It seemed unimaginable that the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered performing arts venues and turned thousands of office employees into work-from-home pros would still be something to be concerned with a year after word went out by health authorities to close things down. But as we move into spring 2021, Houston – like much of the rest of the country – finds itself faced with continued limits on the number of people who can gather in a space, the need for wearing masks and yes, that working at home is still a reality.
Yet through all the spikes in cases, the shutdowns, the limited seating in restaurants and all the other things that are part of our new normal, there have still been bright spots and flashes of creativity.
For a dose of “necessity is the mother of invention,” however, look no further than the Houston Symphony. The venerable arts organization, housed in Downtown’s Jones Hall, has not only weathered the pandemic, but found ways to do what it does best: share music with the world.
“It’s been incredibly challenging, for me and the organization,” said John Mangum, executive director, CEO and Margaret Alkek Williams chair of the Houston Symphony. “But it’s been inspiring to see how resilient everybody is, the musicians, the board, the staff, and how creatively everyone’s approached the limitations that are placed on us.”
He has reason to be inspired. When the symphony shut down in March, the musicians, it turns out, did what they always do. They played music. Only, instead of playing it on stage, they were playing it in their houses and apartments and studio spaces. And they were recording themselves and sending those recordings to the symphony, which in turn shared them on its social media accounts. It was a way for the organization to stay connected to its audience, but it was also something deeper. Mangum describes it as “the fundamental creative impulse at the heart of everything we do to serve our community with music.”
And, indeed, the symphony does a lot. In addition to its concerts Downtown, musicians play in hospitals, in schools and other venues around the city. All of that evaporated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it forced the symphony to get even more creative. No matter the barriers the pandemic imposed, and they were big barriers, said Mangum, the organization’s musicians and leadership pressed on.
“Whether it was playing online or for a limited audience with different safety protocols, the music couldn’t be stopped,” he said.
As the symphony began sharing videos of its musicians on social media, the organization found it was more than just a way to share music. It was a way for audiences to get to know the musicians better. Not only did audiences learn about the pieces that were being played, they also learned about the lives of the people making the music, whether it was something about their families or what they were cooking or how they were handling life during the pandemic.
Magnum said the symphony channeled a lot of that energy to create pieces for their community partners throughout March and April.
But there was still something missing – live performances. How could the symphony capture a sense of many people congregating together to watch a live performance?
That’s how the Living Room Series was born.
“We asked our musicians to invite the public into their homes,” Mangum explained. “We made a really simple camera microphone and had a single camera set-up that was delivered to their house and set that up and we went live Friday nights at eight o’clock.”
The performances took place on YouTube, a platform the Houston Symphony chose deliberately for its robust chat feature, said Mangum.
“People could talk to each other around the concert, people could ask the musicians questions about the pieces they were playing, their instruments, their studies, their life or their practice or if they had a sour dough starter, whatever it was,” he said. “It kind of recreated in the online space a live musical experience and that sense of community you get around a concert.”
The Living Room Series gave audiences the kind of insight they wouldn’t find in a concert hall, and that led to something surprising. New audience members were finding the symphony and symphony lovers were learning new things about the organization they’d been patronizing for years.
The orchestra next took elements of the Living Room Series and upped the game with live concerts from Jones Hall starting in July.
“The concerts are hosted, we talk about the music, we have the chat enabled, we take questions, we do interviews with members of the orchestra,” he said. “And we’ve created that really satisfying communal experience for the live streams from Jones Hall.
The formula paid off. Magnum said the concerts were streamed to all 50 states and 35 countries.
“We have an audience from around the U.S. and around the world joining us every week,” he said. “It’s really amazing.”
Robin Kesselman, the Houston Symphony’s principal bass since 2014, agrees.
“I feel such gratitude for the scope and range of the digital audience,” he said. “Family, friends, and mentors of mine have all been able to see incredible concerts by the Houston Symphony since mid-summer!”
Mangum noted that the symphony hosted a live stream back in 2019, as a test, ahead of a plan to broadcast six concerts during the 2020 – 2021 season. The pandemic, he said, simply accelerated what was already in place.
The live streams, however, were not without their challenges. While the Symphony always had a team in place to produce live concerts on stage, Mangum said there’s now an added production layer to make the virtual live streams happen. There are fixed and robotic cameras, and a director and a score reader determine which cameras and angles should be used in any given shot. They operate out of the Jones Hall production suite that the symphony always used to broadcast images on screens in the hall during its concerts.
Adding to the virtual concert challenge mix are the safety protocols that affect the musicians themselves. They must be socially distant on stage and creating six feet of distance between everyone means that the whole orchestra cannot fit on the stage at one time. That’s led to selecting a different repertoire than the organization might usually perform.
“The different repertoire makes for new musical experiences, which we enjoy undertaking,” said Brian Del Signore, principal percussion.
He’s played with the symphony since 1986 and admits playing a live stream concert is a very different experience.
“The cameras can be up close at any time,” he said. “So, we need to think about those close ups, and take care of visual details as much as possible. We are also further away from our fellow musicians because of the social distancing. That makes listening more of a challenge. Playing with a mask on is challenging too, because it can fog up glasses for those who wear them, and get in the way of peripheral vision, which can be important to a percussionist like myself, who plays multiple instruments at times.”
Rian Craypo, principal bassoon, cited another challenge.
