The 2020-21 virtual season of Santa Rosa Symphony full of ups, downs and good sides
When the Santa Rosa Symphony made the risky decision in May 2020 to continue the show for the 2020-21 season – virtually, with a downsized orchestra of 32 musicians at a time and a whole new repertoire – no one really knew how that was. would happen.
With the string players spaced 6 feet apart and the antlers surrounded by plexiglass boxes, would they even be able to get along?
How would the orchestra survive financially with every concert broadcast for free and only the subscriptions renewed in advance providing income for the concerts?
Fortunately, finances have stalled for the regional orchestra, thanks to a big increase in donations and requests for reimbursement of subscriptions of less than 5%.
“The bottom line has been overwhelmingly positive, largely in response to our hope that people will be inspired by what we have produced,” said Alan Silow, President and CEO of the Santa Rosa Symphony. “The result has been a doubling of the number of donor households and a 300% increase in the number of new donors, one-third coming from outside Northern California. “
But another disaster struck even before the start of the season. Smoke from the Glass fire last September forced the orchestra to postpone its first two-day rehearsal and recording session not once, but twice, due to poor air quality.
Even the symphony’s determined musical director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, began to have doubts about launching this impossible one-season dream.
“At that point, I wanted to give up because I felt that we cannot continue to experience this frustration on the verge of tears,” said Lecce-Chong. “I had no more energy to find a way out.”
But it was also at this moment that the driver realized that he had not carried everything on his own, that in fact, he was carried by others.
“The nicest thing was… everyone wanted this to happen,” he said. “It was even better than I dreamed we could have achieved this season. It took everyone to make this happen. … It wasn’t just about music. It was only about life.
With pivots, learning curves and new skills, symphonic musicians have continued to perform, even as other orchestras across the country have gone out of business during the pandemic. To find out how they did it, we spoke with the Santa Rosa Symphony Music Director, two lead musicians, a sound engineer and the orchestra director about the challenges they overcame.
According to Lecce-Chong, the symphony was able to put on a virtually full season – and was one of the first and still is one of the few in the country to accomplish this feat – as they began planning in May 2020.
“Obviously the target moved every week over the summer so we had to keep changing,” he said. “But why it worked, and why this orchestra and this community is so unique, is that we were able to get this buy-in from the start… from the board of directors, musicians’ union, sponsors and donors.”
At the end of August, as cases of COVID-19 continued to increase, this consensus allowed Lecce-Chong to persevere despite obstacles in his quest to provide at least one job for musicians and keep his music community united. His motivation to continue came from the fact that all of his colleagues had lost all of their income and, more importantly, the meaning of their life.
“For many of us, we are defined by this,” he said. “We have spent our entire lives being able to provide music and inspiration to others. “
It was at this point that Lecce-Chong began to broaden his job description of artistic director to a broader role. He began to learn everything he could, from the orchestra’s budget to testing protocols for COVID-19.
“I kind of threw caution to the wind,” he said. “But when I told stakeholders about my vision, they understood that I was aware of all the issues. “
Although he’s only been in his role as Music Director for two seasons on Santa Rosa, he’s grown “exponentially” closer to musicians, staff and donors this season.
“I think we all had to show a vulnerable side of ourselves,” he explained.
It was clear on stage during rehearsals and recordings, when each musician had to stay at least 6 feet away from their neighbors. And, said Lecce-Chong, “When you’re playing really difficult music, that distance makes it a lot harder. “
Although they couldn’t hear the person next to them, each musician had to take a leap of faith and play boldly, trusting themselves and their colleagues. It got easier over time, after listening to the recordings and realizing that their ensemble had not suffered.
For Lecce-Chong, working with a compact rehearsal schedule – three rehearsals and one recording session over two days, rather than four or five rehearsals and three concerts on different dates – the challenge was to let go of perfectionism. Normally his job was to sort out problems during rehearsals, but he just didn’t have the time.