Atlanta Symphony Orchestra plans for a different kind of season

ASO will begin the 2020-2021 season virtually.
Bassist Xavier Foley will return to the ASO stage this fall as a guest soloist. 
Courtesy of  Rand Lines

Credit: Rafterman

Credit: Rafterman

Bassist Xavier Foley will return to the ASO stage this fall as a guest soloist. Courtesy of Rand Lines

Forced to reinterpret its 2020-2021 season due to the spread of COVID-19 in Georgia, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will launch a scaled-back series of seven virtual concerts on September 26.

A socially distanced orchestra of no more than 50 musicians, which aligns with current state health guidelines, will perform from the Symphony Hall stage. Masked string players will play music from the Classical period — think Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn — to an empty venue, with woodwind and brass players buffeted by plexiglass barriers. High-definition robotic cameras will record each performance. Season subscribers and patrons can then access the shows through the ASO Virtual Stage platform. Plans for single-view tickets are still in the works.

The initial 2020-2021 season celebrated departing music director Robert Spano, who was to close out his full-time ASO tenure at the end of the season after two decades at the helm. Instead of a scheduled sabbatical, Spano will now stick around well into 2022 to conduct many of the originally programmed large-scale works.

The ASO Chorus, founded in 1970 by Robert Shaw, is also celebrating a milestone this year but will have to wait for its anniversary party. Group singing is now a high-risk activity, and all fall choral performances have been canceled.

Fall season soloists include ASO musicians Rainer Eudeikis (October 15) and Andrew Brady (November 7), and bassist Xavier Foley (November 14), an alum of the ASO’s Talent Development Program. Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles will lead the majority of the performances. Guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann is scheduled to appear with the orchestra on December 5.

Andrew Brady, the ASO's principal bassoon, will perform as a featured soloist this fall. 
Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

icon to expand image

Credit: Jeff Roffman

“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.”