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Without Concerts At Least Until February 2021, Asheville Symphony Strives For Current Relevance

Asheville Symphony Orchestra

NOTE: This is the first in our two-part look at the outlook of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra during and after the Coronavirus pandemic.


Darko Butorac is known as a musician and conductor. People didn’t know him as a poet or video editor until a few weeks ago, when he produced what the orchestra called a https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feAHZ2EvUg4" target="_blank">“Musical Love Letter to Asheville.”

The video features a number of Asheville Symphony Orchestra musicians, from their separate homes, performing “Ashokan Farewell” by Jay Ungar. Board member Bill Gettys gives voice to Butorac’s poem.

“The idea behind the video was to go beyond just having a musical performance, but really being a love letter to all of Asheville,” Butorac said. “Not just the classical music lovers, but to all of our community.”

It was a clarion call, of sorts, for an orchestra forced, like everyone else, to cancel its entire spring calendar.

“We have to look at projects that emotionally reach out to our community and can inspire, can uplift during this difficult time,” Butorac said.

If the orchestra’s most optimistic forecast holds true, it won’t perform again at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at least until next February. Even then, short of a vaccine, it’s an open question whether the musicians will be eager to perform side by side.

“I think it’s gonna take time for musicians to get comfortable again, getting close to one another and kind of playing and breathing and spitting, and all things we do,” said Jason Posnock, the orchestra’s concertmaster.

“We will be among the last to come back, at least last in the respect of bringing people into Thomas Wolfe,” said David Whitehill, the orchestra’s executive director since 2012. “Not only with 100 musicians on stage, but with 2,400 people in the audience.”

That means no revenue from ticket sales or concert sponsorships. That doesn’t necessarily hurt the bottom line of an orchestra that, like most others, loses money on every concert. But when there aren’t concerts, the musicians aren’t paid—unlike major orchestras locked into guaranteed salaries to unionized musicians, the Asheville Symphony pays its musicians per concert. But without concerts, the community loses its principal outlet for professional classical music performance. 

Whitehill said a silver lining to the imposed closure is the forced audit the symphony and other arts organizations are conducting to their missions and how that has to shift in the post-pandemic world. He said the orchestra’s financial footing is sound enough to survive without live concerts at least through the fall of 2021.

“What is sacred to us? What do we not want to change and, then, what can be questioned?” Whitehill asked. “During this period of uncertainty, we have the opportunity to spend most of our time in Question Two.” 

For now, the orchestra is building its online presence, which was far from robust before the Coronavirus, to produce virtual performances and recordings and for audience engagement.

Butorac hosts a classical music trivia contest every Tuesday night on Facebook Live, pitting the Asheville Symphony against members of his other orchestra, the Tallahassee Symphony. The orchestra saw 75,000 Spotify streams last month, fueled in large part from the recording it made with the bluegrass chart-toppers Steep Canyon Rangers.

Some of these online and recording initiatives will likely continue even after live concerts resume. And just as public life is reopening in stages, Butorac envisions the same for concerts.

“Are there possibilities to do outdoor concerts? Are there possibilities to stream concerts live?” Butorac asked. “That in itself already raises the question: Is the model of the concert that we’re used to in the hall—overture, concerto, symphony—we do not necessarily need to conform to that. So the creative aspect of what a concert is can change.”


NOTE: Orchestra board member Bill Gettys is also a member of the BPR board of directors.

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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