Following the concerts last week, the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra heard something that has become incredibly rare, but was incredibly welcome: applause from a live audience in Orchestra Hall. Thirty audience members stood with appreciation for the 45 minutes of live music they had just heard. The subscribers and donors of the DSO had not been totally without music since March, but everything the musicians had been offering was delivered digitally, a virtual world separating audience from artist out of necessity. The COVID pandemic has forced all orchestras to reinvent how to provide world class music to their audiences. The DSO’s main objective during this time has been to keep its donors and subscribers as engaged as possible with digital content produced just for them, in addition to the material available to everyone. This, along with a development department that refused to substantially alter its fundraising goals for the fiscal year, has led the DSO from suddenly shutting its doors in March, to live webcast concerts in the hall that are also open to a limited number of audience members.
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra first started venturing past virtual performance into live concerts in August, benefitting from both cooperative weather and a lightening of safety protocols from the state government. These concerts were held throughout the city of Detroit in multiple outdoor venues. They were short, chamber music concerts, which often included an interview element, and several were simultaneously webcast live. The audience was limited to fewer than 50 people, with full safety and disinfecting protocols in place. The concertgoers had to bring their own chairs, set them up six feet apart, and keep their masks on, despite being outdoors. All of these performances were voluntary by the musicians, and were considered a continuation of the virtual performance and teaching work the entire orchestra had been participating in since mid-March.
While these concerts were going on, our negotiating committee (NC) was back at work, creating a Memorandum of Agreement with management for the 2020–2021 season. The NC had successfully negotiated a new CBA back in January, and rose to the challenge of continuing their work under an entirely new set of circumstances. Management had scheduled and publicized four months of live webcast concerts from Orchestra Hall, starting after Labor Day, and so they were under the gun to come up with an agreement that adequately paid the musicians, while allowing individuals who were high risk or uncomfortable performing to work somehow and earn a salary. The MOA, in place until next September, details a 20% pay cut for all musicians’ salaries, which includes base pay, overscale, and seniority. All benefits remain intact. Additionally, it allows for the expectation that musicians will participate in alternative work, based on the amount they are performing. Most alternative work consists of virtual teaching for our Civic Youth Ensembles, which are in full swing despite not actually being able to meet. Other options have included short outdoor recitals (until the weather stopped being acceptable), and lots of projects for our development department, including making thank you phone calls and notes, both in paper and video form.
Our 2020–2021 season began with four live webcast concerts conducted by our new music director, Jader Bignamini, and have continued weekly since then. Each week consists of two short programs that are rehearsed within four 90-minute rehearsals. Any musician playing in a given week is tested on Monday, with the first service being held on Wednesday. Entrance through the stage door requires a daily self-assessment and temperature check, and the backstage area is closed to anyone who has not received a negative COVID test that week.
In an attempt to provide something of interest for all our subscribers, our classical, pops, and education concert series have all been represented. The classical programming has been an interesting mix of old and new, highlighting the achievements of minority composers. Sinatra, acrobats, and our traditional Holiday concert are all featured in the pops series, and we even managed our annual Halloween Spooktacular, with musicians sending in pictures of themselves, their families, and their pets in costume.
While we do not know exactly what is taking shape after the holidays, we are operating under the hope that we can continue to progress to more musicians on stage, different repertoire, and bigger audiences, while maintaining high standards of safety. There are many unknowns ahead of us this winter, but regardless of the future, the Detroit Symphony will make it a priority to keep the music playing!
Note: the author is ICSOM delegate for the DSO. Since this article was written, changes to state policy have again closed the door to live audiences, though live webcast concerts continue.