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Santa Rosa Symphony’s virtual 2020-21 season full of highs, lows, silver linings

Impact of the pandemic on orchestras across the nation

Since the start of COVID-19, the League of American Orchestras has been collecting regular updates on the impact of the pandemic on orchestras across the nation.

“I think we’ve learned two big things about digital content over the past year,” said Simon Woods, president and CEO of the league. “First, it’s clear that it will always be part of our future. And second, that it will never replace live performance — neither in terms of experience, nor in terms of revenue.”

That said, Simon believes the future holds exciting opportunities for orchestras to manage the interplay between live and digital while exploring the potential of each.

“The accelerated learning of the last year puts orchestras in a great place to move forward on that journey,” he added.

The League of American Orchestras conducted its third COVID-19 Impact Survey from Feb. 22 through March 11. Here are some of the highlights of the data collected from 198 orchestras with a range of budgets:

– 23% of orchestras are currently offering performances with live, in-person audiences.

– Two-thirds (67%) are offering streaming performances.

– 43% of respondents anticipated resuming concerts with live, in-person audiences in the early fall, (17% in September and 26% in October).

– Programming next year will continue to be weighted somewhat toward chamber orchestra and small ensembles (64% and 58% respectively) over full-orchestra performances (49%). The largest-budget orchestras are an exception: 80% are anticipating programming for full orchestra.

– Orchestras are expecting halls to be on average at 42% of capacity when audiences return in person.

– Not all orchestras have been able to perform this year, though: nearly one-third (28%) are not offering any performances — live or streamed. And for smaller-budget orchestras, that rises to 56%.

For more information, go to americanorchestras.org

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.

Early buy-in

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.

Impact of the pandemic on orchestras across the nation

Since the start of COVID-19, the League of American Orchestras has been collecting regular updates on the impact of the pandemic on orchestras across the nation.

“I think we’ve learned two big things about digital content over the past year,” said Simon Woods, president and CEO of the league. “First, it’s clear that it will always be part of our future. And second, that it will never replace live performance — neither in terms of experience, nor in terms of revenue.”

That said, Simon believes the future holds exciting opportunities for orchestras to manage the interplay between live and digital while exploring the potential of each.

“The accelerated learning of the last year puts orchestras in a great place to move forward on that journey,” he added.

The League of American Orchestras conducted its third COVID-19 Impact Survey from Feb. 22 through March 11. Here are some of the highlights of the data collected from 198 orchestras with a range of budgets:

– 23% of orchestras are currently offering performances with live, in-person audiences.

– Two-thirds (67%) are offering streaming performances.

– 43% of respondents anticipated resuming concerts with live, in-person audiences in the early fall, (17% in September and 26% in October).

– Programming next year will continue to be weighted somewhat toward chamber orchestra and small ensembles (64% and 58% respectively) over full-orchestra performances (49%). The largest-budget orchestras are an exception: 80% are anticipating programming for full orchestra.

– Orchestras are expecting halls to be on average at 42% of capacity when audiences return in person.

– Not all orchestras have been able to perform this year, though: nearly one-third (28%) are not offering any performances — live or streamed. And for smaller-budget orchestras, that rises to 56%.

For more information, go to americanorchestras.org

For Lecce-Chong, working with a compact rehearsal schedule — three rehearsals and a recording session over two days, rather than four or five rehearsals and three concerts on separate dates — the challenge was to let go of perfectionism. Normally, his job is to fix problems during rehearsals, but there just wasn’t time.

“For me, it was trusting that things will come together,” he said. “I wasn’t able to nitpick things, and what was fascinating was how things worked themselves out. ... In many ways, it was a more collaborative effort. It lets the orchestra develop its own path.”

The orchestra was so grateful to be making music, he said, they often played with a manic excitement. This was most obvious in the last movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony No. 3, when he asked the first violins to stand up while playing the Hungarian Dance variation.

“It’s an insane minute and a half in the middle of a delicate piece, and they started hacking away at this melody,” he said. “Online, people just lost their minds. What just happened? And I loved it, because it encapsulated how much fun we were having.”

Working with the video and audio crew also brought its own learning curve. Lecce-Chong held long meetings after each recording session to constantly improve the sound and look of the videos. One of his favorite moments was orchestrating a long, camera zoom away from the stage during a 10-second pause in Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

“When that silence happens, you saw a massive, cavernous empty hall,” he said. “And when the strings came in again, so very softly, we went to the tightest zoom we could get, a shot of a bow on the string. ... I was particularly proud of that moment.”

