Dallas — Orchestras, opera companies, and other music groups were thrown into crisis mode in March, as communities locked down to try to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. American orchestras and other ensembles have responded in a variety of ways to the pandemic. What initially seemed like temporary measures, however, with concerts being cancelled a week or month at a time, quickly morphed into the reality that there would be no quick fix—that the season was over. Then, one after another, summer festivals began to cancel, too. No Bravo! Vail, no Santa Fe Opera, no Tanglewood.
A few orchestras have responded to the ongoing crisis with a slash-and-burn approach. Most notably, the Nashville Symphony cancelled its entire 2020-2021 season, furloughing musicians and staff, while the Indianapolis Symphony cancelled its musicians’ health coverage for the summer.
But the Dallas Symphony, like some others around the country, has been an innovator. After concerts were cancelled but before Dallas was locked down, orchestra members performed a series of chamber music concerts onstage that were made available on social media and on the DSO’s website, here (also see video above). Musicians learned new technology, in many cases, to create recordings from home that were also available online. The Young Musicians program, which provides instruments and instruction to economically disadvantaged children, went online, too. But realizing that some of these students didn’t have a device from which they could access an online lesson, DSO musicians, staff, and board members provided those devices—and then discovering a further need, continued to provide the families of Young Musicians participants with food.
Dallas Symphony President and CEO Kim Noltemy observes that “the only way to keep audiences engaged is by having content,” so she and the rest of the orchestra have innovated a variety of strategies to keep the orchestra visible in the community. During the early summer, before the Texas heat got too intense, citizens were encouraged to request Special Delivery concerts to honor various special occasions. Small groups of musicians performed these brief, outdoor, socially distanced concerts for a handful of audience members, and in the heat of mid-August, a series of online concerts, “DSO at Home,” premiered on Facebook. Meanwhile, Noltemy has been doing weekly Green Room Chats, and DSO violist Sarah Kienle has begun a podcast, “On the Record,” available here. In her podcast, Kienle interviews DSO musicians about a favorite piece of music, from Mahler to Radiohead. Kienle notes, “It’s been incredibly fun to hear my colleagues’ recommendations and see how we can learn so much about each other talking about the music we love.”
Many of these initiatives may parallel those created by other orchestras—especially at the beginning of the lockdown, many groups produced videos of musicians at home, collaborating virtually.
By the end of June, though, the DSO was also staging de facto “audienceless” concerts at its home, the Meyerson Symphony Center. These concerts, filmed for the orchestra’s website and social media, actually had audiences of twenty or so per performance. Each person or couple was seated in their own loge box, and audiences consisted of board members, staff, and donors, as well as a couple of critics. In that latter capacity, I was fortunate to attend two of these concerts. I felt perfectly safe; masks were mandatory, arrivals and departures of the tiny audiences were staggered, and hand sanitizer stations were plentiful. Musicians, clad in masks and distanced onstage, had been tested for COVID the day before each rehearsal.
Programming under pandemic conditions was subject to change; for example, cellist Amanda Forsyth and her husband, violinist Pinchas Zuckerman, were expected to perform in early July. Three days before the concert, staffers assured me that Forsyth and Zuckerman were still planning to play, despite travel restrictions that would require a two-week quarantine upon their return to New York. By the next day, just two days before the performance, the two cancelled their trip.
The two hour-long concerts that I attended were strings only, although there was also a brass and percussion concert as part of the series. On the first program, Concertmaster Alex Kerr and Co-concertmaster Nathan Olson performed J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D minor (the “Bach Double”), and members of the string section played Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major. Both of these pieces are familiar old favorites—string players almost invariably will have played one or both by high school. Still, the first notes of the Bach Double brought tears to my eyes as I realized it was the first live music performance I’d heard in almost four months.
The other strings-only concert, with its last-minute program reshuffling after Forsyth and Zuckerman cancelled their appearance, included “Spring” and “Winter” from The Four Seasons by Vivaldi, with Alex Kerr as soloist, as well as Elgar’s Serenade in E minor for Strings and Mozart’s Divertimento in D Major, K. 136. Both programs were competently executed, although not without minor glitches in ensemble and tuning. Considering the challenges posed by sitting much farther apart than usual, playing without a dedicated conductor (Kerr led the ensemble), and wearing face coverings, though, not to mention the short notice on which players rehearsed the second program, the musicians played remarkably well. Kerr offered some interesting and novel ornamentation in the Vivaldi, and although tempi in the Mozart were sometimes draggy, overall the performance was a pleasure akin to a glass of cool water after a long run on a hot day. It’s not quite lemonade, but it’s infinitely better than staying thirsty.
On July 31, the DSO made public its plans for fall. The press release heralded “concerts carefully curated artistically” “with small orchestra and chamber ensembles and new audience protocols.” Fall concerts will be about an hour long without an intermission, and at least until COVID-19 numbers are substantially reduced in Dallas, audience occupancy may be as little as 5 percent of the Meyerson’s capacity, or about 50 audience members per performance. Subscription holders will be accommodated. Planned performances—with the emphasis on “planned,” since we all know what happens to “the best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men”—are ambitious, under the circumstances.
Fabio Luisi, beginning his first season as Music Director, is at this writing scheduled to lead three programs in the autumn. While they will use reduced orchestras, the programs are themselves far more sophisticated than those fielded this summer. They include an all-Beethoven program featuring Yefim Bronfman performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2, a chamber orchestra version of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, and in keeping with Luisi’s reputation as an opera specialist, an all-Verdi program. Four other classical series programs, along with a handful of pops programs and specials, round out the fall. While it’s far from a typical season—for instance, the holiday performances that typically feature crowded houses and lucrative single-ticket sales are nowhere to be seen—it’s at least a season, with some reasons for excitement for almost every ticket holder.
» Read here for more about the DSO's fall 2020 season, including COVID precautions and options for streaming, with a list of concerts and programming