Spotlight Orchestra's Return

Published on October 22, 2021 by Elizabeth Dwyer

Cue the overture. The classical music season has arrived. Orchestras silenced for over a year and a half are welcoming the Fall with concerts indoors — with COVID-19 protocols and other challenges, but a joyful noise nonetheless.

The Cleveland Orchestra Returns

In March of 2020, The Cleveland Orchestra, like most orchestras, found itself unable to perform. How would they connect with their audience? In November 2020, the orchestra launched a new streaming platform named Adella (after the orchestra’s founder Adella Prentiss Hughes), and presented a virtual season. (See original story from Ideastream Public Media of Northeast Ohio.) This past summer, The Cleveland Orchestra started to find its footing again at the Blossom Music Center, with twelve outdoor concerts from July to September. “To go back to live performances actually tells you everything that music is about,” says music director Franz Welser-Möst. “It's about sharing.” On October 14, 2021, The Cleveland Orchestra celebrated its return to live, in-person performances at Severance Music Center.

Cleveland Orchestra Returns
The Cleveland Orchestra makes its long-awaited return to the stage of the Severance Music Center for the first time since March 2020. The streaming platform, Adella, launched during the early days of the pandemic, connected the orchestra with audiences, new and old, around the world. Live performances and digital programming are at the forefront of a new season at the company.
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From Virtual Seasons to Summer Concerts

Faced with cancelling their fall 2020 seasons, several orchestras scrambled to present works virtually. Other orchestras had been streaming online for years.

When the pandemic came, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was ready, and in no small way, thanks to PBS. In 2011, DSO began “Live from Orchestra Hall” with support from Detroit Public Television. Anne Parsons, President and CEO of the DSO remembers, “We could not have done what we did without them.” For the first two years, DPTV brought their cameras and crew in to webcast each concert.

Today the DSO has their own 4K cameras and a system that allowed them to continue a robust uninterrupted program, despite the pandemic, making the music accessible and — in a shift during the first few months — free to everyone. And that legacy continues.

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The view from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra control room from 2019. | Credit: Photo by Sarah Smarch

“We have an active and growing partnership with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra,” says Rich Homberg, DPTV President and CEO. “After a two-year COVID hiatus, we are renewing our statewide broadcasts and streaming of the DSO Coffee Concerts series. Our own classical station, 90.9 WRCJ, will be joined by an expanded network of stations throughout the state, bringing the joys of music to an ever larger audience.”

Other local orchestras have partnered with PBS broadcasters to keep the music playing during the pandemic. They are also looking forward to making the virtual option permanent, so the music never has to be silenced again.

The Minnesota Orchestra returns to the Orchestra Hall stage this fall with a revised concert season designed for television, radio and streaming audiences. Four Friday night concerts in October will be presented through a unique three-way partnership between TPT Twin Cities PBS, Your Classical MPR and the Orchestra. The TV broadcast and online livestream, hosted by conductor Sarah Hicks, will introduce audiences to the music, musicians and venue of the Minnesota Orchestra, while also featuring a high-quality audio mix on the public broadcasting radio station.

New Starts and Fresh Beginnings

The spring and summer saw the first stirrings of a new life for live performance: the outdoor concerts bringing the orchestras to the parks and directly to the people, along with fresh new repertoire responding to the moment.

PBS was there, capturing a moment for national audiences. In July, “Great Performances” went to Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home. Conducted by both BSO music director Andris Nelsons and composer John Williams, the concert features virtuoso violinist Anne-Sophie Mütter performing the debut of Williams’ new concerto. The program also includes a reminder of the past, when cities all over the world shutdown, with Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City,” Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” rising from the ashes, and a celebratory “Starburst” by Jessie Montgomery, who was recently appointed composer-in-residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “Great Performances: A John Williams Premiere at Tanglewood” airs on PBS November 12.

Anne-Sophie Mütter with John Williams and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Anne-Sophie Mütter with John Williams and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in “Great Performances: A John Williams Premiere at Tanglewood." | Credit: Photo by Hilary Scott

At the same time, public television was there this summer for audiences who weren’t quite ready to face the crowds in person. In August, NJ PBS aired “EMERGE: An NJSO Concert Film Trilogy” over three weeks. The series brought the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the beauty of locations across New Jersey to audiences in ways that couldn’t have been presented live.