Lecce-Chong was also proud of the natural way 41 of the orchestra musicians were filmed introducing pieces, usually at home without masks. In most orchestral recordings, he said, the musicians are carefully scripted, and you don’ get a sense of their personalities.

“This is just like you met them before the concert and wanted to know what they like about a piece,” he said. “We showcased them in their natural environment.”

Although he felt the absence of the audience most keenly while recording the final few virtual concerts, Lecce-Chong said he is looking forward to going back to Green Music Center’s Weill Hall with a new set of skills.

“We’re not going to return to the status quo,” he said. “We’re going to return to something different.”

Rising to the occasion

Like the other principal players of the Santa Rosa Symphony who lead, Concertmaster Joe Edelberg has played all eight concerts in the virtual Classical Music Series this season.

“It’s amazing that we produced eight concerts — we added a subscription concert — where we’ve usually had seven,” Edelberg said. “What Francesco has done is heroic. ... To have really determined support from Alan Silow has been wonderful, too, and the orchestra has really risen to the occasion.”

One of the challenges for those sitting at the periphery of the orchestra, he said, has been trying to hear the musicians sitting ahead of them.

“The sound is not as focused when there’s no audience (in the hall), and I was as worried about that as anything,” he said. “Even though it’s been difficult, people have really pulled it off.”

One of the positive notes for Edelberg and others has been playing unusual repertoire written for smaller groups, such as Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings or Dvorak’s “Czech Suite.”

“The whole arc of the season is an extraordinary thing,” he said. “It’s been refreshing and very interesting to play things I haven’t played before.”

Through the magic of Zoom, the principal string players launched a new bowing rehearsal, where everyone talks and plays through the bowings Edelberg has worked on ahead of time.

“We had talked for years about physically getting together ... but never did, mostly because it’s a headache,” Edelberg said. “This has been an innovation that I’m hoping we’ll keep.”

The hardest part, however, was that the musicians were not able to hang out together after getting off the stage as they normally do. Instead, everyone went their separate ways.

“We’re used to having some kind of interaction,” Edelberg said. “This kind of work is very social.”

Still, Edelberg is grateful the Santa Rosa Symphony has been able to come through the pandemic stronger as a group.

“The more you put into something, the more you get out of it,” he said. “It’s been a really great exercise for the orchestra to make music under these really weird circumstances.”

Consistent and calm

For Principal Flutist Kathleen Reynolds, everything about the Santa Rosa Symphony season was new this season, from the moment she got out of her car in the parking lot at SSU’s Green Music Center.

“I teach there,” she said. “So it was really weird to go there, and there’s no cars in that humongous lot.”

But she was very impressed with the system the Santa Rosa Symphony staff set up to create minimal interaction and eliminate bottlenecks during each rehearsal and recording session. Musicians were given a start time, and each one could enter a half-hour beforehand and go to one of several rooms to warm up.

“Not only was it reliably consistent, it was calm,” Reynolds recalled. “There was no sense of fear or worry and no anxiety. ... It was like a very calm river.”

The musicians would enter the hall from the back parking lot and exit from another direction. Each person was checked for masks and temperature. Onstage, everyone had their own chair, and each woodwind player was surrounded by a Plexiglas box.

After listening to three or four of the broadcasts, however, Reynolds realized she was going to have to play louder, because she often could not hear the flute lines. So she started practicing louder at home, changing her timbre and breathing.

“They did move the microphones around,” she said. “The recording engineer was working hard, boy.”

Still, she was proud that the general feeling onstage was one of optimism, hope and gratitude.

“It’s easy in our lives to take things for granted,” she said. “You don’t know what you have until something messes with it. ... The whole art world collapsed.”

Now she wonders if people will be brave enough to return to concert halls and theaters and sit next to strangers again.

“People love live theater and music,” she said. “They’re definitely craving that experience again. And so, I think it may be baby steps.”

Creating a blended sound

Mark Lemaire has been serving as the symphony’s audio-engineer for more than two decades. The Emeryville musician and composer mostly works with choral groups in the Bay Area, and most of his work dried up during the pandemic.

“So many people were not working, and there was nothing coming out of the arts,” he said. “The Santa Rosa Symphony did a really strong job. ... To somehow make it work, that’s a huge thing.”

Under normal circumstances, Lemaire relies on a pair of mics located over the third row of the audience and 15 to 18 feet up in the air.

“You want to get far enough away so the orchestra blends,” he said, “It’s a little out and pretty high up, and that gets the best sound.”

