Santa Rosa Symphony adapts to pandemic with chamber music

Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong has retooled upcoming programs for chamber orchestra, to accommodate smaller groups playing together instead of the full orchestra.|

Virtual gala honors Corrick, Norma Brown

The Santa Rosa Symphony will honor its longtime icons Norma and Corrick Brown during a virtual gala that will stream at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 12 and feature tributes from longtime friends and community members.

The event also features a brief recital by Russian-American pianist Olga Kern. The event is free, but donations are encouraged to help support the symphony’s many music education programs.

Conductor Emeritus Corrick Brown served as the symphony’s second music director and conductor from 1957 to 1995, while his wife, Norma, worked behind the scenes and hosted guest artists at their Santa Rosa home.

After he stepped down, Corrick Brown helped spearhead the symphony’s fundraising drive to help build the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park.

A viewing link to the gala will be posted at srsymphony.org.

Although the Santa Rosa Symphony won’t be able to perform in front of a live audience this fall, Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong is ecstatic they will be able to play together on stage in smaller groups for three concerts, the SRS@Home Virtual Concert Series, streamed virtually on the symphony’s YouTube channel.

“This is a big success for us, and every single person has pulled their weight — the staff, the board and the musicians,” he said. “It’s really taken everyone to bring this together.”

Lecce-Chong has retooled the October, November and December programs for chamber orchestra, to accommodate smaller groups playing together instead of the full orchestra. Various sections of the orchestra will get a chance to shine in works ranging from R. Strauss’ Serenade for Thirteen Wind Instruments to Chen Yi’s Romance and Dance for Two Violins and String Orchestra.

In addition, principal players will be showcased in works such as Bruch’s Canzone for Cello and Orchestra. Instead of mounting Beethoven’s epic Symphony No. 9 in December, the orchestra will explore Beethoven’s first three symphonies over the course of the three concerts.

“We get to watch Beethoven’s journey,” Lecce-Chong said. “The first one is the most Haydnesque, but you already feel him pulling up those chains. And his second symphony is so devilishly humorous in the way he goes after the classical norms. Then you have the third symphony, which shattered bounds in its scope, in content and in the way instruments are used.”

The silver lining, for Lecce-Chong, is that the symphony will be able to employ its musicians and continue its connection to the community while trying its hand at an innovative repertoire.

“My sincere hope is that we’ll look back on this and think, ‘Wow, that was incredible to be a part of,’ ” he said. “The whole point is to give work to our musicians. For most of the Bay Area, we are going to be the only orchestra doing orchestra concerts, using as many musicians as we can.”

Opening up with precautions, protocols

Although risky in terms of technology and audience acceptance, Lecce-Chong feels confident the orchestra players will be safe as they strictly follow all the health protocols. The musicians will be socially distanced on the stage in groups no larger than 32 at a time and often smaller.

“A lot of European orchestras started four months ago, really cautiously, and that’s where we’re going to be,” he said. “If I want to keep my orchestra together, this is the only way to do it.”

In addition to getting the board, donors and staff behind the virtual pivot, Lecce-Chong said the orchestra has had to get approval from the county and the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University, where they perform.

“Over the years, this orchestra has built up such ground-level support that we had the ability to get things done,” he said. “That’s why you lay down those community roots. When these moments come and you do need help, people are there to support you.”

The concerts will be free for everyone, including non-subscribers. Guests don’t have to RSVP, although the orchestra will be fundraising during the programs to help keep itself afloat.

“Where the world is in the place that it is right now, and with our duty to bring people together, everybody should have access to that,” Lecce-Chong said. “This is our gift to our entire community, and no one should be left out.”

That said, there will be extra perks for subscribers and people who donate, including access to the concerts for 45 days and exclusive recitals by world-class artists.

“We’re going to find ways to make our subscribers feel like they’re going to have a special experience,” he said. “We are asking them to stick with us, and that’s why we’re going all out on these programs.”

Subscribers and donors will have special access to a recital by Russian-American pianist Olga Kern in October, recorded in her native Russia. The recital video will be supplemented by a conversation between Lecce-Chong and Kern.

The orchestra will rehearse and record videos on the weekend that they were originally scheduled to perform, using a more condensed schedule. Then the virtual concerts will stream the following weekend in most cases.

Musicians “front and center”

The virtual concerts will offer up-close-and-personal moments with the musicians backstage and introductions by the musicians to specific repertoires.

“I want them front and center of this whole project,” Lecce-Chong said. “And I want to feature some young musicians performing and weave that in.”

At press time, Lecce-Chong was working on a storyboard for the videographers to show how he wants the concerts to flow. It’s new territory.

“Who is the first musician interviewed? How long do we have them talk?” he said. “And how do we deal with the end of the piece, because there’s not going to be applause?”

Lecce-Chong also plans to offer a livestream of a pre-concert talk and a post-concert Q&A with himself and the musicians for each concert, so audience members can interact online.

What will happen to the rest of the 2020-2021 season, starting in January, is still anyone’s guess. The symphony has postponed its first Family Concert Series this fall until Jan. 24, 2021, and has rescheduled canceled concerts from last spring to spring 2021.

By jump starting the season virtually this fall, however, the orchestra will be able to better adapt to new conditions once January rolls around, which is when most orchestras are planning to restart. That’s thanks to the musicians, who have agreed to let the orchestra hire them as they are able, a few months at a time rather than for the whole season, Lecce-Chong said.

“The gift they’ve given us is that we can adapt now,” he said. “If we hit January and things are going really well, we can fit 100 people in the audience and fit 50 musicians onstage. If things get worse, we can make those changes.”

“Showing the world why we’re special”

Lecce-Chong also hopes the virtual pivot will allow the orchestra to reach a wider audience beyond Sonoma County, people who may have heard of the Santa Rosa Symphony and the Green Music Center but never experienced them.

“This is going to make a statement about who we are, whether we like it or not,” he said. “It’s about our community, but it’s going to be showing the world why we’re special ... the risky ways we’ve approached the classics and letting the manic edge around Beethoven’s music show and what we built up as our commitment to living composers of diverse backgrounds.”

Although the Santa Rosa Symphony is in uncharted territory for U.S. orchestras, it’s not uncharted for the world as a whole, Lecce-Chong said. European orchestras have already dealt with such artistic problems as having musicians play far apart onstage.

But the symphony will be making history by producing professionally made videos which will serve as a legacy for the regional ensemble now in its 93rd season.

“This is honestly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” he said. “How many videoed performances, professionally made, do we have of the orchestra? Great closeups of musicians, great sound? ... None.”

Lecce-Chong will introduce the new fall concert programs during a live video chat at 3 p.m. Sept. 27 on the Santa Rosa Symphony YouTube channel. For a link to the talk and more information on the season, go to srsymphony.org

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Virtual gala honors Corrick, Norma Brown

The Santa Rosa Symphony will honor its longtime icons Norma and Corrick Brown during a virtual gala that will stream at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 12 and feature tributes from longtime friends and community members.

The event also features a brief recital by Russian-American pianist Olga Kern. The event is free, but donations are encouraged to help support the symphony’s many music education programs.

Conductor Emeritus Corrick Brown served as the symphony’s second music director and conductor from 1957 to 1995, while his wife, Norma, worked behind the scenes and hosted guest artists at their Santa Rosa home.

After he stepped down, Corrick Brown helped spearhead the symphony’s fundraising drive to help build the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park.

A viewing link to the gala will be posted at srsymphony.org.

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