Olympia Symphony Orchestra Provides Creative, Digital Offerings in Response to COVID-19

By Molly Walsh

As Washingtonians enter another week of a “new normal” under Governor Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, social distancing measures have gradually woven into a routine way of life for many households across the state. As schools, workplaces and even wedding ceremonies have transitioned to a virtual setting, music and performing arts organizations have also had to adapt to alternative locales, as large-scale gatherings have been postponed indefinitely.

During this time, concertgoers may not share the collective experience of a chilled music hall draft flowing overhead, or the reverberation of a sound stage speaker mid-performance, but even as theaters remain vacant, organizations like the Olympia Symphony Orchestra are using music as a type of connective tissue to forge an emotional camaraderie through strings, wires and computer screens.

Sending out an olive branch to the community, the Olympia Symphony Orchestra is still creating music and delivering performances through previously untapped virtual formats. Although unable to congregate in the traditional sense and as many art, music and theater organizations are facing uncertain futures, the Olympia Symphony Orchestra is embracing the new normal and has no intention of going away.

A semi-professional nonprofit orchestra, the Olympia Symphony Orchestra, affectionally known as OSO, has called the South Sound its home since its first performance in 1947. Typically, the orchestra’s some 65 musicians participate in a full concert season at the Washington Center for Performing Arts, a free summer concert at the Capitol Campus, performances at the Panorama Retirement Community and regular visits to local schools.

OSO collaborates with neighboring performing arts organizations, including the Student Orchestras of Greater Olympia (SOGO), to provide educational and shadowing opportunities to young orchestra musicians. OSO also makes consistent appearances at local fundraising events and festivals, including the Olympia Arts Walk.

As active participants in the South Sound community, OSO’s operations have been hit hard as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a full calendar of events ground to a halt. At the end of March, the final two concerts of OSO’s 2019-2020 season were cancelled, in addition to an upcoming performance at Panorama. The orchestra’s annual fundraising gala was also cancelled.

The Olympia Symphony Orchestra (photo taken prior to Coronavirus pandemic)

“It’s just stopped,” said Jennifer Hermann, executive director of Olympia Symphony Orchestra. “It’s stopped and we are broken.”

OSO also has several pending projects and performances that hold an uncertain future, including the orchestra’s annual summer concert. Slated to take place at the end of July, Hermann said that the summer concert is currently up in the air and proceeding forward will depend on future state and county-wide social distancing regulations.

“We’re mindful of health and safety,” said Hermann. “We’ll be fully compliant with what the regulations are. We are putting the health and safety of our musicians and our community as our priority.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the OSO planned a collaboration with Ballet Northwest to provide musical accompaniment for a Ballet Northwest performance. Hermann is now working with the ballet company to salvage plans for their partnership, but due to bans on large gatherings, the project has been postponed.

OSO conductor Huw Edwards

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hermann said one of the greatest disappointments has been the anticlimactic sendoff of longtime OSO Conductor, Huw Edwards, who is retiring from the organization after 17 years of service.

“It’s quite sad this season ended so abruptly and it was his final season with us after so many years,” said Hermann. “It makes all of this even sadder. Because the community, they have really gotten to know him. He’s really community figure and our musicians love him and after 17 years, you want to be able to have a finale concert and a celebration and all of that ended really abruptly.”

As executive director, the futures of OSO’s musicians also weigh heavily on Hermann. Many OSO musicians take on additional freelance gigs in addition to their orchestra duties, but as the economy is at a standstill, many players are partially or completely out of work. 

“I want my musicians to know that they really are essential too and find a way to provide for themselves,” said Hermann. “To continue to do their work because they need that for their own health and for their own well-being. I get choked up when I talk about this, but it’s important to me to make sure our musicians are cared for during this, because it’s hard for them emotionally. So, coming up with ways the symphony can still participate in life is for the community, but also for our musicians.”

Running on a skeleton crew, OSO has relocated operations to an online setting, primarily through social media. Posting daily to their Facebook page, OSO is first and foremost offering a window into the lives of their musicians. From composing, to clips of virtual music lessons, to collaboration performances between orchestra players, OSO is continuing to update the community on the lifeblood of the organization.

Conductor Huw Edwards is also participating in a weekly program on the orchestra’s Facebook page called “Tuesday Huwsday.” Each Tuesday morning, a short video hosted by Edwards is published online. Each video contains a listening recommendation, complete with information about the piece and a YouTube link for further enjoyment. Edwards’ recommendations have ranged from a choral ensemble, to classic piano.

While transitioning operations to a virtual setting, patron outreach has been at the forefront for Hermann and the OSO team. Hermann said that many OSO season ticket holders are of an older generation and may not have as much experience with social media, so she and her staff have been checking in with regular concert attendees to ensure they have an opportunity to stay connected, if only online.

“It feels good to be able to still provide that for people and it’s actually really uplifting and encouraging to see how many people are turning to the arts right now,” said Hermann. “It’s definitely not something that people will take for granted in the future anymore. I think we’ve all gotten used to just having these opportunities available for us and it feels good that we can meet people in their need.”

Katherine Sartori, orchestra teacher at Washington Middle School and OSO violinist

As the school year is winding down, Hermann and orchestra musicians collaborated on a musical gift to the community. Dedicated to the class of 2020, OSO created their own rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance” for seniors graduating from high school, college or any educational pursuit. With each individual contribution delivered remotely, this performance piece weaves the work of many OSO musicians in an unprecedented project for the orchestra.

“In the past, what we generally do is we provide music and people come to it,” says Hermann. “And we deliver music to schools when we have the opportunity. And so, we’re trying to think of how we can deliver music to people where they’re at since we can’t come to us.”

As a longer-term project, Hermann also wanted to create an interactive platform where patrons can connect with friends and family through music. “Musical Notes” are a modern-day musical telegram that can be sent to loved ones via email. Recipients of a musical telegram will receive a piece of music selected by the sender and performed by a member of the OSO Orchestra. The sender will have an array of pre-selected musical options to choose from.

At the beginning of each video, a personalized message will play, read by a member of the orchestra. Launched in time for Mother’s Day, musicians were able to send musical telegrams to over 50 recipients in celebration of the holiday. Hermann said this service will continue into the future for holidays like Father’s Day or Memorial Day and special celebrations like birthdays, anniversaries or weddings.

Once stay at home orders are eased, Hermann also hopes to expand the “Musical Notes” program into a delivery service where OSO musicians can be hired to perform on porches, in front yards, at picnics or block parties. Titled “Big Music in Small Groups,” the project is in early planning stages, but as the future of indoor concerts remain uncertain, continuing to deliver music to the people is of high priority for OSO. “We still want to play music in the community, but I think indoor seated concerts, it’s not going to happen for a while,” said Hermann. “So, we had to figure out how to rearrange our thinking and be able to provide music to people where they’re at.”

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