Santa Rosa Symphony’s virtual 2020-21 season full of highs, lows, silver linings
When the Santa Rosa Symphony made the risky decision in May 2020 to go on with the show for the 2020-21 season — virtually, with a downsized orchestra of no more than 32 players at a time and an all-new repertoire — no one really knew how it would turn out.
With the string players spaced 6 feet apart and the woodwinds surrounded by Plexiglas boxes, would they even be able to hear each other?
How would the orchestra survive financially with each streamed concert offered for free and only subscriptions renewed in advance supplying revenue for concerts?
Luckily, the finances have penciled out for the regional orchestra, thanks to a big bump in donations and subscription refund requests of less than 5%.
“The financial outcome was exceedingly positive, largely fulfilling our hope that people would be inspired by what we produced,” said Alan Silow, president and CEO of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “The result was a doubling of donor households and a 300% increase in new donors, with a third coming from outside Northern California.”
But another disaster hit before the season even started. The smoke from the Glass fire last September forced the orchestra to postpone their first two-day rehearsal and recording session not once, but twice, due to poor air quality.
Even the symphony’s determined music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, started to have doubts about launching this impossible dream of a season.
“At that moment, I wanted to give up because I felt we can’t keep on going through this verge-of-tears frustration,” Lecce-Chong said. “I had no energy left to be able to figure a way through.”
But that was also the moment the conductor realized he didn’t have carry it all on his own, that in fact, he was being carried by others.
“The most beautiful thing was that ... everybody wanted to make it happen,” he said. “It was even better than what I dreamed we could have achieved this season. It has taken every person to make this happen. ... It wasn’t about just music. It was about just life.”
With pivots, learning curves and new skill sets, the symphony musicians continued to play, even as other orchestras across the nation closed shop during the pandemic. To find out how they pulled it off, we spoke with the Santa Rosa Symphony’s music director, two principal musicians, an audio sound engineer and the orchestra’s manager about the challenges they overcame.
According to Lecce-Chong, the symphony was able to put together a full season virtually — and was one of the first and still is one of the few in the country to accomplish that feat — because they started the planning back in May 2020.
“Obviously, the target moved every week over the summer, so we had to keep changing,” he said. “But why this worked, and why this orchestra and community are so unique, is that we were able to get that buy-in early on ... from the board, the musician’s union, sponsors and donors.”
By late August, when COVID-19 cases kept spiking, that consensus allowed Lecce-Chong to persevere through obstacles in his quest to provide at least some employment to musicians and keep his musical community together. His drive to keep going came from the fact that all his colleagues had lost all their income, and more importantly, the meaning in their lives.
“For a lot of us, we are defined by this,” he said. “We have spent our entire lives being able to provide music and inspiration to others.”
That’s when Lecce-Chong started widening his job description from artistic leader to encompass a larger role. He started learning everything he could, from the orchestra’s budget to the testing protocols for COVID-19.
“I kind of threw caution to the wind,” he said. “But when I talked to the stakeholders about my vision, they understood I was aware of all the issues.”
Although he was only two seasons into his music director role in Santa Rosa, he became “exponentially” closer to the musicians, staff and donors this season.
“I think we all had to show a vulnerable side of ourselves,” he explained.
That was clear onstage during rehearsals and recordings, when each musician had to stay at least 6 feet apart from their neighbors. And, said Lecce-Chong, “When you are performing very difficult music, that distance makes it so much more difficult.”
Although they couldn’t hear the person next to them, each musician had to take a leap of faith and play in a bold manner, trusting themselves and their colleagues. That became easier in time, after they listened to the recordings and realized their ensemble had not suffered.