Photo by Amanda L. Smith.

Honey, We Shrunk the Orchestra

Local ensembles keep the sound of music alive with safety precautions

Orchestras are getting smaller, adjusting to the COVID-19 era. But orchestras adapting to the times isn’t new. Gustav Mahler added instruments that were supposed to be a reflection of the world during the Industrial Age, says Roger Saydack, a consultant for the Oregon Bach Festival who’s led Eugene Symphony’s music director search since the days of Marin Alsop in the 1980s. 

Local orchestras today are reassessing their instrumentation during the COVID-19 era, since the world today calls for a quieter, smaller ensemble due to social distancing measures, and music programming means having safety and health precautions at a priority. 

That’s what musical groups in Eugene are doing to adjust to social distance measures by exploring streaming and balancing audience and orchestra size. But it’s also an opportunity to perform compositions often overlooked. Of course, there is still the hope that a vaccine will come along and ease social distancing measures.

Usually, Eugene Symphony would have its 2020-21 season featuring an 80-member orchestra all planned out by now and ready for its opening concert. But under Gov. Kate Brown’s social distance orders, not even the orchestra would be allowed to gather. 

While the symphony has adapted with the Symphony Go! outdoor performances, sunny days are limited in Oregon, so Executive Director Scott Freck says the orchestra will move indoors to keep music alive for its audience, even if it’s only for virtual listeners.

Freck says the symphony plans to use streaming as a way to keep classical music going in the community, offering monthly programs with an ensemble of 30 musicians at the Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center. 

“We’re going to take it one concert at a time,” he says. 

Even with Oregon’s current social distance measures, Freck says the symphony can do the streaming and chamber orchestra. 

“It’ll be very interesting programming,” he says. “Because we’re capturing them on video, you’ll be able to see some close-ups that you wouldn’t normally see.”

More than halving the orchestra for a concert is a chance to discover new voices, Freck says. 

“It’s an opportunity to hear some voices — old and new — that we may not have heard before,” he says. “There’s a lot of great music being written right now for small ensembles. Not every composer working today has the ability for a full orchestra to play their stuff. So there’s a lot more chamber-sized repertoire being written now than for a full orchestra.” 

Freck says it’s too early to announce any works that the Eugene Symphony will perform, but he says he’s loved every program draft proposed by Francesco Lecce-Chong, the orchestra’s music director. 

Freck says when it can do concerts with a normal audience size, the Eugene Symphony plans to revisit concerts it postponed at the end of its 2019-2020 season. They include works by Sergei Rachmaninov, Ludwig Beethoven and Maurice Ravel. 

Oregon Mozart Players have been shuffling their 2020 concerts around to adjust for COVID-19. Executive Director Daren Fuster says the group took the conservative route and cut a concert from the season and shifted its opener from October to the holiday season. 

Fuster adds that OMP held its fundraiser “Pint Size Performances” during the summer rather than later in the year as a way to take advantage of the outdoors. The sold-out concerts have been hosted at breweries and vineyards in Roseburg, Junction City and Eugene. 

However, OMP moved its popular Candlelight Concert to the end of January, hoping that a vaccine is readily available or treatment will end social distancing measures at performances, Fuster says. 

Because the University of Oregon is mostly remote with many of its facilities closed, OMP has moved its December and January concerts from Beall Hall to Central Presbyterian Church. Fuster says the church is a larger space with excellent acoustics, and OMP has even adopted its own paperless ticketing system that would help keep audiences physically distant. 

OMP’s season includes a double piano performance that features conductor Kelly Kuo and pianist Andrew Brownell. The duo will perform Gustav Holst’s The Planets while UO professor James Schombert discusses astronomy, in addition to a trip across the universe at the Eugene Science Center Planetarium. 

Fuster says OMP has a backup plan in case social distance measures prevent an audience at concerts. The orchestra is finalizing authorizations with musicians and the union to record and transmit concert video to patrons. 

There is a lot of spit associated with woodwind and brass instruments, which ranges from a spray of spit to a stream of saliva from brass instrument valves. So orchestras are planning to contain it through programming and safety planning. 

Freck says the Eugene Symphony is implementing disposable mats for brass musicians to empty spit valves on to, bell covers for instruments and plexiglass for other instruments that need it. 

Fuster says Kuo designed the December Noël Concert and January Candlelight Concert for a smaller ensemble of musicians — about 14 musicians. And both concerts will feature mostly strings, so musicians can wear masks as a safety precaution for other musicians on stage and for the audience, he adds. 

Since there’s a lot of uncertainty around COVID-19 and its impact on daily life, ensembles could remain small in size for some time. Roger Saydack says performances and acoustics in the Hult Center sound good with smaller ensembles and fewer audiences.

“Music itself is not at risk. It’s a fundamental part of who we are. The concert itself is not at risk,” he says. “It’s going to continue in one form or another. It may just be a while until the environment of keeping people healthy allows those same types of crowding together musicians and audience members. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to end.”

Eugene Symphony has its Symphony Go! concerts: noon Wednesday Sept. 23 and 29, at Kesey Square. Oregon Mozart Players’ 2020 season opener is 7:30 pm Dec. 18 and 19 at Central Presbyterian Church. Delgani String Quartet performs 6 pm Friday, Sept. 25, and 3 pm Sunday, Sept. 27, at Island Park North Pavilion in Springfield.