By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
The music stopped for the Seattle Symphony in early March of 2020, when the organization learned that a stay-at-home order was set in place for the health and safety of people from the spread of the coronavirus.
“It was March 11th that Governor Inslee made the declaration,” recounts Seattle Symphony CEO Krishna Thiagarajan. “We were in the middle of a rehearsal at the time. I walked into the rehearsal and asked our musicians to stop performing.”
For patrons that support the Seattle Symphony, the organization pivoted to rebroadcast materials online for audience members on its website. Of course, there is no substitute to live performances from Benaroya Hall, but supporters adjusted to the new way of listening to the symphony.
The musicians that play a huge part of the Seattle Symphony stuck together through a time of uncertainty. There were no layoffs. Like other businesses, the Seattle Symphony experienced a decrease in revenue due to the absence of live events.
“We made it very clear that we wanted health insurance and pension plan [benefits],” Thiagarajan said of the requirements for performers to remain a part of the organization. But there was a reset in pay.
“The shared financial sacrifice is temporary, but I do believe it is fair to say it has set them back.”
Through the difficulties, Thiagarajan praised the performers for their resilience during the pandemic.
“People have really rallied and come together,” he added of the shared input to finding ways to return to live performances. “Every idea is welcome.”
It was not until this past September that musicians were able to return to playing together, as musicians producing digital content were deemed ‘essential workers’ by the state of Washington. Thus, they were cleared to go back to work and assemble to rehearse and deliver online concerts.
In coming back, Thiagarajan explained that they developed crisis contingency plans. The musicians played together, although social distance requirements were met. They consulted with multiple health professionals, including experts from Overlake Hospital, the University of Washington, and a group of doctors from Vashon Island. They retrofitted Benaroya Hall with extra ventilation filters and implemented extra cleaning regiments before and after performances. There were also zones roped off to create more space and designate sanitized areas.
The pivot to online streaming kept Symphony followers engaged. It also allowed for others outside of the state to listen in to the performances. Once live performances began, the company instituted a paywall.
The Seattle Symphony Live platform premieres weekly live streamed concerts for $12.99 a month.
“We had six weeks and very limited funds to put together a platform that is now being watched worldwide,” Thiagarajan said of the need to build out an online presence for a streaming audience. “We had to make sure we had the right bandwidth, feed, and that the servers don’t crash.”
In putting together the performances, Thiagarajan explained the enhanced protocols. All of the performers, including the conductor, are masked. He noted that the conductors carry multiple masks during performances as one gets worn from moisture, and they can be replaced during the concert. “We actually have more stringent guidelines for woodwind and brass players as they maintain a 9-foot distance from others.” In addition to separating performers and wearing masks, the performers take weekly COVID-19 tests.
“The biggest thing is you don’t have an audience to get feedback from,” Thiagarajan noted of the departure from the symphony responding to those in attendance. “There is no applause,” on the other hand, Thiagarajan indicated, “…there is not the dreaded coughing.” He described the atmosphere of the performances in an otherwise empty Benaroya Hall as being in a recording studio.
“We are working out procedures and how we can accommodate an audience,” said Thiagarajan of the plan when live audiences return. Once given the go ahead by the state, the Seattle Symphony will allow 25% capacity for live concerts and then go from there. “My hope is that this will happen sooner rather than later.”
In the meantime, the weekly concerts will continue online. And the performers will continue to adjust without concertgoers.
“We are still trying to figure out how to take a bow.”
For more information on the Seattle Symphony and its online performances, visit seattlesymphony.org.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.