Austin Symphony Orchestra Keeps Playing From Beyond the Stage

For the second time in its 109-year history, the ASO weathers a global pandemic

ASO Music Director Peter Bay (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

As Sixth Street venues remain boarded up and contemporary music acts explore alternative avenues to engage with their audiences, what does a nearly 80-member musical group with no "new" material do to stay active during a quarantine? The Austin Symphony Orchestra isn't exactly in a position to boost its profile with a "latest quarantine track is up on SoundCloud, link in bio" Instagram post.

In a story familiar to every creative enterprise in town, the symphony's 2020 plans were upended as soon as cases of the novel coronavirus emerged in Travis County. Before upcoming programs could be reconfigured and allow for a chamber-sized version of the orchestra to continue performing live, the Long Center closed in compliance with the city's social distancing guidelines, and the ASO was without a venue to play in or an audience to play for.

“Musicians don’t make music in a vacuum; they really love playing for an audience, and [they] came forward right away and said, ‘We’d like to do this.’” – Peter Bay

Adaptability and innovation would prove instrumental to surviving "unprecedented times" (already 2020's most tired phrase), as many performing arts groups abruptly discovered in those early weeks; indeed, to this day, ASO Music Director Peter Bay wryly admits that "every meeting starts with undoing what we had planned the previous meeting." Thankfully, with the entire city thrust into a nimble, problem-solving mindset, ASO could quickly pivot to local partner KMFA 89.5 (Austin's classical music radio station) and forge a stopgap collaboration that would keep the symphony in the public ear: an eight-week series of previously recorded ASO performances.

While the project had obvious appeal, it meant negotiating the complex web of musicians' union terms and licensing agreements to ensure that rebroadcasting wouldn't violate previous contracts. Securing the rights from music publishers to re-air copyrighted material (say, a popular Leonard Bernstein piece) could have slowed the project's progress significantly. KMFA circumvented that pitfall by simply handpicking concerts of copyright-free music and was able to launch the series by mid-May. Bay notes that ultimately "this was a pleasant challenge ... We're grateful to KMFA for keeping us on the air while we can't play live."

The triumph of that particular workaround doesn't change the unfortunate fact that global pandemics are not explicitly addressed under some generous clause in most ASO musicians' contracts. "Force majeure" provisions could be implemented in the case of previously booked guest soloists, and a quick-witted scheduling maneuver even resulted in one featured artist being rescheduled for the 2021-22 season.

However, the symphony's mainstay roster of musicians operates as a contracted "per service" orchestra, according to Bay, meaning that performers are paid for each rehearsal and concert they participate in. As an emergency contingency measure, the ASO was able to compensate musicians for their canceled Beethoven Piano Concerto Festival slated for June but had limited recourse to assist them in the long term. So the organization established a COVID-19 Emergency Fund to contribute financial support to their players and began brainstorming ways to maintain their presence in the community.

The first actionable step? Bring the audience to the musicians themselves through Q&A profiles of individual players and showcasing others via virtual solo recitals on the ASO Facebook page. For Associate Concertmaster Patrice Calixte, the opportunity to invite symphony patrons into his home was a refreshing change of pace from the usual routine of performing on the same stage in the same uniform.

ASO Associate Concertmaster Patrice Calixte (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

"The fun part of this was for the audience to just see us in our natural habitat," Calixte told the Chronicle from his front yard, sitting six comfortable feet away; beside a perspiring pitcher of water on his table, two empty glasses sat untouched. "So I was dressed like I am every day, and my house looked like it looks every day. You can see all my board games in the background."

Although these online performances – billed as "From Beyond the Stage" showcases – were not compensated as a payable "service" under the musicians' contracts, the symphony had no shortage of players who, like Calixte, were available and eager to contribute their talents to help the ASO. "Musicians don't make music in a vacuum; they really love playing for an audience, and [they] came forward right away and said, 'We'd like to do this,'" says Bay.

