Closing of the Curtain: Challenges faced by professional orchestras during COVID-19

Categories:  The Arts    Music
Monday, October 26th, 2020 at 5:34 PM
Closing of the Curtain: Challenges faced by professional orchestras during COVID-19 by Thomas Taylor

There are certain visual cues that are signature components of an orchestral concert. The movement of the conductor’s hands as the baton twirls through the air. The frantic bowing of the first chair violinist as they perform a dazzling solo. The stirring of strings, woodwinds and brass, over the crash of percussion. But it is the venue and stage which can awe people before a single note is performed. Often times, there is a large curtain, with lights surrounding the stage, some even stretching into the hall itself. It’s an experience like no other; it is nearly impossible to replicate. But in 2020, the curtain came crashing down, and the lights extinguished as fast and quick as a grace note.

COVID-19 has changed everything, but has impacted the performing arts greatly. According to Americans for the Arts, $13.9 billion have been lost by non-profit arts and cultural organizations as of Oct. 5. The same survey states 95% of organizations have recorded lost income, with about 833,000 reports of unemployment.

“For us, we had to cancel concerts, starting pretty much all the way back to the end of last March,” explained Steve Weiser, executive director of the Erie Philharmonic. The last concert given by the orchestra was on March 7. “We didn’t know when we gave that concert on March 7, that was the final concert we would ever do on stage in Warner Theater before renovations.”

The Warner Theater in Erie recently closed for those renovations. According to The Erie-Times News, the theater is hoping to reopen in September 2021. Weiser describes the state of the theater. “The stage is gone, the back of the building is destroyed, and they’re building a whole new stage. But we never got to do the big send-off for the theater because we shut down very unexpectedly.”

Due to the pandemic, the Erie Philharmonic had to cancel the end of last season, along with summer concerts and the subscription season for this year. “We essentially had to cancel a very big and exciting season that we were going to give in the hockey arena. It’s been a very interesting adventure to get where we are today,” said Weiser.

The ongoing COVID-19 impact survey from Americans for the Arts states four main concerns about reopening: “customers unlikely to attend; government restrictions/guidelines; staff/board do not feel it is safe yet; and impractical to produce art product in current environment.”

The larger problem for the Erie Philharmonic, along with many other orchestras, is the financial impact this can have for the individual organizations. “If you’re looking at just this season alone, you’re probably looking at lost ticketed revenue of about $850,00,” Weiser explained. “We’re hoping to make some of it up with donations, but normally that’s where we would see ticketed revenue for this year.”

Most of the Erie Philharmonic’s revenue relies on a mix between ticket sales and community support. These could be grants, government funding or donations from the community. The CARES Act also plays a major role in allocating funding for the arts, with organizations preserving over 1 million jobs due to the donations. “We just received around $63,000 from one of the museums and cultural grants … and we did receive some PPP (Public Private Partnership) [funding] for staff and musician salaries as well,” Weiser stated.

“It’s pretty devastating for musicians, all across the country, if not the entire world,” Dr. Allen Zurcher said. He is the secretary and treasurer for the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local Union 17, which covers Erie. “The social interaction between the performers and the audience is what drives the entire relationship for live music. When that disappeared, most musicians probably lost about 95% of their income, if not more in some cases.”

The Bookings Institute estimates 97,130 creative industry jobs have been lost in Pennsylvania alone. Many of the major losses are centered around metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Zurcher elaborated on how income can be the last aspect to change for union musicians. “The pay rate doesn’t change, but the number of services was curtailed greatly. So, in that respect, it did affect the pay. Not only the pay of the philharmonic musicians, but all musicians, whether they’re union musicians or not.”

Local Union 17 of the AFM received information from their national office, which Zurcher credits as the most helpful thing they could have received. As well, they have received guidance from other chapters of their union. “We talk to each other all the time, specifically in communities of similar sizes and chapters of similar sizes, because we all have the same problems. So we’re always looking for solutions.”

The Erie Philharmonic is in the middle of a five-year collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). However, the pandemic has made them address work issues now. The administration of the Erie Philharmonic met with the orchestral committee, and the local and national offices of the AFM. “We met with them to come up with an amendment to our CBA to help us get through the COVID situation,” Weiser explained further.

The amendment focused on safety protocols, which were negotiated over the summer and was essential for the union to begin televised concerts. “We then started reaching out to other orchestras across the country, we looked at Edinboro's [university] safety plan, and Chautauqua up in New York. We really tried to get a myriad of examples of what other people were trying to do,” Weiser added. “At that point, some people were starting to come back together. So, we knew somebody would have something that worked.”

The plan is nine pages long and has research from 15-20 sources, according to Weiser. One of the ideas, which came from Chautauqua, was musicians needing to self-monitor their health before arriving in Erie, and then sending an email or text message.  As well, many of the musicians are coming from out of state, and this was something which needed to be addressed.

“A third coming from [Cleveland], a third from around here, and a third from Pittsburgh. So, we have some that are coming from Fredonia … but we definitely would hit three different states between PA, Ohio, and New York.” Weiser listed these places when talking about where the musicians are coming in, while also from Florida and Minnesota. “We had built into our safety plan that if you’re traveling from one of these 20 states, you have to get here two weeks ahead of time. You can’t come up from Florida and play with us right away. You’d have to quarantine for two weeks and then play with us.”

The Erie Philharmonic has a partnership with the Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel. The business sponsors the orchestra by supplying rooms to traveling musicians. “They give us between 80 to 100 rooms that we’re able to use for our musicians. Once the musicians stay at the hotel, they’re under the hotel’s safety plan and guidance,” Weiser explained. “We can’t control what happens at the hotel, but it’s a mutual understanding [that] the hotel will be at an equally as high of a standard.”

These are different times for the Erie Philharmonic, as shown by the guidelines from the state for gatherings. “Normally, we’d be gathering 60 to 70 people. Our opening night concert would have been Sept. 12 … and we normally would see anywhere from 60 to 70, sometimes 80 musicians onstage. And right now, the indoor cap is at 25,” Weiser said.

Along with donations, resources from nonprofits, such as Americans for the Arts (AFTA), have helped the Erie Philharmonic. “We received resources at the very least in talking points and things for us to be able to use in grants and other funding applications,” Weiser explained.

The AFTA has helped the organization behind the scenes with things like grants. Weiser mentioned how one must understand that "the arts are likely going to be the last group to fully reopen."

This delay in opening rejects the very ideal of performing arts, as Weiser puts it. “Our main idea is performing huge experiences in these big concerts, and until we can safely gather 2,000 people indoors, our industry will be disrupted.”

Weiser believes every orchestra is facing the same problem, and location can make a difference. “What we’re finding is that some cities, especially the way Erie is set up, we all have to adapt to the problem differently … a lot of it has to do with how close orchestras are to the city that we exist in. There’s not another orchestra for another hour and a half away that’s doing things on ticketed, big scale events. We’re unique that we’re the main orchestra in Northwestern Pennsylvania.”

Even though location changes circumstances, Weiser says that community support can help performing arts organizations during this time. “For us, the community support we have seen so far has been phenomenal … we’ve seen a lot of new doners. A lot of people that have really stepped up to help the Erie [Philharmonic] get through this time period. Without the community, support of our board, doners, and businesses, this can be a very different conversation.”

Thomas Taylor is a staff writer for The Spectator. He can be reached at This was originally published at The future of our world: Life during Covid-19.

Tags: covid19, music

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