How Columbus Symphony Orchestra adapted to life amid the coronavirus

Andy Downing
Columbus Symphony Orchestra

For Columbus Symphony Orchestra Principal Bassoonist Betsy Sturdevant, the solitude was one of the biggest initial adjustments to creating music early in the COVID era.

In the spring, rather than gathering in a room with a full array of players, Sturdevant would record solo videos at home, some of which were then combined with individual recordings made by other orchestra members to recreate the experience of hearing the full ensemble.

“It was a whole different mindset, and it did require a huge adjustment because we’re not supposed to be out for ourselves. We’re team players,” Sturdevant said by phone recently. But while the musician missed the camaraderie and the in-person chemistry, she said that, longer term, the solo focus could be a boon to the orchestra. “Making the videos forced us to work more on our individual playing, to perfect our level of playing so that we sound good in the videos, and that’s going to benefit the orchestra as a whole when we are able to come together.”

When the coronavirus shutdowns hit Ohio in early March, CSO Executive Director Denise Rehg, like most people, thought the impact would be short-lived, adopting a month-to-month approach to orchestral performances. As the lockdown extended into the early summer, though, it became clear that COVID would be a longer-term concern, and something that would require the orchestra to make a more severe pivot.

“When it got to where we would have had ‘Picnic with the Pops,’ which would have been nine concerts over seven weeks, we had realized the chances of us being able to do any of them were not good,” Rehg said. “So we ended up canceling those. But even before that, the symphony had started to develop a plan of what we were going to do for the long haul, knowing this was what we were going to be faced with. And we went into high gear coming up with alternative methods to serve the community.”

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These developments have incorporated everything from building a robust online program, which included providing free content to 154 Columbus City Schools, to an expansion of CSO’s community outreach mission, with the orchestra going to greater lengths to “meet people where they are,” Rehg said. As a result, the orchestra has now logged more than 20 free community concerts (all outdoors, with the number of players involved maxing out around two dozen, Sturdevant said) and more than 30 outreach concerts, including a recent, last-minute outdoor duo show Sturdevant played alongside Principal Clarinetist David Thomas at a housing project in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.

In more recent months, CSO has also resumed indoor shows at the Ohio Theatre, limiting the number of attendees to 300, in addition to 45 musicians. Sturdevant said the players are tested in the days immediately before each performance, and to this point there have been no positive cases within the orchestra. However, Rehg, wary of the current spike in local COVID cases, said these indoor performances would end at Thanksgiving and hopefully resume at some point in 2021. “We’ve been safe so far,” said Rehg, who remained optimistic that CSO could return to a more normal schedule beginning next year with “Picnic with the Pops,” “but at some point it just becomes unsupportable to take that risk.”

While COVID has been almost universally devastating to arts organizations, CSO has managed to navigate this unfamiliar terrain with more success than most. While the orchestra was forced to lay off the associate musicians who would have taken part in a normal concert season, in addition to one part-time staffer, it has been able to maintain all of its full-time musicians, a number that falls around 43 to 45 at any given time.

In addition, CSO will end the 2020 financial year in the black, which Rehg credited to everything from sponsors who maintained financial commitments in spite of the upended schedule, to a dedicated and deep-pocketed board that donated more than $1 million to keep the symphony going. CSO also benefited from a long-developing turnaround that has seen it progress from what Rehg termed “a hand-to-mouth” organization to one with the financial stability required to weather this current storm.

“This company has struggled a long time, but the symphony was probably never stronger than when COVID struck, so we were well positioned to be able to take a step back,” said Rehg, adding that prior to the coronavirus most internal conversations had centered on ways to grow CSO. “When we started crunching numbers … we decided to keep things as manageable as we could, and to take on the idea of brightening the community.”

For Rehg, this meant revisiting ideas that had long been discussed but often forced to the back burner amid the day-to-day grind of producing a normal concert season.

“The remarkable thing about crisis is that it motivates action, and it motivates change,” Rehg said. “While we have great intentions, and while we talk about it, we’re all under so much stress just to survive year-to-year that it doesn’t set those issues on fire for action in a really concerted way. … So we’ve taken this crisis to sort of dig into the things that we have intended to do, and that we knew we needed to do.”

Chief among these has been expanding community access beyond offering select $10 tickets to performances. Moving forward post-COVID, Rehg wants to see CSO continue to play more concerts in parks, bringing music to neighborhoods and populations that might have been overlooked in the past.

For Sturdevant, this year’s distanced outdoor concerts, greatly expanded as part of this mission, have brought her nearest to the magic she regularly felt playing onstage pre-COVID, particularly during one summer show staged outside at the Ohio History Center where the transportive aspect of the music was on full display.

“It was a beautiful sunny day and we were playing a Strauss waltz,” Sturdevant said. “And at one point I glanced up at the audience and I was amazed, because I saw a couple, and they had obviously ridden their bikes there, because they were both dressed in biking gear, and they were dancing. They had clearly been trained, or taken lots of dance lessons, because they were very, very good. And they were waltzing, and it was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. They were just responding spontaneously to the music, which is something I will never forget.”