NOTE: This is the second in our two-part look at the outlook of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra during and after the Coronavirus pandemic.
Since the order to shelter in place, Darko Butorac has stayed at his Asheville home, trying to remain creative during the pandemic while pondering the future of classical music after it—not just for the Asheville Symphony but for large orchestras everywhere.
“The experience will change. This is too big to simply ignore and say we’re going back to live (concert) situations,” Butorac said. “So I think the changes might be in terms of how we approach concerts and how we communicate with audiences.”
Butorac is in his second season as music director in Asheville. He said his third season and almost certainly his fourth will be programmatically and, perhaps, even functionally shaped by the pandemic. The orchestra is planning and printing a brochure for its 2021 season at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, which it hopes to launch next February.
Major symphonies spotlighting robust brass and winds? Don’t expect to hear those in concert anytime soon.
“String sections, for example, if we need to, we can wear masks. That provides a layer of protection and we distance fairly easily from each other,” he said. “But woodwinds and brass sections generate more aerosol than breathing. It’s like sneezing continuously. And if that’s an environment where we don’t feel safe, we cannot have a large orchestra performing.”
Butorac and others who guide concert programming are facing three big questions. One, even after health professionals approve live concerts in concept, will people be ready to join an audience? Second, what range of repertoire makes both artistic sense and practical sense from a public health perspective? Lastly, are there opportunities to foster new avenues of performance the orchestra hasn’t indulged?
“We might go with smaller works from the 18th century, from the baroque period, from the 20th century. There’s a lot of reportopire we haven’t performed because we like to go big, engage our orchestra, engage our audience with a massive sound. Now we’ll have to modify that for the time being until everyone can feel safe in enclosed spaces,” he said. “Can we take a piece that maybe calls for forces larger than we would like to put on, modify it for different instrumentation that would allow it to be presented?”
“This gives us the opportunity to break into smaller groups and perform throughout this region in venues we really haven’t had the chance to go into,” said Jason Posnock, the orchestra’s concertmaster.
“There is still nothing more powerful, no vehicle that is more colorful than the symphony orchestra,” Posnock added. “So I don’t think this is the beginning of the end for the symphony orchestra.”
“In late summer, early fall, is there a possibility that an outdoor concert can be held in a venue where people feel comfortable social distancing and everything else?” Butorac said. “Then that really opens up artistic possibilities.”
David Whitehill, the orchestra’s executive director, wants to see the orchestra emerge from the pandemic with programming that appeals to audiences beyond the foundation of white seniors.
“Do our audiences reflect Asheville yet? No. Is there work to be done? Absolutely,” Whitehill said. “And now is the moment we get to do that kind of work.”
Butorac also expects Asheville and other orchestras to lean into repertoire that speaks to these times.
“Throughout history, adverse situations have led to bursts of creativity,” Butorac said. “Especially now, I think a lot of the creative energy will go into reflecting on the trauma of this experience.”
There is one question orchestra leaders can’t answer on their own. But they speak with uniform confidence that, yes, the public will be ready to return to concerts, wherever and whenever they’re held.
“The same reasons that people attended concerts in the past are going to exist in the future,” Posnock said. “I do think it’s going to take some time, especially if somebody is in that more vulnerable population, and I don’t blame them.”
“I know the moment, myself, when I do have a chance to step on the stage with my musicians, after this is all over, it will be absolutely magical,” Butorac said. “I’m moved speaking to you now talking about it, just now thinking about what that will feel like.”