CT symphonies adapt to virtual and outdoor performances to survive pandemic climate

Connecticut is rich in the musical arts, having nearly 20 symphony groups around the state,

Connecticut is rich in the musical arts, having nearly 20 symphony groups around the state, whose stages mostly remain dark due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Some, like the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, have furloughed their musicians, while others that have hosted outdoor shows this summer and fall, are offering virtual programs and classes and focusing on musical outreach to get through this difficult time.

In March, the Stamford Symphony created the Stamford Symphony Channel to stay connected to the community through music. The symphony is planning more virtual programs with small ensembles to include interactive components, such as a Q&A with the musicians and music director Michael Stern. For its 2021 season, the symphony hopes to present three live chamber concerts, as well as three live weekend programs, one per month, January through June, streamed virtually.

A recent event was its October 24 annual gala and concert that ran virtually. It was called “Together Again” to celebrate the orchestra reuniting with the community in a new way. The event was free this year.

“While this year has been challenging, the silver lining of the Covid cloud has meant we have been able to connect with many more in the community through our digital presentations,” said Russell Jones, president and CEO, Stamford Symphony. “We are so grateful that the gala and concert brought in essential funds for our orchestra to continue to provide music, free, for everyone to enjoy, but of course to maintain the online season we will always need more support.” The show, which was also a tribute to health care workers at Stamford Health and throughout the county, is still streaming and people can still make donations.

“The Norwalk Youth Symphony has a virtual program for our 160 students and our conductors are all still actively working with NYS,” said Sara Watkins, the symphony’s executive director. It is offering students classes and chamber music coaching this fall through online avenues like Zoom.

While its stage remains dark and its performance space at Greenwich High School taken over as classroom furniture storage necessitated by social distancing, the Greenwich Symphony is still making music, albeit from home. “Despite the difficulties, Greenwich Symphony Orchestra continues to be a very active organization,” said publicity chairman Anita O’Sullivan. Its online presence, GSOffstage, already has nearly 10 videos of its musicians playing as well as behind-the-scenes stories to satisfy musicians’ need to perform and for audiences to listen to beautiful music.

A highlight was the Chamber Players of the Greenwich Symphony concert last month, which had a small socially distanced audience and only six (out of 80) Greenwich Symphony Orchestra musicians.

The Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra has not performed together as a whole since February and is doing virtual programs while looking at the feasibility of winter and spring concerts. “In order to keep the RSO out there and visible, we took advantage of the great summer and early fall weather and have presented numerous outdoor live musical performances,” said executive director Laurie Kenagy. Its Keeler Tavern series was a big hit as was a small classical chamber music series in collaboration with the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

“Looking at the next few months, we have a fundraiser taking place in early December called ‘RSO All Hearts Holiday Auction’ — an online auction with proceeds going to benefit our RSO musicians who have not been able to play with us since last winter,” she said.

The New Haven Symphony has been in an extraordinary and transformative period of planning and transition, said marketing director Katie Bonner Russo. “Our top priorities have been and continue to be creating work for our musicians, providing education programs for young people and students, and deepening our community connections.”

While forgoing indoor concerts, it presented live concerts at the Canal Dock Boathouse on the New Haven waterfront, online watch parties, as well as community conversations and performances surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and in support of diversity, equity and inclusion in classical music and its own orchestra.

While it has furloughed its musicians, the Hartford Symphony is hosting virtual concerts and online programs. Its offerings include a HSO Spotlight Series (a new virtual concert series) and Masterworks In Depth with Carolyn Kuan, a monthly online conversation with its music director and special guests. It also launched HSO To Go, its new online digital home, which has everything from educational videos and musician videos from home to a tribute to essential workers that features the orchestra performing Stravinsky’s Firebird.

From early spring on, the Eastern Connecticut Symphony transitioned its grant-funded Music in the Schools program into Music in the Homes, an online video resource to reach students at home. It’s been able to pay musicians for their time doing these, which helps make up some of the lost pay when the symphony season was canceled.

“We are researching alternative indoor venues to present smaller ensembles as the weather turns a bit colder, and hope to open our main season at the Garde Arts Center in January if it’s safe for both musicians and attendees,” said executive director Caleb Bailey.

The Norwalk Symphony was full into its 80th season when the pandemic shut everything down. Two remaining concerts, plus the first three in the current 2020-2021 season have also been canceled. “We are saddened that our live performances have been canceled and miss the interaction with our audiences,” said executive director Sandra J. Miklave. “Yet, there are silver linings. We have actively engaged with many of our community partners to bring collaborative video presentations to our audiences … and we continue to support the musical education of the youth in our wider community and are working to restructure these programs for this upcoming school year.”

Update: This story was updated to include additional information about the Hartford Symphony’s online offerings.

Andrea Valluzzo is a freelance writer.

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