Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Symphony Makes Emotional Concert Comeback — Musicians in Masks and a Very Limited Crowd

Live Music Returns

BY // 09.08.20
photography Wilson Parish

It was a summer like no other for the Houston Symphony, and the fall season — with its celebrated Opening Night Concert taking place this Saturday — will be out of the ordinary as well. Due to COVID-19, most musicians will be wearing masks. The live audience will be Lilliputian. Viewing the live-streamed concert, which in a typical year is open to as many as can fill Jones Hall’s 2,900 seats, will be limited to gala ticket holders.

Concerts following opening night will be live-streamed for $20 and open to in-house audiences of 150, with the goal of gradually increasing that number as the season continues. Those individuals will be selected from season subscribers.

Through the summer, the symphony held a series of Live from Jones Hall performances in which front-of-house logistics were studied for best practices, guaranteeing the safety of musicians and audience. The orchestra began slowly, moving from a handful of musicians and strictly limited audience to more of both. Getting a handle on the experience, PaperCity asked several symphony staff and patrons for their take on the limited 2020 experience and tasked photographer Wilson Parrish with capturing the evening of August 15.

Concertmaster and Max Levine Chair Yoonshin Song conducted the performance that placed the spotlight on four different sections of the orchestra, with musical selections from Mozart to George Walker and a brilliant set of selections for horn quartet and cello duo. It was an evening of horns, cellos, oboe, and strings.

“Of course, it is a very odd feeling to be playing under these unique circumstances. This experience can in no way be compared to that of a live performance in front of our audience,” Song tells PaperCity. “But at the same time, the past few months and the ways we have devised to keep playing make it more obvious than ever that music is not just a pleasure to spend time with. It is a necessity.

“We are very much looking forward to the Opening Night and, of course, cannot wait for the time that we can welcome our audience back to the hall.”

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The Live From Jones Hall streaming, the Living Room Series, and the musician videos drew close to 750,000 viewers. The Houston Symphony’s 2020-2021 classical season is well positioned for a healthy audience as it becomes the first major orchestra in the country with a regular performance schedule.

As for these summer concerts, Houston Symphony executive director and CEO John Mangum notes, “These concerts are a critical part of getting the Houston Symphony back to performing. We’re bringing groups from the orchestra — up to 35 musicians — to the stage and small groups of supporters into the hall to put our extensive health and safety protocols into practice.

“The silence of live music over the past months goes against every fiber of our being. People need music, and our musicians need to make it, and this is a way for us to fulfill that calling.”

A Limited Crowd

Symphony patrons Robin Angly and Miles Smith are among the few who attended four of the Live from Jones Hall performances. They were able to watch the orchestra grow week by week as it added larger works. There were less than a dozen people in the earliest audiences, who were escorted to the mezzanine for socially distanced viewing.

“As the weeks went on, they added more people and moved us to the orchestra. We had electronic tickets, and we scanned our phones,” Angly says. “As they added more people, a total of 20, we knew more, and it became more of a social gathering. We waved at people from the door and talked to people three rows away.”

The audience is limited to major donors when the Houston Symphony performs its Live from Jones Hall program during COVID-19 (Photo by Wilson Parish)
The audience is limited to major donors when the Houston Symphony performs its Live From Jones Hall program during COVID-19. (Photo by Wilson Parish)

The highlight of the Live From Jones Hall performances for the duo was Schubert’s Symphony No. 2. “It was thrilling. It brought tears to my eyes, and the group gave the musicians a standing ovation … All of these musicians feel they have become better musicians because they have played music they would not have been able to play in a full symphony orchestra,” Angly tells PaperCity.

Helen and Jim Shaffer, also longtime symphony supporters, were among those in the August 15 audience.

“Just the thought of returning to Jones Hall for a live symphony concert was exhilarating,” Helen Shaffer says. “Executive director John Mangum gave comments between the musical selections, explaining the composition. Jim and I enjoyed this portion, as it made the music come alive.

“It was a thrill to see real musicians on stage, and the performance was exquisite. It sent chills for both audience and orchestra when the clapping followed the end of each composition. This was one of the most rewarding concerts I have ever attended. It meant so much to be among those that love and at this point crave live orchestral music.”

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