Continuing Challenges and Connections Across State Lines

The relationship between PBS and America’s orchestras is not just one of broadcaster to performing arts organization. Sometimes PBS is there to tell the stories of your local orchestra, other times the connection is personal.

There are dozens of stories of how local orchestras across America adapting during the height of the pandemic and in the face of continuing challenges. The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is the largest performing arts organization in Southwest Washington and a regional cornerstone. In a typical season, the VSO produces over 40 events. When the pandemic shut down nearly all performing arts organizations in the area in March 2020, the VSO was among the few U.S. orchestras that performed all scheduled concerts via a virtual platform. For its efforts, the VSO received regional and national acclaim and was featured on PBS NewsHour.

This season the VSO was looking forward to coming back in-person in the fall with some continued online options. However, in a sign of the still perilous times, the Vancouver School District, in charge of the orchestra’s usual venue, Skyview Concert Hall, would not allow performances with live audiences. The VSO ended up at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland, OR. The orchestra’s October concerts (October 23-24) will take place at ilani’s Cowlitz Ballroom, which has provided the orchestra with a unique opportunity to strengthen its ties with the Cowlitz Tribe of Southwest Washington.

Igor Shakhman, Executive Director and clarinetist with the VSO says, “We hope that we will be able to return to our normal venue soon. Meanwhile we are committed to do whatever it takes to keep the music going and to keep the VSO alive.”

Steve Bass and Igor Shakhman
OPB President and CEO Steve Bass (left) and VSO Executive Director Igor Shakhman (right) in the clarinet section of The Vancouver Orchestra at a season opening concert at the Newmark Theatre on Sept. 26, 2021. | Credit: Photo by Paul Quakenbush

The return to performance has not been smooth, but it has been joyous, according to Steve Bass, President and CEO of Oregon Public Broadcasting and not incidentally, the clarinetist seated next to Shakhman at the opening night performances of the VSO at the Newmark Theatre. “Music is a way to decompress from being the CEO of a large public media organization,” explains Bass. “For about eighteen months, I did not play a note with another human being . . . On the downbeat of Maestro Broton’s baton on Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, everything just kicked into gear and it was just like it was. It felt natural in many ways but entirely new in others. All of us, though, were elated to be back together making music.”

A New Venue, A New Start

Last season, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra was supposed to play its triumphant inaugural concert at the Bradley Symphony Center, its new home in the renovated Warner Grand Theatre. “Milwaukee PBS and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s best-laid plans to broadcast a live concert of the MSO in October 2020 were upended because of the coronavirus pandemic,” explains Bohdan Zachary, Vice President & General Manager of Milwaukee PBS. Over the course of the pandemic, the MSO was only able to perform smaller ensemble concerts for video cameras and limited, socially distanced audiences at the Bradley Symphony Center.

On October 1, 2021, MSO opened its fall season in Allen-Bradley Hall, and all Milwaukee residents were able to watch the Milwaukee PBS broadcast and celebration. “Live from Bradley Symphony Center: Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra” will be rebroadcast on PBS on December 17, bringing the MSO from one of the great concert halls in North America to audiences across the country.

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Milwaukee PBS gets the job done.
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Behind the scenes with Milwaukee PBS.

Despite the ongoing challenges and a still-unknown future, that’s what it’s about: celebrating the return of orchestras to concert halls and venues across the country.

New beginnings can also be found at the San Francisco Symphony, which opened the season on October 1 with its new music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. Salonen’s inaugural concert breaks the classical music concert mold, featuring works by John Adams and Alberto Ginastera, excerpts from a new opera written by Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter, and a performance by Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. The concert, which was filmed for “Great Performances: San Francisco Symphony Reopening Night,” airs on PBS November 19.

The road back has not been easy, and the path to the future remains uncertain for America’s orchestras, but public television audiences can be sure that PBS will be there for them.

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