The Musicians of the Nashville Symphony have been furloughed, with little or no expectation of returning to work, since management cancelled the entire 44-week 2020–21 season on July 1. (Note: after this article was written, the NSO musicians ratified an agreement under which they will begin receiving a modest weekly stipend in January; the details will be in a forthcoming settlement bulletin.)
As musicians, we never expected to be dealing with permits, insurance, stage plots, audio systems, advertising, concert banners, choosing repertoire, assigning rosters, and setting up an account to accept donations. And of course, this was all the more difficult to accomplish since COVID is restricting many businesses, which caused unexpected delays. We wanted to continue performing, but knew we had to do it safely. Initially we began making short videos to post on our new website. The entire month of August was dedicated to celebrating J.S. Bach with various suites, sonatas, partitas, chorales, a very creative animated cartoon by our piccolo player, Gloria Yun, and for a finale, the first movement of Brandenburg 3, all edited by our own musicians. Beginning in September, we began featuring a weekly video of works written or transcribed by Fritz Kreisler (all written before 1925, so we didn’t have to deal with copyright issues). We’ve also worked with the AFM to assure protection of these videos by filing Joint Venture Agreements for each video, including our concert videos.
Soon after the announced furlough, a few of us were approached by the Director of Music at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Dr. Woosug Kang. He and the Rector, Dr. R. Leigh Spruill, had discussed an extremely generous offer to help support our Musicians while continuing the church’s outreach to the community. They offered to expand their annual concert series of sacred music performances, called In Excelsis: once a month from September through May 2021, Musicians of the Nashville Symphony would provide a concert that would be streamed live from the church and the archive would be available for 30 days afterward for viewing on the St. George’s website. The church is covering all the production, equipment, and publicity costs, they are providing the performance and rehearsal space, are making a financial contribution to the Musicians’ financial aid fund, and are actively directing audience members to the donation site. Two concerts have been live-streamed so far, with the third upcoming in mid-November. As a special surprise, country superstars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood put together a special public service announcement in support of the musicians and encouraged audience members to make a donation at https://www.musiciansofthenashvillesymphony.org/donorbox-form.
In October, the Concert Committee got busy presenting a series of outdoor concerts with 12–14 members of the string section before the weather became uncooperative. The Concert, Artistic Planning, and Safety Committees worked collaboratively to approve the locations, choose the repertoire, fill the rosters, and assure that masks, social distancing, and appropriate signage were in place before each concert. Each week it was touch and go as the weather threatened rain and low temperatures. Yet each Sunday, the rain held off and we were able to play to appreciative crowds who brought their chairs, wore their masks (even in counties that didn’t require them), and socially distanced. Our “stage crew” set up banners, measured and taped the stage so each musician was socially distanced, moved the stage location as needed, and set up the audio equipment. We’re thankful that Marcus Wanner, son of our assistant principal bassist, is lending his AV knowledge, expertise, and equipment to this cause. (Marcus also helped edit many early videos.)
We’re trying to follow CDC guidelines, and continue to search for local health experts to advise us. Although we’re not concert promoters, fundraisers, stage crew, publishers—everything required to produce and promote concerts—we’re learning and doing a decent job. Kip Winger (a member of the band Winger, and now a classical composer living in Nashville), purchased black masks embossed with Musicians of the Nashville Symphony in red. Our logo has been changed from green to red for the duration. Our banners have an embedded QR code to direct people to our website so they can sign up for our newsletter, view videos, and donate, and we have laminated social distancing signs. (Our Governor refuses to mandate mask-wearing, leaving it to the determination of cities and counties.)
We’ve come a long way in just a few months but there is growing concern that as unemployment compensation ends for many at the end of this year, we will still have nine months without a paycheck. We could have been working together with our management, fostering a partnership to serve our community, and demonstrating unity of purpose to keep our audience and community engaged with the orchestra; but we’re not.
Note: the author is ICSOM secretary, and a member of the Nashville Symphony’s violin section. Nashville Symphony assistant principal bassist Glen Wanner and principal violist Daniel Reinker also contributed to this article.