We are just a few months shy of two years since the March 2020 pandemic shutdown. The SARS-CoV-2 virus and its variants are still with us but our orchestras have shown remarkable agility and resilience in the face of what could have been an industry-wide catastrophe.
The closures of our performance spaces were often mandated by state and county decree, but by mid-March of 2020, our orchestras were shut down across the country. At that point, we had no idea if we would be out for weeks or months. It quickly became clear that we would be negotiating temporary salary reductions. A few managements implemented force majeure. By the end of March, the passage of the Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided the first Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money. Along with the continued support of our donors and the quickly negotiated COVID side-letter to our Integrated Media Agreement (IMA), we were ready for the next phase.
The spring months saw a flood of inventive and engaging online projects. Several orchestras were involved in airflow and aerosol risk assessment studies. ICSOM Counsel Kevin Case and Symphonic Services stayed busy issuing safety and negotiating guidance.
By July, a few orchestras had already ventured back into their halls to capture music for streaming—distanced with masks, lots of Plexiglas, and no audience. Houston and Dallas were among the first to retake the stage.
The spring also brought the cancellation of summer seasons for the vast majority of our orchestras. By now, most of our orchestras had cobbled together some sort of economic compromise, even if the pay was meager.
ICSOM held its first online conference in July where we saw a number of the virtual projects our orchestras had created, and we heard from Anthony McGill (New York Philharmonic) and Demarre McGill (Seattle Symphony) on using music and social media to highlight activism and race equity in our orchestras. A panel on workplace safety, led by Kevin Case, included Dr. Adam Schwalje; Dr. Carlos del Rio; and Larry Rick, PA-C.
By early fall, a handful of orchestras began performing indoors for live audiences. Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas City, Detroit, Columbus, Florida, and Utah were among those open for business. On December 11, 2020, the FDA approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine under emergency use authorization. The sense of relief made one almost giddy—it felt like the end was in sight.
Of course, none of this happened in a vacuum. The Biden/Harris ticket won the presidential election in November and the seeds of the Insurrection and The Big Lie were planted. Throughout the pandemic, we witnessed the devastating economic and racial inequities that put our fellow citizens of color at risk of their lives.
How are our orchestras responding to this injustice? In January 2021 ICSOM, along with the National Alliance for Audition Support (NAAS), the League of American Orchestras and New World Symphony created Recommended Audition and Tenure Guidelines (www.AuditionAlliance.org) to promote greater access for musicians of color. Now that we are once again able to hold auditions, will we examine our audition and tenure processes and implement change? Will we make our stages and institutions more inclusive? Certainly, our programming is already more diverse than it was a year ago, but we have much still to address.
Amidst the ongoing chaos in our country, the Biden Administration hit the ground running on Inauguration Day. The vaccine rollout began immediately and March saw the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) which included federal money for our AFM Multi-Employer Pension Plan. Pension fund benefit reductions will no longer be necessary. The AFM along with the Player Conferences Council (ICSOM, ROPA, RMA & TMA) was part of a massive, years-long, lobbying effort to pass pension relief legislation. It worked.
By March 2021 most orchestras had finished, or were in the process of, negotiating safety protocols for an anticipated return to work. Discussion of potential vaccine mandates was becoming the hot topic of the day. Most orchestras were already streaming smaller ensembles, masked and distanced, but the vaccine would be a paradigm shift in our ability to return to work and for our audiences to return to our halls. March also saw the launch of a handful of on-demand streaming services, BSONOW, NYPhil+, CSOtv and SFSymphony+, among them. The second round of PPP and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) money was made available through the passage of ARPA.
By the start of summer, the vast majority—upwards of 90%—of our ICSOM musicians were fully vaccinated. Summer seasons were in full swing. ICSOM boldly held its yearly conference live—hosted by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Local 60-471—with the option to Zoom into the conference from home. In August, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra opened their new outdoor venue, The Rady Shell, on the San Diego waterfront. Four months later, they are still playing there to full audiences.
We are now well into our second season with the shadow of SARS-CoV-2 lurking in the wings. Many of us are still working under side-letters at reduced pay but those are gradually expiring. The provisions for free media under the IMA COVID-19 side letter are also expiring. We revert back to the original IMA—but not for long, as the IMA expires in June of 2022. Negotiations for a successor agreement begin this spring/summer as do contract negotiations for nearly half our ICSOM orchestras whose CBAs will expire in 2022. San Antonio Symphony remains on strike as of this writing.
There is a rough road ahead for us and for our country. We will come through it as we have come through the past 21 months—by holding firm and holding together.