How do you run a symphony during a pandemic?

Like most performing arts groups, the Reno Philharmonic is figuring it out

Four and a half months into coronavirus closures, most institutions have drastically changed the way they operate. The Reno Philharmonic is among them.

Usually, the Phil’s season involves 60 concerts by adult and youth orchestras, played for 55,000 people. It opens in fall with around 80 musicians playing a concert at the Pioneer Center.

This year, the only live concerts are a few pop-ups, where one or two musicians in casual wear play at open-air spots like Virginia Lake or the Sparks Marina. The season opens with a zero ticketholders and an ensemble of 18 musicians, using new cameras to livestream from the Pioneer Center.

It’s “live-ish,” said the Phil’s Director of Education and Community Engagement, Heather Gage.

The group’s music education programs have changed too, both in form and content. In a non-pandemic fall, some 230 high school and middle school musicians rehearse three times a week in four different ensembles.

“We thought that that would be too much screen time, and we just wouldn’t get the participation,” Gage said. Instead, Zoom classes will meet once a week, and students have access to archived YouTube lessons.

“We thought it was a good time to explore some of the other facets of musicianship that we don’t have time for in rehearsal,” Gage added. “If we were in a normal rehearsal cycle, we would just be playing the notes on the page and talking a little bit.” But this year, with venues closed and the Black Lives Matter movement on the front burner of the nation’s consciousness, there’s both time and inclination to look deeper into the cultural context of some of the music.

In recent years, approximately 230 high school and middle school musicians have studied with the Reno Phil and played in its four youth orchestras. In this file photo, some of them are playing a concert at the Pioneer Center. The 2020 concerts will be virtual – Photo courtesy of Reno Philharmonic.

This fall, the youth orchestras will study the compositions and biography of William Grant Still, an African-American composer who had a prolific career in Los Angeles between the 1910s and ‘50s.

“With things as they are now, we’ll have an opportunity to look a lot more at his influences, his life,” Gage said.

The Phil’s musicians have also been devising ways to educate the children they would normally encounter on school field trips and at special events. Gage said that normally when she appears at outreach events, kids have a lot of questions about the instruments themselves, and even the cases they come in. “Why do you have two bows?” “How old is your instrument?” “How do all of those latches and zippers work?”

“There’s so many things they want to know,” Gage said. With this year’s field trips and outreach events canceled, she plans to record a series of instrument “unboxing” videos to answer these questions.

“I want to release them around the time that we normally would have done our fall family concert,” she said. That’s a free family event that was initially scheduled for Sept. 28.

Ultimately, for Gage and her colleagues, the pandemic edition of managing a symphony is a mixed bag. “I would not have wanted to operate in this way, but it does give us some exciting opportunities,” she said. One example: “We haven’t really been able to reach out into Ely or Elko or even Gerlach before, because the bus ride … is just too long.” But it will be easy to share programs like the unboxing videos with schools outside of Reno.

“There are days when I think, ‘Wow, there’s so much opportunity,’” Gage said. “And there are other days when I really miss performing. I’m a violinist with the Phil as well, and I just miss it.”

For dates and details about pop-up concerts, virtual performances, and educational programs, follow the Reno Philharmonic on FacebookInstagram, and YouTube.

Kris Vagner is an arts and culture writer who’s earned awards for critical writing, entertainment writing, feature writing, and—somehow—sports writing. She’s also the editor of Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts news site. More at Support her work in The Ally.

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