The musical selections were left to the musicians' discretion. Bearing in mind that ASO regulars may prefer the comfort of known material during a period of uncertainty (and that potential new audiences might be drawn by familiar music), Calixte chose to play a Bach violin sonata. "It was a personal challenge, because ... I hate performing Bach," he laughs, quickly adding, "I love Bach, but performing it is so stressful." He recorded three separate takes of the performance, and, naturally, ended up submitting his first attempt.

Whatever these improvised public awareness initiatives may lack in box office revenue, both Bay and Calixte remain confident about the benefits they yield for the symphony. The ASO doesn't receive money for the rebroadcasts of its past concerts on KMFA (nor does it actively solicit donations during the programs), but Bay is encouraged by the positive feedback from a passionate audience that misses the sound of live orchestral performances. Calixte finds the extracurricular projects gratifying on multiple levels and appears visibly excited by a tentative prospect being floated by ASO management: solo recitals performed outside the houses of ASO donors. "The beauty of music is the togetherness," Calixte concludes. "It's nice to support [people] who have been supporting us and been such a major part of what the orchestra is."

But what would a return to the stage look like for the Austin Symphony? "Jumping in the pool with our clothes on," chuckles Bay. Since March, ASO has been gaming out various return scenarios across the calendar year, and up until last week, had its eyes trained hopefully on the Fourth of July as a potential diving board. A proposal for an audience-free virtual showcase – pre-taped with a chamber-sized version of the orchestra at the Palmer Events Center – was even drawn up and submitted to city health officials for approval. Last Friday, however, the symphony ended up canceling the celebration out of an abundance of caution, noting in a statement that they "have had to cancel only one other time in the 40-plus years" of staging the Central Texas staple.

Despite the cancellation of what was ostensibly a trial run, Bay confirms that the logistics of the proposed virtual format will be utilized in the coming months. Indeed, the symphony already announced that its 2020-21 season will proceed in September, with the first half being hosted entirely online. Bay remains acutely aware of the myriad obstacles that could arise between now and then. The Long Center's reopening date remains undetermined, and by firmly staking out its fall concert dates, ASO may find itself scrambling to secure an alternative space to stage their tapings. The limited number of returning musicians will also have to radically adjust their seating configurations to keep six feet apart – a bewildering picture for any orchestra accustomed to pairing players at each music stand. Calixte shifts uncomfortably as he points out that while fellow string musicians could wear masks while performing, it's clearly impossible for the wind and brass players to do so.

Although "anything can change" in the weeks ahead, as Bay cautions repeatedly, ASO's move into the digital space is merely a prelude to its striking goal of resuming live performances by late December (also announced in its '20-21 season release). Accordingly, Bay has spent much of the quarantine shuffling and reorganizing the symphony's previously planned repertoire to account for the calendar changes. Several of the prominent compositions announced for the triumphant return in 2021 also present daunting logistical challenges – namely, pieces that require large orchestras (such as Gustav Holst's The Planets) and one that calls for an entire 150-person choir to share the stage with the orchestra (Beethoven's Ninth Symphony). Coupled with the hope of welcoming audiences back to the Long Center, it's an ambitious goal for the symphony to pursue in the coming months – though certainly not impossible in a public health crisis that remains dizzyingly unpredictable.

For now though, the music director's curatorial instincts have been focused on the fall concerts and the atmosphere that his musicians and audience alike will be reuniting under. "Musically and emotionally, normality is one of the themes," explains Bay. Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland – a distinctly American composer – has been selected to close out the season opener, and Bay hopes the composition's warmth and emotionality will imbue the program "with the understanding of what we've all been through these last few months."

The ASO's COVID-19 Emergency Fund webpage currently displays a brief message to patrons, reiterating that social distancing and donations are the safest avenues to support the symphony; it also includes a simple reminder to its audience that in the time since its inception in 1911, the Austin Symphony has survived the 1918 Spanish Flu and two World Wars. "We haven't disappeared, we're not going to crawl in a hole," Bay agrees. "I think it's doubly important that we let the people of Austin know that we're still around."

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Austin Symphony Orchestra, Peter Bay, Patrice Calixte, coronavirus, KMFA, Long Center

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