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Datebook: Vocalist Turns Lemons Into Lemonade During Pandemic

Justin Vickers
Justin Vickers
Vocalist and ISU Music Professor Justin Vickers utilized the empty CPA Concert Hall for a recording session during the pandemic. BTW....there's an interesting story behind this photo. Find out more in the bonus audio at the end of the story.

It was just standing there, empty. No concerts, no audience, no applause. No nothing. And that’s a sad state for a concert hall. 

So, vocalist Justin Vickers decided to take COVID-19 lemons and squeeze them into musical lemonade. 

The Illinois State University music professor saw a chance to open the doors to the ISU Center for Performing Arts Concert Hall and utilize it to create a once-in-a-lifetime recording. With the blessings of the dean of the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts and the head of the School of Music (“Don’t catch COVID-19,” they warned him. “I won’t,” he assured them), he made a beeline for the space that had been dark since the lockdown began in March. 


Credit Justin Vickers
An expert in the works of Benjamin Britten, Justin Vickers made sure to include several works from the composer in his unique recording session.

  Vickers selected his team and essentially took over the concert hall for the month of July to record selections for a new CD.  Accompanied by (and socially distanced from) guitarist Angelo Favis and pianist John Orfe, Vicker’s performances were recorded by Aaron Paolucci, director of creative technologies at ISU.  Vickers was familiar with the CPA concert hall from years of live performances with ensembles of various sizes. Now, he discovered just what the space had to offer on a more intimate scale. 

“One develops a relationship with a space. One develops a sonic relationship with the acoustic principles of a space,” Vickers explained. “As a singer, when you’re constantly gauging the various dynamics that you might exploit in your voice, and the various ranges and colors that you might exploit with your voice, that relationship with a space is actually one of the more consequential relationships that one develops.” 

“To be in there in a very, very solitary nature is something that one might experience in rehearsals. So, all the things that I just described about the relationship one develops with a sonic space, that relationship was exclusively me and that sonic space. You’re dealing with the decay of the voice in a space, and you’re dealing with acoustic reverb, and you’re dealing with silence.” 

Although it was strange serendipity that COVID-19 accorded Vickers the opportunity to use the CPA concert hall for a recording studio, he didn’t draw on the pandemic for inspiration regarding the selection of works he performed.

"We said, 'Perhaps in jest, that we were making a pandemic lemonade out of pandemic lemons,'"


But then again ...  

“As we negotiated the various pieces that we recorded-- and, of course, the voice is a text-driven instrument, so we spent a lot of time digging deep into these texts-- there would be hair-raising moments in the recording process where you realized how resonant a specific text was with what we were experiencing.” 

There was the song cycle, “The Poet’s Echo,” by Benjamin Britten that Vickers (a Britten expert) recorded in its world premiere for a tenor. 

 “We found during the recording process that there were a number of passages in the text that had a particular resonance with what we were experiencing in the midst of COVID," he said. "Especially one of the final songs in the cycle where one of the lines of text deals with insomnia. Certainly, I think this perpetual ticking of a clock and a person’s awareness of the fact that they’re not sleeping and they’re thinking on many other things outside themselves. So that has a certain resonance with what’s going on in the world.” 

“We said, 'Perhaps in jest, during the process that we were making a pandemic lemonade out of pandemic lemons,'” Vickers laughed. 

A tricky ingredient in that lemonade was the fact that everyone had to be socially distanced during the recording. 

“It involved the placement of the piano,” Vickers revealed. “Unlike in a performance, where you would at least have a sideward view of your pianist and, of course, the pianist would see you in profile, in this setting we actually had the piano about six feet behind me and at a slight angle.” 

“It just makes this fabulous wash of piano around the voice. But that certainly required that we knew the repertoire intimately because that connection that one might have during a live performance--it just wasn’t there.” 

“So, there might have been some head nodding in order to indicate tempo or some light gestures with my hands to ensure that John Orfe and I were together. We would never do that in live performance, we’d never do that in front of an audience. Because that tends to look like a rehearsal. But in this setting, it was absolutely incumbent on us in order to really be together at every moment. 

“It was not without it’s very scary moments, because you just don’t have that immediacy and that connection.” 

All through the month of July as the recording session progressed, Vickers said he never forgot how privileged he was to actually have the chance to utilize the unused space and work with creative abandon.  

“I genuinely feel that I got an opportunity this summer that so many of my colleagues around the world are not getting to experience," he said. "I genuinely felt this awesome privilege to get to do this, and I felt like I was getting a chance to do something on behalf of my fellow music makers around the world. 

“So, it was a humbling and deeply rewarding experience. It gave me such deep joy.” 

Vickers’ July recording session was so successful that he recorded enough material for more than one CD. The first is entitled “The Poet’s Echo,” which Vickers hopes will be released next year on Albany Records.


The photo at the top of the page has special significance for Vickers. Hear why in this audio clip...
Corn and Chinese poetry add up to a goosebumps moment for Justin Vickers in his new recording. Listen here for the story....

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.