After 14 months of stasis and isolation, our orchestras are on the move. The quick nationwide rollout of vaccines by the Biden administration is creating the possibility of a near-normal summer season and the probability of a genuine opening and full return for our upcoming 21/22 season. In the aftermath of our pandemic year there is much to take stock of, and even more to do, as we navigate the reopening of our concert halls and go back to work.
First, a look back at the bad and the ugly.
It is unconscionable that a handful of our managements and boards chose to take remorseless advantage of this crisis at the expense of their musicians. Imposing the long-desired agendas of “right-sizing” and union-busting under cover of this crippling pandemic was a ruthless and callous tactic. I believe in the long run this will cost these institutions, and their standing in the community, much more than was saved in musician expenses.
The scars and dysfunction left in the wake of these actions will not simply evaporate with the next Gala Opening. It takes years to build the mutual respect and trust needed to cultivate the relationships that make our orchestras thrive. It will take at least as long to rebuild what they have demolished with the stroke of a pen. Our music—our art—does not exist without the artists who bring it to life. If these board members and managers believe it is acceptable to kick their musicians to the curb and just buy new ones for less, they are at best misguided and misplaced. They should not be the curators and stewards of our art.
On the side of the good, the vast majority of our orchestras have come through this calamity in one piece. The Biden administration delivered on federal assistance for the arts and for our AFM-EPF pension fund. Our patrons and donors have stood with us in unity and support, for which we are deeply grateful. We have found ways to keep in touch and to keep making music. Perhaps most critically, we have been able to work productively with our managements to sustain the institution and stay relevant to our communities.
I hope the lessons we learned throughout this tumultuous year surrounding the racial and economic inequities that exist in our society will stay at the forefront of our awareness and continue to be addressed within our orchestras. We have the time right now for self-reflection and we have the opportunity in the upcoming months to change our practices around the hiring of personnel at every level of our institutions. More inclusive programming, hiring guest artists of every ethnicity, partnering with businesses of color in our communities, will all move us towards a more egalitarian workplace and an improved representation of the communities in which we live.
Looking ahead, I believe that in order for our industry to return to normal, we and our audiences must be vaccinated. Of course, the religious and health exemptions required by law remain, but if we continue to be hampered by masking, distancing, and testing, it will not be possible to make a full return. The economic toll has already been devastating and could continue for an unforeseeable length of time. The vaccines are our ticket to full operational status and a return to our stages.
As we return to our stages, some are questioning whether our audiences will swiftly return to our halls. But there is increasing evidence that they will. The arts consultancy WolfBrown has developed an “Audience Outlook Monitor,” an international research study tracking audience attitudes about returning to cultural events during and after the pandemic. Of the fifteen orchestras participating in the study (under the aegis of the League of American Orchestras) ten are ICSOM orchestras: Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Nashville, New York Philharmonic, North Carolina, Oregon, Philadelphia, San Diego, and San Francisco Symphony. As of May 2021, an impressive 95% of the orchestra patrons who responded to the survey are partially or fully vaccinated. When asked about returning now to live events, 30% would attend an indoor event right now, without distancing (but still wearing masks). Another 24% would attend right now with masks and distancing. The numbers for outdoor events are 49% with no distancing and another 36% with distancing—a total of 85% of patrons ready to attend an outdoor concert right now. Most importantly, all those numbers have been steadily increasing. This is good news for our return and food for thought. We need to be ready to meet audience demand—our outdoor summer seasons will be upon us in a matter of weeks. It is both thrilling and unnerving, after these many long months, to think we may suddenly be returning to our stages. I have missed it.
On a personal note, I would like to commend and extend heartfelt thanks to our governing board member and editor, Peter de Boor, who is stepping down in August. His excellent and tireless work publishing Senza Sordino over the past seven years has created an historic legacy of our orchestras in print and online, saving many trees in the process. He has kept us up to date in our ICSOM Directory and pushed ICSOM into the 21st century technologically. His voice on our governing board has been an invaluable asset in shaping the work and direction of ICSOM. Peter will continue serving as an AFM Strike Fund trustee and will also remain the “pit orchestra” emissary on our ICSOM media committee. His presence and the tremendous contributions he has made to ICSOM will be sorely missed.
Note: the author is ICSOM chairperson