As Spokane County finds itself stuck in the state’s reopening process, the Spokane Symphony is in an economic and artistic purgatory of sorts.
“I think it’s fairly evident at this point, given our lack of progress in moving to Phase 3, that any notion of large-scale activities this fall is becoming less and less likely – meaning it’s not going to happen,” Spokane Symphony executive director Jeff vom Saal said. “Even into the spring, we’re not entirely confident. (But) we’re going to continue trying to do what we can do.”
At this time, the program previously announced for the 2020-21 season is no longer feasible. But a new program, likely to be announced by the end of August, is developing and whatever program emerges, vom Saal explained, “we will be focusing on our orchestra.”
It is nearly impossible for guest artists to travel, and even if it were financially feasible, it would still bring up a prohibitive host of other public health concerns due to air travel.
“The musicians want an opportunity to perform,” vom Saal said.
But the symphony cannot put the whole orchestra up on stage together while honoring current distancing guidelines. Instead, management is discussing a modified program with some smaller-scaled performances and a new repertoire that will allow most or all members of the orchestra to get back on stage at one point or another during the season.
“We have a whole set of performance concepts that are ready to go,” he continued. And, as access to funding develops and new musician contract negotiations permit, “it’s just a matter of time before we can actually bring them to the public.”
Conversations about performances in outdoor venues around Spokane are underway, as are talks about small group and solo performances in the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox. Musicians and administrators alike have been eager to build concerts and other event ideas accounting for socially distanced ensembles and limited audience, vom Saal explained.
“(There’s) this constant sort of dialogue between public health policy and public sentiment,” vom Saal said. “Even if we get the go-ahead from the governor to do something, are people going to want to come out? It’s hard to gauge that.”
“Our staff is down to a fraction of what it normally is,” vom Saal said. Those still working are reduced in their hours, most down to nearly a quarter of their regular time or less. “There’s a little bit of box office activity, but anything related to actually doing events is at a zero right now.”
While the orchestra remains furloughed, the symphony is covering 100% of the musicians’ health insurance premiums. During normal operation, they pay 50%.
The symphony’s Musician’s Relief Fund has now raised a little over $100,000 since its founding in April. A small council of board members and musicians review applications on a case-by-case basis before making distributions.
“The symphony is not going anywhere,” vom Saal said. “I don’t know that we’ve ever faced the kind of challenges we’re facing right now. But we have a really strong, supportive community, and that’s the difference.”