“Our priority really was to try to get the orchestra back together playing again, and provide that to the community and to the public in a way that makes the most sense and is safest for everyone,” said ASO Executive Director Jennifer Barlament. “We had to really think very differently about the planning process, and be very flexible and nimble as we went along. That’s why we’re calling this our first phase of reimagining the fall. There’s more to come.”
The orchestra last performed in Symphony Hall on March 11 under the baton of former music director Yoel Levi. Since then, the players have uploaded a number of pasted-together ensemble videos, but the orchestra has only been seen as a unified group in archival programs streamed by the ASO.
In an email, associate principal viola Paul Murphy said he looked forward to getting together on stage with his fellow musicians once again. “We’ve missed making music for our incredible audiences so much, and this is step one to regaining some sense of normalcy,” he said.
Spreading the musicians out on stage is a necessity, but it could sound a little odd, at least initially. Orchestras usually achieve their tight ensemble sound by sitting in close proximity, but results from European orchestras have shown that socially-distanced music making is not only possible but beautiful.
“For the first two weeks of the season, the orchestra will be coming in a series of small ensembles. Then we’re going to build up gradually to sections playing together so that people can get accustomed to the new way of working together,” Barlament said.
Of course, many of those European orchestras are able to perform together due to, among other things, widespread testing that returns results within a few hours. That’s not currently possible in Atlanta, where Barlament and the ASO will rely on strict hygiene practices, masking and distance.
“Right now, if we test somebody one day, it takes five days for the results to come back,” she said. “That doesn’t help us that much.”
At the beginning of the year, Barlament was gearing up to welcome a steady stream of guest conductors to Atlanta. Many of these potential music director replacements will have to wait for their on-the-job interviews. The top-secret search for a new music director continues, albeit more slowly than anticipated.
The orchestra’s finances have also been hit hard during this time. Staff has seen across-the-board pay cuts, as well as some furloughs and the elimination of at least one position. Musicians have adjusted their contracts. Barlament hopes to bring back furloughed staff in the near future, and this first phase of the virtual 2020-2021 season is just the beginning of getting the ASO back on track.
“We’ve put a ton of work and thought into what the nuances of the programs are going to be, how exactly the orchestra’s schedule is going to work, and what the health and safety protocols will be,” Barlament said. “We feel good that it’s a very responsible and rational approach to a very emotional issue, which is people’s love of music, and the love of performing, and the desire of people to have something inspiring to experience.”