COVID-19 has presented no fewer challenges in Fort Worth than in the rest of the world, but the musicians of the FWSO feel fortunate that our salaries and benefits have been neither diminished, nor interrupted. On April 30, 2020, the musicians ratified a one-year extension of the previous four-year agreement. The number of weeks remains 46, pay remains exactly the same; benefits change with a new carrier, but do not decrease at all.
The orchestra is performing regularly, though with diminished audience capacity and with fewer players onstage. The FWSO’s longtime home is Bass Performance Hall in downtown Fort Worth, but the venue has decided against reopening at this time. Fortunately, FWSO leadership had, in advance, identified an alternate venue for the orchestra’s performances. Will Rogers Memorial Center, in Fort Worth’s cultural district, had been the home of the Fort Worth Symphony in an earlier era, and gladly stepped up to provide us a home during this uncertain time.
The FWSO currently performs a reduced, but consistent schedule: we have performed three classical weekends, and two pops weekends so far. Strict health protocols pertain, both onstage and off: musicians are seated at least six feet apart from one another (and sometime more, in the case of winds and brass), string counts are reduced but a rotation system is in place, and both plexiglass and vinyl shields have been used as safeguards from respiratory droplets. Audience capacity is limited to 25%; we are averaging about 350 at each classical performance, and 400 at each pops concert. Will Rogers Auditorium seats 2800, so measures for patron safety and comfort have been easy to put in place.
Musicians are tested for COVID at least 5–7 days before the beginning of every production, and all staff are, as well. The FWSO Players Committee worked closely with the administration in developing these protocols, as well as policy relating to travel to and from the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) area, and how that might impact musician safety. This is particularly important for an upcoming pops weekend: the orchestra’s long-standing tradition is to do a holiday pops weekend just after Thanksgiving, so we’ve made it a cornerstone of our safety protocol that all musicians and staff should notify Human Resources 14 days before any planned travel from the DFW area.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya had his last concert as Music Director in late June when the orchestra filmed a patriotic concert at the 14,000-seat Dickies Arena. There was no audience, and the concert aired on Dallas’s ABC affiliate on July 4 in the evening. We had hoped to say a more proper goodbye to our music director of 20 years, but he begins a new relationship with us now as Music Director Laureate, and we will again perform with him later this season.
A music director search had begun the previous season but has been deferred for now; we’re not in our normal venue, we’re not playing with a full complement, and we’re not performing for full audiences. We are, however, having guest conductors in every production.
The FWSO board and administration have shown remarkable steadiness and leadership during this time. President and CEO Keith Cerny was very prompt at securing a PPP loan, and longtime board chair Mercedes T. Bass made a very generous gift some weeks ago, as well. The Players Committee have a weekly telephone conference with Dr. Cerny and with Chief Operating Officer Becky Tobin, and we appreciate their transparency, their collegial attitude, and their tenacity at keeping the music playing here in Fort Worth.
Note: the author is Players Committee Chair of the FWSO.