COVID-19 may have devastated the coffers and patron bases of arts organizations around the world, but at least it gave nature walks the moment they deserved. Olympia is blessed with a variety of green spaces, where it’s fun to get exercise and feel connected to nature while socially distancing and evading the triple pandemic.
The plague years also forced artists to innovate or disappear entirely. Olympia Symphony Orchestra was no exception, as Jennifer Hermann, executive director for OSO since 2016, reveals: “Our music director had just announced that he was retiring, so we knew that was happening when the pandemic hit. So we were in a position of transition anyway. … We are a professional orchestra and we are a nonprofit, and our purpose is to serve the community.” She views the pandemic as a blessing in disguise, however, in that it forced OSO to focus on its overall purpose, which she defines as “to participate in making this area a better place for people to live.”
In 2019, following the example of such cities as Bend, OR and Fairbanks, AK, OSO scheduled an event called a “Beat Beethoven 5K” for the summer of 2020. The idea was that the orchestra would play the familiar first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which lasts around nine minutes, as runners attempted to circumnavigate Capital Lake twice, a distance of about five and a half kilometers. The challenge was to finish the race before the orchestra could finish the movement. The pandemic put the kibosh to that notion, but OSO had already received a grant to support it. Jonathan Turlove, then director of park planning and maintenance for Olympia (since retired), emailed Hermann about a New York City program called Weekly Walks that offered virtual tours of Central Park. Hermann and Turlove collaborated with Stephanie Johnson, arts and events manager for the City of Olympia, to bring a lower-cost version of that concept to housebound Washingtonians.
The result, which went live in July 2021, is Symphony Strolls, a program that invites visitors to 12 public spaces to walk and explore while enjoying classical music in the great outdoors. Upon arrival at each park, visitors encounter an explanatory sign with a QR code that opens a SoundCloud file selected from OSO’s archive of past performances. “I wanted to keep our musicians employed,” Hermann explains. She paid OSO musicians to explore the parks and choose recordings that felt appropriate for each public space. “It could be anything,” she continues. “It could be how it made you feel, or certain sounds. There’s some music that we’ve played in the past that had references to nature. … Maybe there was a story in a composer’s life, that they had some sort of experience in some geographic location that we could somehow relate to something that we might have here in Olympia. I was like, use your imagination. Reach for any thread.”
The musicians wrote short narratives to introduce each piece of music, all of which were performed for the SoundCloud files by Seattle actor and mezzo soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis. Squaxin Park, for example, was paired with Ravel’s “The Fairy Garden,” West Bay Park Rotary Point with Butterworth’s “The Banks of Green Willow.” Not every selection was quite so on-the-nose; Ellis Cove Trail at Squaxin Park links to “Festschrift,” a piece commissioned by OSO from Lacey composer Austin Schlichting for its 60th anniversary. One goal was to choose music that suited visitors’ average walking speed as they navigate the parks.
The program remains successful, as verified by attendance reports generated from its QR functionality. Hermann views Symphony Strolls as an example of OSO’s continuing commitment to supporting our community in the here and now. As she puts it, “There’s a trend in classical music now that’s very healthy, and it’s about time, that we look forward and we find our relevance, … not always looking back and parking ourselves in tradition for tradition’s sake.” In years to come, she hopes to expand beyond those original dozen spaces and cycle in new musical performances. “We are not here for preservation,” she insists. “We’re here for progress.”
Regular park hours
A dozen public spaces in Olympia