Throughout the country, the performing arts have taken a huge hit as their venues have been closed down during the pandemic. This six-part series, inspired by the Reading Musical Foundation, will visit our own performing arts community—theaters, musical organizations, presenters, and educational/performing institutions—to see how they have been coping, and what their plans are for 2021 and beyond.
BCTV is collaborating with local journalists to bring you the stories of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic. This media partnership is made possible in part by the support of The Wyomissing Foundation.
A symphony orchestra is one of the largest performing arts enterprises in any community. Relying on a regional pool of professional musicians who are unionized and hired on a contractual basis each season, as well as a professional staff to keep everything running, an orchestra also must pay to rent halls and scores for each concert, office leases, and many other behind-the-scenes costs.
Orchestras rely on a latticework of support: foundations, endowments, corporate and individual donors, subscribers and single-ticket buyers. It’s a balancing act to stay in the black, even in normal times. Canceling one concert because of a major snowstorm can throw everything out of kilter.
Then along came 2020.
For the Reading Symphony Orchestra, like many arts organizations, the year started with plans to celebrate Women in the Arts, featuring the works of women composers. Their March concert, presenting works by Jennifer Higdon and Joan Tower, turned out to be their last for the year. Because of Covid-19, they had to cancel the April and May concerts, a gala spring fundraising event, their annual “Beat Beethoven” run, and all the fall concerts, including the New Year’s Eve concert. In the orchestra’s 108 years, this level of cancellation is unprecedented.
When we talked, during the final weeks of 2020, with the RSO’s executive director, David Gross; music director/conductor Andrew Constantine; board president Michael Duff; and Reading Symphony Youth Orchestra director Christopher Cinquini, all of them spoke with subdued hope for a better 2021, layered with frustration and yearning for in-person music-making.
“Musicians everywhere are desperate to get out and make music together,” Constantine said. “Those who have the opportunity say, ‘God, I missed it so much.’”
He speaks from the perspective of an award-winning conductor with an international career, who juggles directing the RSO and the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Philharmonic while traveling frequently to guest-conduct for orchestras in his native England and in Europe and Russia.
All of that is on hold now, and “international conductors and musicians are offering online lessons,” he said.
Since March, Constantine has spent his time creating podcasts under the title “A Stick With a Point,” in which he interviews “people who are essential to the music business but who are not performers”—for example, Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and John Gilhooly, artistic and executive director of Wigmore Hall in London. (These can be found on Apple and Spotify, as well as on the RSO Facebook.)
“Other than that, I’ve been getting up close and personal with my new log splitter, and I’ve gotten pretty good with the chain saw,” he said. “I’ve decorated two bedrooms, and I’m experimenting with curries.”
Constantine, like many in the performing arts world, is saddened by the prevalence of streaming and prerecorded videos, even though they are a lifeline during the pandemic for all kinds of performers.
“My fear is that it will lead us into a future of people being more isolated from each other,” he said. “I want to be with people.”
Gross agreed that Covid-19 has been a huge challenge for the RSO. “One positive thing,” he said, “is that we were able to receive Paycheck Protection Program funding and pay the musicians in the spring.”
“I think we’re still viable; I strongly believe that,” Gross said.
The musicians have been “very understanding,” he said, and have worked with the RSO administration and board through Zoom meetings to deal with all the uncertainty. Extra support has come from the Reading Musical Foundation, the Wyomissing Foundation and the Neag Foundation, as well as the Department of Community and Economic Development, among other sources.
Duff agreed with that assessment. “In March, when we had to cancel the second half of the last season, I was asking myself, ‘Am I going to be the last president of the RSO?’ But we quickly reduced whatever costs we could, and I’ve been happy that many of the donors have contributed.”
In place of the canceled fundraiser, the RSO recorded Beethoven’s Septet with seven musicians, sent to patrons and donors; this is now available on the RSO’s Facebook page as part of its new “Virtually Unstoppable” series of streamed concerts.
Plans for 2021 had included a live performance in the Sovereign Performing Arts Center on Jan. 23 of two short concerts featuring cellist Robert deMaine performing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 in the afternoon and evening, with staggered entrances, no intermissions, and a smaller, distanced and masked audience. But as of these interviews, this was in jeopardy because of the closing of venues due to the Covid-19 surge. Gross said they have a backup plan to present the concert in any case, even if it has to be online.
As for the rest of the year, the RSO has tentatively scheduled a classical concert for March 6, with programming dependent on what restrictions may still be in place. An all-Beethoven concert on April 17 is to feature pianist Stewart Goodyear performing the fourth Concerto; and the May 26 concert will feature soprano Renee Fleming.
“We want the July Fourth concert at EnerSys to serve as a celebration of coming out of (the pandemic), with fireworks,” Gross said. “Our 2021-22 season is already planned, and I hope when we get out of this, people will be excited to return to the concert hall.”
Meanwhile, the RSYO, having performed as a prelude to the March 7 concert, had to shut down along with everything else.
“That was one of the best performances we ever did,” Cinquini said. “I was thankful we got that in. Afterwards, we rethought how we could do things safely.”
Through the summer, as the pandemic persisted, he decided to begin rehearsals in the fall with strings only. Divided into two groups, they rehearsed in the ballroom of the Abraham Lincoln Hotel, with masks and distancing and cleanings between the two contingents. This continued up to Thanksgiving week, when the surge forced a hiatus.
In spite of these challenges, the RSYO Strings were able to produce a virtual winter concert, filmed at the hotel on Dec. 19. Group A performed Richard Meyer’s “Idylls of Pegasus” and Gustav Holst’s “Brook Green Suite,” and Group B performed Peter Warlock’s “Capriol Suite,” Dag Wiren’s “Serenade for Strings” and Soon Hee Newbold’s “Perseus.” These can also be seen on the “Virtually Unstoppable” series.
Performing in small groups was an act of bravery for these young students, Cinquini said, because they are used to being submerged in a much larger ensemble. In chamber orchestra repertoire, “every single note is heard. They’re very exposed. But this will make them stronger musicians.”
While Cinquini said he would love to bring everyone, including winds, back together in the spring, he acknowledged that this probably won’t happen. But as soon as possible, they will continue with what they have been doing.
“We realize that many schools are still virtual, so there is no other in-person orchestra for these students to perform in.”
For those who plan to make music their career, he said, it’s especially important for them to continue playing in an ensemble, even if there are no live performances.
While both the RSO and the RSYO are coping with many, many challenges, there is no talk of giving up and closing down operations. For more than a century, the orchestra has been a point of pride for Reading, and, along with the other downtown arts organizations, it has been a driver for the city’s economy.
“I’m surprised at how well we’re doing,” Duff said. “If you had asked me in March, I would have said you’re crazy if you told me we’d be doing this well by now. . . I appreciate the support we’ve gotten from the community, our donors and our patrons, and I ask for their patience as we go through this pandemic. We’ll come through this stronger and better, and we look forward to being together again and listening to the wonderful music of our symphony.”
For complete information on the RSO, visit www.readingsymphony.org. Visit www.readingsymphonyyouth.org to see the youth orchestra’s Dec. 19 concert. To view all of the RSO’s virtual content, visit https://www.facebook.com/readingsymphony/.