with music as an art provides a deeper connection — that includes playing an instrument or creating artwork while listening to music.
Yet for now she is playing music for our current times and has some thoughts about what musicians all over are sharing. “The virtual concerts help us stay connected,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed being forced to take a more creative approach. We have our usual modus operandi, and this has pushed us out of it.”
She also looks forward to seeing how concert music presentations have changed when “we come back” after the pandemic.
Yet despite the current challenges and the general precariousness of being a professional musician, Flanders says, “There is nothing I wanted to do more. I love what I do.”
And her Beethoven video shows it.
Princeton Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nell Flanders with guest artist Elina Vahala, Sunday, November 15, 4 p.m. $15. www.princetonsymphony.org.