In early 2020, the National Symphony Orchestra was planning its first international tour with conductor Gianandrea Noseda, and an epic Beethoven cycle to mark the 250th anniversary of the legendary composer’s birth.
Instead, the coronavirus pandemic forced the ensemble out of the Kennedy Center in the US capital for 18 months, and Beethoven’s symphonic series was postponed, starting this month and ending in…2023 .
The NSO and other professional orchestras in the United States have resumed live performances in recent months while navigating a whirlwind of Covid-19 rules, trying to keep everyone healthy and convincing wary listeners to buy tickets again.
“It’s been a big challenge,” Noseda told AFP after an afternoon rehearsal for the January concerts, which include some of Beethoven’s symphonies, but not the Ninth, because the required choir would put too many people. exposed on stage.
Noseda, who was unable to travel to Washington for a year as the crisis unfolded, detailed the pandemic evolution of the ONS from virtual concerts, small bands on stage and plexiglass between musicians to the more or less normal 2021-22 season.
“The alternative would have been no performance,” said the 57-year-old Italian maestro, explaining that he had managed to stay in touch with his players during the long break through Zoom calls and emails.
Now, Noseda says there’s a “really noticeable” sense that musicians and audiences are enjoying the moment, and not looking too far ahead.
“I’m taking full advantage of this moment,” he said. “It’s a gift for you.”
– Vaccines, tests and adaptability –
So how do you ensure that dozens of musicians can be safely together on stage for rehearsals and gigs, especially when some of them – horns and woodwinds – cannot be masked?
The plexiglass partitions seen earlier in the pandemic are gone, but all ONS members who can play masked do so, and the protocols are rigid.
“It’s a new world for all of us,” said ONS executive director Gary Ginstling, explaining that chief executive Genevieve Twomey and her team have essentially become “an in-house medical team” carrying out testing and surveillance. weekly.
Twomey said “very few” positives have been detected within the orchestra so far.
But in Texas, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was forced to cancel two concerts and cut scheduled works for two more this month because they couldn’t replace key musicians who tested positive.
“Omicron has been particularly difficult because it is so contagious and widespread,” DSO President and CEO Kim Noltemy told AFP in a statement.
For Jamie Roberts, the NSO’s deputy principal oboe who clearly performs without a mask, “once there was a vaccine, and people could get vaccinated, I felt really safe.”
Colin Williams, the New York Philharmonic’s senior associate trombone, agreed the protocols in place were worth it, keeping musicians and their loved ones safe at home.
“Personally, I think when I’m at work I don’t feel unsafe,” Williams told AFP.
Roberts, 37, says she’s thrilled to be back on stage, but before that became possible, she helped shape the orchestra’s virtual lineup, dubbed NSO at Home.
Many other American classical ensembles have launched similar initiatives to keep attendees engaged.
“We believe that creating programs for home viewing is an integral part of our future and the future of the field,” said Jim Roe, president and executive director of the New York-based Orchestra of St Luke’s.
So, will Americans put on masks to experience live orchestral music, as they weather the surge in Covid-19 cases?
Chicago Symphony Orchestra officials were concerned that Omicron would reduce sales. In the end, 80% of the tickets for his January concerts were sold.
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While some cities like New York and Washington easily implemented vaccination and mask mandates in concert halls, the Dallas Symphony clashed with Governor Greg Abbott’s executive orders banning such requirements.
Noltemy said the DSO, mindful of an “obligation” to keep attendees safe, is keeping its mask rules in place, despite the risk of being fined for doing so.
The organization is also offering free rapid on-site testing for those who do not have proof of vaccination on hand “to ensure the safest environment possible,” Noltemy said.
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– Looking forward –
So what does the future hold for us? Can orchestras plan to travel this year or the year after? And if not, how will this affect programming?
In Chicago, when an Asian tour scheduled for January was canceled, bandleader Riccardo Muti scheduled a series of concerts in the Windy City, some of which are free to the public.
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Back in Washington, with the ONS planning a full season, Ginstling admitted future travel was uncertain.
“There are a lot more questions than answers right now,” he said.
But Roberts, the oboe player, said she was simply reveling in the moment, reunited with her colleagues.
“We missed each other, it’s a family,” she said. “It’s really cool work.”