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During Time Of Social Distancing, Symphonies Find Ways To Unite Musicians, Audiences

Courtesy Colorado Symphony
The Colorado Symphony has postponed all events until at least May 11.

In this time of social distancing, when your job relies on getting 80 people in the same room, things can be difficult.

“We had a team meeting once we all realized we couldn’t get the ensemble together to perform,” said Tony Pierce, chief artistic officer for the Colorado Symphony. “Because you know, that’s what an orchestra does, we put on live concerts, and when you can’t have audiences or even get the 80 musicians in the Colorado Symphony in one place, we knew we’d have to get creative.”

So, if you can’t bring people to the music, take the music to the people — virtually. The symphony decided to come together by playing apart.

Using PDFs of all the music, each musician got out their cell phone and recorded themselves playing at home. The symphony’s operations manager and audio engineers mixed the segments together. The result was a poignant version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

“I think a big part of being a performing musician is your soul is fed by being on stage performing for people and sharing your art,” Pierce said. “And this is a new way to do it for us.”

The goal was to figuratively — and literally — bring a little joy not only to the musicians but to the world, Pierce said.

“We also understood that this is a stressful, difficult time for everybody, and our music can definitely help bring some peace to people,” he said. “And Beethoven Nine really made a lot of sense because it’s all about brotherhood and community.”

Colorado’s music community is finding a lot of ways to come together.

“It is a strange time,” said bassoonist Tom Bittinger, who’s been with the Fort Collins Symphony for more than 40 years. “I really miss playing in the orchestra and interacting with my colleagues and playing for an audience, of course.”

To fill the void, FCS musicians are creating virtual concerts on a smaller scale, putting on solo shows on Facebook. Bittinger has posted several videos, including a duet with his wife, Beth Wells, who plays cello with the symphony. In another video, he plays four different bassoon parts for the piece “Bugler's Holiday.”

It’s all part of FCS’s “Keep Us Playing” campaign. Viewers can enjoy the mini performances and contribute to the fund which will be divided up among the symphony’s more than 50 musicians.

Like many others, Bittinger has also moved all of the lessons he teaches to Skype and FaceTime — something he wasn’t used to doing.

“That’s a whole new experience for me — for this old dog trying to learn a new trick,” he said. “But it’s working; we’re making it work.”

The symphony is rescheduling some of its canceled concerts for this summer. But while Bittinger is excited to get back to playing together, he says he worries about who they’ll be playing for in this new era of social distancing.

“I’m hoping they will be able to get an audience to come, that’s what I’m thinking is people will be somewhat reluctant to come out again,” he said.

Bittinger says he thinks a lot of arts groups are struggling during this time, especially smaller ones.

“Those parts of the business that were difficult have been amplified, and I think many arts organizations, unfortunately, will not survive this,” he said.

For the Colorado Symphony, halting concerts following some of its best attendance numbers in years has been tough, Tony Pierce said. After a decade of financial instability, the symphony was in the best position it had been in for a long time.

“That’s one reason it's so frustrating to have to push the pause button,” Pierce said. “But it’s OK. We’re going to be back, and we’re committed to supporting this community.”

For now, that means streaming past concerts online every Friday during their Virtual Music Hour. As soon as they know when shows can be rescheduled safely, they’ll be back to live performances.

“We’re just speculating right now, but people are still buying tickets for concerts in July,” Pierce said, adding they’re also seeing some new subscribers for next season.

As for what it will feel like when they finally get back in front of a live audience?

“I think it’s going to be amazing,” Pierce said. “I think it will be a special thing for us all to come together again. And that’s one of the things that music really can do that nothing else can, right? I guess maybe it will be a cathartic experience for all of us when we can come back together in the concert hall.”

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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