The Dallas Symphony is one of the few professional orchestras in the country performing its season in a concert hall, before a live audience, through the pandemic.
After months of COVID-19 concert cancellations, Dallas Symphony musicians like Emily Levin, the orchestra’s principal harpist, were ready for some return to normal.
“Being able to play in orchestra again, there really aren’t words to describe it,” Levin said, “You know, it’s your livelihood, it’s your career, your passion. You don’t do it to make a lot of money, you do it because you love it.”
She said as a musician, she’s used to gathering at a space and performing live. For that to be dangerous all of sudden, she says was “disconcerting.”
So this summer, she and some other DSO musicians got together safely online. Individual performers recorded themselves and Levin assembled the parts, to re-create a passage from Ravel’s Mother Goose.
Online performing wasn’t enough, though. Musicians wanted back on stage, as did CEO Kim Noltemy. She agreed to the player’s safety requests and more: masks, distancing, barriers between musicians, temperature checks. Still, the musicians — some with serious health concerns — remained legitimately scared. Then Noltemy changed the tune with frequent COVID testing.
“We purchased tests from a local hospital,” she said. “We have an EMT do tests here on site. That’s what sealed the deal for us. Every day that we are on stage you get a COVID test and so you know you are safe to be around musicians. That’s a game changer.”
Other parts of the game changed too.
Works selected require fewer musicians on stage. Programs are shorter, eliminating intermission socializing and possible virus spreading.
Noltemy slashed the operating budget by millions, but retained core classical, pops and educational programs. She cut executive pay, like hers by 25%, and musicians agreed to a 10% cut.
“No one wants to take a pay cut, right? No orchestra member, not anybody,” Noltemy said.
Meanwhile, the symphony honored contracts, when possible. Foreign soloists, in this global pandemic? Mostly not possible.
Domestic performers, like opera and Tony-winning Broadway singer Kelli O’Hara? The symphony made it work.
“Dallas Symphony didn’t change any contractual specifications,” O’Hara said. “They gave me the job. They gave me the job which is extremely important to my family.”
With her performer husband out of work and kids at home in Connecticut, O’Hara said she’s the family’s income earner. She sang in Dallas for an October pops concert, as scheduled. It was her only regularly scheduled appearance this season that wasn’t canceled.
O’Hara, who played for 100 people, said the downsized Dallas Symphony reminded her of the large Broadway pit orchestras that are still silent in New York.
“I had to come, I needed to come, financially,” O’Hara said. “But when I got here and they began the program in rehearsal the other day with the South Pacific Overture, which was a huge part of my life, I broke down and I wept. Like I said I never took this for granted, but I don’t think I quite knew how easily it could be lost.”
The Dallas Symphony found what might’ve been its lost season. That’s thanks to ongoing COVID testing, survival management, trust between musicians and the front office, and, says Noltemy, donor support that kept it going. But can it last? She says it has to.
“Well I think we have to keep doing it as long as we want to have concerts taking place as while there’s a pandemic that’s active,” she said. “Seems like a really longtime right now. I’m hoping it’s not another six months but it easily could be.”
Noltemy’s optimistic. The Symphony will increase its audience size for upcoming holiday concerts. Still that’s just 250 people in a hall that holds 1800.
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