Symphony NB faces a season of uncertainty in the era of COVID-19

Symphony NB faces a season of uncertainty in the era of COVID-19

In a world where people have to stay two metres apart, Symphony New Brunswick is looking at an immediate future with unique problems.

First and foremost, how can you put 40 musicians together on a stage — any stage — and maintain any standards of physical distancing? 

And, what kind of audience could you play for?

Jennifer Grant, the general manager of the symphony, said these are just some of the contingencies the organization is preparing for this fall, when the new season launches — or, if the new season launches.

“What if we can only have 25 musicians? What could we play?,” she said, “What if we can only have 50 people to a concert?”

It’s a puzzling problem for the organization, which already had to cancel the final three programs in its 2019-2020 season.

Grant said that fortunately, that hasn’t been a big financial hit for Symphony NB. It was able to cancel the shows in enough time to not be obligated to pay out contracts.

David Adams, left, is principal violinist with Symphony NB and one of eight full-time musicians with the orchestra. (Symphony New Brunswick)

And Grant points out that putting on shows costs money, so there have been savings in that regard.

She said the symphony has also been able to continue to pay its eight core musicians, the full-time members of the orchestra.

One of those is David Adams, principal violinist with Symphony NB and a member of the Saint John String Quartet.

Adams, like most everyone else, has been at home for the past six weeks.

He’s been using that time to figure out how to connect with audiences over the internet.

For example, on Saturday, he and the quartet’s cellist, Sonya Adams, “will do an Instagram Live co-production with a group of people from Argentina,” he said.

“So that’s a new platform for me, so today I’m busily getting that platform up and running and testing it and we’ll have a brief time on the web with everybody tuning in from all over the world.”

We’d like to make it to have been for some good. Everything has to be relevant to our community and somehow we have to reach the people who have suffered.– Jennifer Grant, general manager SNB

They’ve made two very appropriate choices for that performance.

“We’re going to play a Meditation by Thais, which I found this wonderful quote online,” Adams said. “If you had to distance yourself from the world for about five minutes, this is a beautiful way to spend that five minutes.”

The second piece is for violin and cello by Toronto composer Frank Horvat, part of his Music for Self-Isolation project that has been running in recent weeks.

The Saint John String Quartet performing in a YouTube video filmed just before quarantine rules went into effect. These days, this is the only way you can see and hear the players perform. (YouTube)

Adams said it’s exciting to be able to continue to share music with people, but it can’t replace being in front of an audience.

“I had a friend once that said that listening to a CD or a YouTube video of a symphony orchestra is a lot like eating canned meat,” Adams said. “You like the steak on the barbecue, and the canned meat is OK, but it’s not the same.” 

The bad news is it’s likely going to be canned meat for music lovers for the foreseeable future.

Up in the air

On Friday, Premier Blaine Higgs laid out his government’s plan for slowly relaxing COVID-19 restrictions.

He said large gatherings like festivals and concerts would likely not be allowed until 2021.

Jennifer Grant wants to know exactly what that means. Where would smaller chamber concerts fit into that policy? And would an open-air concert be handled differently?

Grant said, if it’s at all possible, the symphony wants to be playing for a live audience in some manner next season.

“We’d like to make it to have been for some good. Everything has to be relevant to our community and somehow we have to reach the people who have suffered.”

‘We’re OK today, but …’

There’s also the very real long-term effects this pandemic might have on the orchestra, beginning with the finances.

“We’re OK today, but I don’t know about the end of summer,” Grant said, “How is it going to affect sponsorships and donations, which make up 25 per cent of our budget?”

And then there’s grant money. David Adams said this is “grant-writing season,” when arts organizations from across the country go looking for funding. 

Many of those organizations worry cash-strapped governments facing big deficits from the pandemic will be looking for places to find savings, and the arts may suffer.

Symphony NB has been searching for a new conductor ever since Michael Newnham left the organization almost two years ago. The COVID-19 outbreak is hampering the search. (Symphony New Brunswick)

The outbreak has also stalled Symphony NB’s efforts to find a new conductor.

In the past 18 months, several guest conductors have given the orchestra a test-drive in performances around the province, and that search was supposed to continue.

But with borders closed both internationally and provincially, it’s not possible to bring conductors in.

Adams said the symphony is approaching a new season with a number of things in mind.

Missing the magic

“We know very well that the chances of having artists coming in from the United States are slim, the fact that we’d be able to gather in a large group is probably slim, so we have contingency plans,” Adams said.

“One of them is to create these … well, COVID-19-type programs with distancing and online feeds and whatnot, and continue with that type of programming, and all of our musicians are familiar with that to some degree.

“And then our idea would be that we would try to adjust our programming by sliding it continuously into the future … until we could start opening up more popular concerts in person.” 

And for Adams and the other members of the Saint John String Quartet, it may also mean missing out on the dozens of visits they make to public schools each year, something he sees as important outreach and a lot of fun. That may also have to be done online in September.

“It’s disappointing that you can’t be there in person because that’s really the magical connection when it comes to music.”

Both Adams and Grant agree that Symphony NB will find some way to play this coming season, no matter how tenuous things seem now.

But, as Grant pointed out, “I guess the life of a musician can often seem tenuous.”

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