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Language of the soul: Area orchestras grapple with COVID-19

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

The COVID-19 pandemic has throttled industries and organizations that rely on large gatherings of people, and professional orchestras have been hit particularly hard.

The York Symphony Orchestra had to cancel three of its final performances of the 2019-20 season, including its May performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, possibly the most anticipated concert of the season.

"It’s been like a punch in the gut, to not be able to gather with multiple people, to perform with multiple people," said Michael Reichman, executive director of the YSO.

The YSO hires its musicians as independent contractors, so they're only paid for the programs they perform in, Reichman said.

After the March, April and May concerts were canceled, ticket holders were given the option of getting a refund, exchanging their tickets for a concert at a later date or donating the cost of the tickets to a relief fund to help the musicians.

The ticket relief fund ended up paying out 90% of what orchestra members would have made if the concerts had continued as scheduled.

As for the 2020-21 season, the orchestra had to cancel its scheduled programming and won't be offering any subscription packages.

Instead, the organization plans to perform a few outdoor chamber programs with small ensembles, and even those might only be open to donors.

Michael Reichman, executive director of the York Symphony Orchestra, in the Appell Center for the Performing Arts, Wednesday, August 5, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

But the YSO  also will be working to engage with viewers online and sharing performances digitally, Reichman said, although the details are still being worked out.

"For orchestras to survive in the industry, we have to stop thinking of ourselves exclusively as an orchestra but start thinking of ourselves as a media company," Reichman said. "We’re going to have to become experts at creating content and blasting it out and sharing it with people."

Violinist James Tung, assistant concertmaster for the YSO, said he didn't mind the initial break from performing because the last few years have been particularly busy for him, and he enjoyed the extra time at home with his family.

But it's already difficult to make a living as a performer, Tung said, and now he's concerned about the future of the industry.

Tung, like many orchestral musicians, is also a teacher. He's a professor at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland and teaches private lessons at Urbana School for Strings, the studio he owns with his wife, a violist.

"I still have my fingers crossed that things will move quickly and a vaccine, hopefully, comes sooner than later," he said.

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Across the river in Lancaster County, the Lancaster Symphony Orchestra was already preparing for big changes when COVID-19 took hold.

Conductor and music director Stephen Gunzenhauser retired after the 2019-2020 season after 40 years on the podium, said Guy McIntosh, general manager of the LSO.

If COVID-19 hadn't put a stop to everything, McIntosh said, the orchestra would have already begun a search for a new conductor.

At the LSO, the musicians are unionized employees of the organization, McIntosh said, and while several of them are also college professors, there are some who make their living solely through performing in ensembles.

"Performing artists in general are probably going to be the hardest and longest hit from the pandemic," he said.

The regular LSO season has been canceled, but McIntosh said the orchestra will monitor the public health situation and potentially announce some small chamber performances.

All performances will be streamed online, and the LSO has already begun releasing video interviews and performances by the musicians each week, which McIntosh said is getting a great response from a wide demographic of viewers.

"I’m optimistic for the future. My staff is optimistic," he said. "I just hope the public can hold out long enough and support us enough that we can make it to the end."

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