Detroit Symphony plots a path forward in wake of coronavirus
Scott Strong misses his fellow musicians. He misses the sonic splendor of Orchestra Hall. He misses the applause. Going without live music for three months, he said, has been heartbreaking.
Now, as the summer unfolds, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra horn player might get some of it back soon — in one form or another.
Strong is among the DSO musicians who have been sidelined, frustrated and creatively restless — if not completely silenced — since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But the French horn player, who’s also part of the DSO’s Innovation Committee, is growing optimistic he’ll be back in action in the weeks ahead.
“I can’t wait to make some music with someone I can see, instead of a microphone or camera,” he said, adding with a laugh: “I will say that recording yourself alone as a classical musician is one of the most miserable experiences.”
Like music and cultural sites around the globe, Orchestra Hall — the venerated Detroit venue built a century ago during a pandemic — has been shuttered the past three months.
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Having flexed its digital savvy during the shutdown with assorted online projects, the DSO is now quietly weighing plans to get back in front of audiences, albeit in reimagined formats and contingent on evolving health orders.
While musicians and management devise various repertoire possibilities — and the board maintains communication with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office — DSO president and CEO Anne Parsons said live ensemble performances of some kind will likely return in July, even if just private backyard events for now.
“When the pieces come together, we’re going to jump. Our musicians are really eager to be with each other,” she said. “And they’ve got lots of ideas about what that’s going to look like.”
While health and safety remain paramount, she said, by late summer, the DSO may be staging chamber ensemble concerts at unconventional outdoor spots across metro Detroit or scaled-down performances in other spaces at the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, including the Cube theater and new Sosnick Courtyard.
“We may turn up in all kinds of places this summer,” Parsons said.
Perhaps by autumn, the full orchestra will convene at last in an otherwise empty Orchestra Hall for a concert to be streamed live online.
For now, the 2,000-seat hall, like other large Michigan venues, remains indefinitely closed to the public under Whitmer’s shutdown order. Even upon reopening, audience capacities will almost surely be limited for some time.
“I know how critical it is to hold on to these safety measures and not just bounce back too fast,” Parsons said.
As it stands, the DSO has canceled all previously scheduled performances through Aug. 31. The launch of the 2020-21 season is still on the December calendar, including the planned official debut of new music director Jader Bignamini conducting Beethoven’s 9th. The recently announced Paradise Jazz Series and Young People’s Family Concerts are scheduled to kick off in December and January, respectively.
Navigating a rocky stretch isn’t new for an institution that has endured more than its share of financial turmoil and civic tension through the decades. As it faces down the coronavirus pandemic, Parsons said, the Detroit orchestra is drawing on a long history of agility during hardship — including the construction of Orchestra Hall in 1919 at the height of the Spanish flu.
“We’re not new to stress,” Parsons said. “I think the thing that holds us together as a city, and as an institution like ours that’s 137 years old, is this sense of resilience and determination and a balance of vision and discipline.”
Mark Stryker is a former Free Press music journalist and author of the book “Destiny,” a history of Orchestra Hall published last year by the DSO to commemorate the venue’s centennial.
“There’s no American orchestra that’s been through more existential crises in its history than the DSO. It has survived and managed often to thrive,” Stryker said. “But not for this pandemic, the DSO has been in the best shape it’s been in for a generation or two. This is an institution that has survived anything and everything that has been thrown at it, and I expect that here, too.”
As Orchestra Hall marks its 100th birthday, the historical pandemic parallel hasn’t been lost on the DSO family.
The orchestra had just performed a John Williams film tribute in early March and was rehearsing for a weekend of “Carmina Burana” when the coronavirus outbreak went full throttle.
“Everything just stopped,” Strong said.
The horn player recalled the sadness as a threat that seemed “so far away” became — within days — the prime mover in American society.
“It was like all the wind was taken out of my sails,” Strong said. “We weren’t going to be able to play for a while. Nobody knew what was going to happen.
“And the silence, the lack of music, was really loud.”
In April, the DSO announced a plan to weather the storm through August, the end of its fiscal year, including pay cuts of up to 20% for musicians, crew, staff and executives. The organization secured an emergency relief loan via the CARES Act and set up the DSO Resilience Fund for donors.
It also negotiated with the musicians union to tweak work rules, paving the way for additional summer performances should the coronavirus situation improve.
Summer in the DSO world typically would include pops concerts and special events at sites such as Meadow Brook Amphitheatre and Greenfield Village. And summer in 2020 was to have featured some extra sunshine: Enjoying strong financial stability nine years after a devastating musicians’ strike, the organization was readying for a fresh era under Bignamini, the DSO’s charismatic, energetic new conductor.
Bignamini is for now back in his native Italy, after two months quarantined with his family in Toronto, where he’d traveled for a guest gig just as the coronavirus swept North America.
The same sense of daring that led to young Bignamini’s appointment has informed the DSO’s moves during the pandemic.
For instance, the notion of a theater sparsely peppered with socially distanced audience members — and musicians spread out onstage in a nontraditional array — might strike some as weird, Parsons conceded.
“But I think it’s kind of fun, right?” she said. “Why not lean in and try it?”
As in much of the arts world, the DSO steered its energies online during the early phase of the pandemic. The Detroit orchestra was uniquely poised for that pivot, having dived into the digital realm with gusto a decade ago via live-streamed concerts.
“We used what we consider to be part our DNA, which is to be resilient in the face of some challenge, some threat,” said Parsons. “We’ve learned that if you just sit tight and wait, you could be losing ground faster.”
Waiving the $50 donation normally required for access, the DSO publicly opened its video archive of 200-plus concerts in March. The resulting traffic points to big success: In the five months prior to the shutdown, the DSO Replay program had averaged about 1,325 monthly views. Since March, that monthly average has shot up to more than 61,000, including viewers from around the world.
The orchestra quickly rolled out regular live watch parties on social media, hosted by musicians and others, along with a homespun Play on Your Porch series featuring DSO musicians doing just that. The weekly “Between Two Stands,” a podcast-style series featuring musicians in conversation, was also launched.
Another project, dubbed Virtual Side By Side, will premiere soon: The DSO asked musically inclined citizens to tape themselves playing along to a short clip of Dvorak’s “New World Symphony” as recorded by several of the orchestra’s pros.
Strong was part of that in-home project, recording his horn part alone to a click track and digitally generated accompaniment. For the sorts of aural perfectionists who become classical musicians, the process was fun if frustrating, he said — much like the attempts to rehearse live with other musicians online via Zoom, where slight streaming delays are enough to louse it all up.
Chalk them up as the curious artifacts of a 2020 nobody banked on. They’re the makeshift adjustments that, while sometimes vexing, have come with silver linings for musicians such as Strong.
“You have to look for the good as an orchestra,” he said. “And I’m proud to be part of this one in this moment.”
The months ahead remain uncertain. The pandemic rolls on, economic upheaval continues, and amid racial tensions, “the country has turned heavily into headwinds,” as Parsons put it.
But the Detroit Symphony Orchestra wants to play a special role.
“I just think this is a moment of truth, a moment of taking charge of your life,” she said. “And the DSO loves to do that.”
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