The Grand Rapids Symphony is among the many ICSOM orchestras forced by the COVID-19 pandemic to reinvent their seasons, develop safety plans, and figure out how to financially survive. The Grand Rapids Symphony Society has worked hard to successfully keep their musicians employed and visible in the community, through a wide range of performances, while keeping musicians and staff safe and healthy. This has been possible due to a strong sense of trust and cooperation between all parts of the organization.
When the orchestra paused live performances in March due to COVID-19, the musicians continued to be paid in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement. Using the Volunteer Promotional provisions of the IMA, musicians recorded videos for the GRS to use online as part of a series. Two of the larger and more notable projects were a widely-viewed video of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus and a special Mother’s Day video featuring Sonia Goulart, mother of GRS Music Director Marcelo Lehninger (Note: see https://www.womenslifestyle.com/2020/05/08/311303/grand-rapids-symphony-launches-virtual-international-performance-for-mothers-day). Thanks to a matching grant, this “From Our Home To Yours” series met its targeted financial goal and raised over $100,000.
As COVID-19 had suddenly became a part of the equation, the Musician Negotiation Committee and GRS Management agreed that a one-year extension of the current master agreement, with several work-rule changes, would be the best path for the organization. Ultimately, in September, a 5% base wage reduction also was agreed upon, in order to help the organization financially. In August, the orchestra musicians also ratified the AFM’s IMA side letter for COVID-19, which has enabled the GRS to use technology to reach our audiences.
During the GRS’s four-week summer season, which was moved from July to August, orchestra members were able to perform several different types of outdoor concerts. All performances included mask wearing and social distancing by both performers and audiences. The first week of the summer season, Porch Concerts were given outdoors at musicians’ homes. Solos, duos, and trios were performed for neighbors and friends. The next three weeks included chamber music pop-up concerts in neighborhood parks, performed by a wide range of ensembles, yet with limited audience size due to mandated restrictions on outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people. Also during this time, “Sidewalk Serenades” were offered to donors at a cost of $300 per 30 minute concert. These short concerts, with an invited audience limited to 10 people, allowed the orchestra to interact with donors, while also fundraising. The marketing department has also been interviewing individual musicians on YouTube Live once a week. These opportunities to perform for neighbors, community members, and donors were a wonderful time to connect on a personal level with audiences, and many will likely continue post-pandemic.
Throughout the summer, a Health and Safety Committee, made up of Orchestra Committee and Management, met to develop safety protocols in preparation for the return to indoor concerts. These protocols include health screenings, masks at all times (with exceptions for brass and woodwinds while playing), COVID-19 testing for brass and woodwinds, spacing of strings on individual stands, increased spacing of brass and woodwinds, plexiglass, short rehearsal segments with long breaks for air exchange, and shorter concerts. A Safety Manual was created and ratified by the musicians.
Due to renovations occurring this fall at the performance hall where the GRS regularly performs, the GRS has been performing livestream concerts from the downtown Arena, and several other venues (Note: see https://www.livedesignonline.com/theatre/grand-new-spaces-for-grand-rapids-symphony-livestream). The performances include collaborations with the Grand Rapids Ballet, Joshua Bell, and Larissa Martinez. The month of December includes Holiday Pops and a performance with Music Director Marcelo Lehninger performing (piano) and conducting. The GRS will also be collaborating with the Grand Rapids Ballet for virtual Nutcracker performances. All of the concerts are using reduced string sections and arrangements to reduce the numbers of brass and woodwinds on stage. Several smaller performances will also take place, including an online fundraiser and a streamed performance in conjunction with an area church.
The relationship between the Grand Rapids Symphony Musicians, Management, and Board was extremely collaborative and transparent before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it continues to be, as the entire organization continues to navigate these uncharted waters together.
Note: the author is ICSOM delegate for the Grand Rapids Symphony.