But these were not normal times. The orchestra was spaced out, with gaping holes between them, and the wind players were playing in Plexiglas boxes.

“We ended up employing a lot more microphones and playing with the sounds of the microphone mixing,” he said. “Some mics were on the floor, but the best-sounding mics were above the walls of the box.”

Lemaire would record the rehearsals, then review them with Lecce-Chong to listen for the blend.

“Each program had different instrumentation, and there was a lot of variety, so we had to learn it over and over again,” he said. “We learned a lot about how to mic up the rear of the orchestra, which was farther back than usual.”

One problem with microphones, he said, is that they are not as smart as our ears, so the range of balanced sound is smaller.

“If you are sitting in the hall and you can see everything, all of that visual information helps you to process what you are hearing,” he explained. “The video helps to give you information, but it’s not like being there yourself. The camera is dumb compared to your eyes and brain.”

That is why most everyone, from musicians to audience members, is eager to get back to live music in the hall, where the visual stimuli and audio vibrations come across in living color.

“Hundreds of years ago, there were no recordings. You had to be there,” he said. “Suddenly, it’s like looking at reality through a little pinhole. It’s not like being there … but it’s better than shutting out the lights and closing the door.”

Bringing it all together

Along with Silow and Lecce-Chong, the orchestra’s Director of Artistic Operations Tim Beswick has been hailed as a hero by the musicians for his efforts keeping the doors open and everyone at least partially employed.

“I’m the orchestra manager and personnel manager, essentially,” he said. “I oversee all the artistic and production aspects of the organization. That includes all the orchestra musicians and also all the stagehands and our guest artists. I look after them and our conductors, especially Francesco.”

Although most of the symphony staff has been working remotely, Beswick has been going into the downtown Santa Rosa office every day during the pandemic to greet FedEx workers delivering music and to maintain access to the music library there.

“I have been able to get a lot done, and there’s a lot to be done,” he said. “I worked with Francesco to reprogram the repertoire for as many as 32 people on the stage at one time.”

In addition, Beswick had to map out a stage plan for every piece and choreograph a complex set of stage instructions, from bringing out a solo piano and resetting winds and brass seating to keeping everyone safe and socially distanced.

“Usually I’m like Cap’n Crunch, and I’m tight setting up the stage,” he said. “But during this season, string players were one to a stand, and everybody had their own music.”

It took a village, including Beswick, to run the rehearsals and recording sessions with audio-engineer Lemaire and the visual production team Diversified Stage, a local company that works during the summer concerts at the Green Music Center.

Two local conductors/musicians also coordinated with the production team. SSU Orchestral Music Director Alex Kahn gave directions to the video crew from the scores provided by Beswick.

“If the flutes are coming in, you better be there to capture it,” Beswick said.

The Young People’s Chamber Orchestra Director Aaron Westman, meanwhile, kept his ear to the soundboard. He helped Lecce-Chong listen to the recordings live, in case any glitches occurred.

“We were able to do patches, so if there was a mistake here or there, we could patch that,” Beswick said. “Francesco would run offstage and meet with Aaron, then run back onstage and rerun that section.”

Beswick worked with Santa Rosa Symphony Librarian Karen Zimmerman to get all the parts to musicians three weeks before each rehearsal set, along with other crucial information for upcoming sets.

“The preparation will make or break you with the music, so having it well prepared enables Francesco to maximize his rehearsal time,” Beswick said.

Beswick held preproduction meetings with Silow and Lecce-Chong to sketch out storyboards for the productions, including preconcert lectures and question-and-answer sessions. He also met with the production stage manager from the GMC, who had three or four stagehands to help with setup and cleaning of the various rooms.

“We’ve all had to wear a lot of different hats, Alan especially,” Beswick said. “And Francesco has been awesome. His technical abilities are tremendous. I don’t know how we would have done it without him.”

Meanwhile, the orchestra has been informed that its traditional July 4 concert has been canceled this summer at the Green Music Center. Although there may be other outdoor concerts by the symphony this summer, the staff is drilling down on launching the 2021-2022 season. The symphony plans to make an announcement in early July on what that will look like.

“It’s sort of a moving target right now,” Beswick said. “There are various contingencies for the number of musicians onstage and the number of patrons we can have in the audience.”

But after this miracle season, it’s evident the symphony will come up with some kind of a creative win-win solution.

“The symphony has always persevered and tried to be relevant to our community,” Beswick said. “And I think we’ve been really successful at that.”

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

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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