“We rely heavily on body language and breathing to indicate phrasing and tempo to each other,” she said. “With many colleagues masked and the closest one sitting six to eight feet away, sight lines and peripheral clues are greatly reduced, and the time sound takes to travel between musicians is greatly increased. Sitting in the back, we are required to play before we hear the sound of our colleagues in the front and match phrasing and articulation.”
All of it has taken some getting used to.
The feedback on the livestream concerts, however, has been positive, said Mangum.
“The appreciation seems to exist on several levels,” he said. “People appreciate that we’ve done this, so they can stay connected to the symphony. They appreciate that they can sit on their couch with a glass of wine if they want to or we’ve heard from people that they get dressed up for their symphony night at home, which I love.”
In August, the Houston Symphony welcomed audiences back to Jones Hall in a dramatically reduced capacity. Between 250 and 300 people attend the concerts live, said Mangum, a fraction of Jones Hall’s roughly 2,700-person capacity.
“We started with 10 people that first weekend in August. We’ve been working our way up,” he said.
The symphony has made certain to follow safety protocols it developed in partnership with Houston Methodist and Houston First. The first 13 rows are empty, and every other row behind that is empty, too. There are strict six-foot distances between each household group. The orchestra also partnered with Rice University’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, where researchers analyzed airflow from the brass instruments in the hall to determine how the symphony could go back to playing live while keeping its musicians safe.
Adhering to these policies has allowed the symphony to have audiences again, even as it keeps live streaming its events for those not ready or able to come to a performance.
“We want to meet people where they are,” said Mangum. “That’s been part of the strategy all along.”
“I am impressed and inspired by the level of commitment from all facets of the Houston Symphony family, as we all jump through the hoops necessary to safely produce excellent concerts during the pandemic,” said Allen Barnhill, the symphony’s principal trombone. “The musicians, staff, stage crew and audience are all careful to abide by the guidelines that assure our safety, even though this means giving up our normal pre-concert routines and rituals. In my case, that limits my usual warmup routine, as well as our normal backstage social life. But it's still exciting and stimulating to be performing with my outstanding colleagues for live audiences and our cyber-audience!”
Mangum said the entire experience has shown not only that there is a clear sense of purpose in what the Houston Symphony does, but also in its value to the community. Donors stepped up to help make the concerts possible, and Mangum said that ongoing support is vital. He’s also seen something else: how very brave his colleagues, those on stage and behind the scenes, are.
“That weekend of our Fourth of July concert was high anxiety,” he said. “And people were brave to come and brave to play and brave to work and brave to be part of the initial stages of this. There are a lot of incredibly brave people in our organization, a lot of dedicated people and a lot of generous people. The board has been generous with their time and their treasure and the staff and musicians have been generous with their time and their efforts.”
He knows that the symphony is fortunate to be able to offer live concerts at all. Downtown’s other art forms, he notes, each have their own limitations.
“Our musicians can wear masks most of the time on stage, and those that need to unmask to play can be socially distanced,” Mangum said. “At the opera, the singers and the chorus make performing an entirely different proposition, and at the Houston Ballet, they closeness and the physical contact of the dancers, that’s a different proposition. So, everybody is doing all the work they can to serve our city.”
Mangum predicts, however, it will be a while before things go back to what they were.
“Things are far from normal for us,” he said. “This year is still a catastrophe for all of the arts, including the symphony. We’ve seen $9 million of ticket sales disappear overnight. While we’re figuring out how to creatively serve our community, we, like all of the arts, desperately need our community’s support so that Houston can have the incredible, robust, energetic arts scene that it had before the pandemic”
Downtown’s Arts Leaders Share What They’re Looking Forward To for 2021
“I am looking forward to seeing more of our students back on campus for classes, working with our friends at Discovery Green to have students perform in a safe outdoor space, and hopefully resuming performances and visual art shows for live audiences.”
Dr. R. Scott Allen, Principal, Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts
“Society for the Performing Arts is looking forward to raising the curtain again. We can’t wait to present six SPA commissioned works by Houston artists this fall in Jones Hall, and welcome touring artists back to Houston when vaccines have been widely circulated.”
Meg Booth, CEO, SPA
“I am looking forward to hearing the tuning of the Houston Grand Opera orchestra as our audience awaits the rising of the curtain for our return to live performances in 2021.”
Molly Dill, Acting Chief Operating Officer, Houston Grand Opera
I am looking forward to live performances at the Alley Theatre and applauding the actors. There is nothing like live theater.
Dean R. Gladden, Managing Director, Alley Theatre
“Developing the new frontier of Houston theater; empowering the growth of Houston’s theatrical and cultural landscape; making theater a frequent pastime again; and making theater with ❤️ & 🔥 in HTX!”
Matt Hune, Artistic Director, The Rec Room
“We can’t wait to welcome our 200 new students and their families to Downtown Houston. They toured and auditioned virtually and most have not set foot on our campus.”
Jonathan Klein, Director of Admissions, Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts
"Getting back on stage! By the time we produce Rock of Ages in August, we will have been away from theater for 18 months. I miss creating musicals for Houston audiences. When the curtain goes up on the first live performance in August, that moment will be something to celebrate for all of Houston. I might cry from joy!”
Dan Knechtges, Artistic Director, Theatre Under the Stars
“We are looking forward to our continued connection with Da Camera audiences through our expansive virtual series of chamber music and jazz featuring Elias String Quartet on March 9 and pianist Aaron Diehl on March 23, while anticipating with great excitement our return to safe in-person reunions with audiences with COVID precautions at live concerts later in the year.”
Sarah Rothenberg, Artistic Director, Da Camera