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Orchestra in the Age of Covid

Illustration for article titled Orchestra in the Age of Covid
Photo: Tim Shaffer

The Austin Symphony began rehearsals today for its first concert in six months. That’s a long time. In the past six months, I’ve played one gig–a Fourth of July brass quintet concert at a retirement home. In fact, the conductor commented to the group that the last time he went six months without conducting was 43 years ago. It’s been an enormous challenge to stay in any kind of playing shape during this long hiatus.

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Photo: Tim Shaffer

The orchestra has gone to great lengths to make this happen. In addition to many consultations with health professionals and other orchestras, they have created a comprehensive back-to-work plan that will make the rehearsals and performances as safe as possible. Every member must pass a Covid test prior to the first rehearsal (paid for by the orchestra), submit health questionnaires, take temperature checks at the door, wash hands upon entering the hall, and maintain social distancing backstage. We have assigned tables for instruments and cases, 10-foot spacing on stage between musicians, plexiglass dividers between each chair, and even puppy piddle pads for the brass players to empty their water on. Ventilation has been increased, outside doors opened, and doors in the shell have been opened to encourage air flow. String players will have to wear masks onstage, but obviously, wind players can’t. The orchestra is also programming works that can use fewer players to we can spread out.

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Photo: Tim Shaffer

This is the set up for the Royal Fireworks by Handel, in an arrangement for just winds, brass, and percussion. It feels a bit like a marching band formation, with the flutes and horns on opposite 40 yard lines with the drum major standing on the 50. But it works. Instead of having an audience, the concert will be recorded live on Sunday afternoon and then rebroadcast online to those who have season tickets or who have bought a single ticket. Each piece will be recorded separately so there isn’t a huge gaggle of people at the hall at the same time. It’s a huge experiment, but it’s imperative that we get the orchestra back on stage and in front of an audience in any way possible. It’s perhaps optimistic, but at this point, we plan to be back on stage for real in January. We’ll have to see how that goes. At least for now, it just feels great to be back with colleagues and doing what we love to do.

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Photo: Tim Shaffer
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Photo: Tim Shaffer
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Photo: Tim Shaffer
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Photo: Tim Shaffer

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