One normal thing about the San Antonio Symphony getting ready to rehearse on Wednesday for its season-opening concert was a cacophony of sound filling the stage of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts as each musician warmed up.
But instead of a concert stage packed with a full complement of musicians and instruments of every kind, only half the usual number of musicians for an orchestra were present.
Preparing to greet the ensemble for the first time in a year, Executive Director Corey Cowart looked on from backstage. He issued a stuttered observation: “It’s. Just. Weird,” he said, voice muffled behind a black fabric mask.
Arranged in orderly rows around him were tables, each labeled with a single musician’s name and bearing that person’s instrument case and belongings, to be touched by no one but that musician for the duration of the week’s rehearsals and concerts.
Musicians who would normally wander freely backstage, plucking strings and blowing through reeds, were now relegated to keeping a six-foot distance between each other at all times, allowed to play their instruments only onstage to reduce chances of spreading the dreaded coronavirus through the air.
Onstage, the 35-member orchestra observed strict spacing. Woodwind and brass instruments were placed in the back row, at a full 10-foot distance from the strings, an extra safety measure decided upon by Sara Vreeland, director of orchestra operations, after observing how the Houston Symphony has managed safety protocols during its current season, and studying data and scientific reports on aerosol transmission.
French horn players Andrew Warfield and Peter Rubins both had puppy training pads on the floor next to their chairs to absorb the spit they would routinely empty from their instruments as they play, another risk-reduction measure widely adopted by orchestras and bands in the wake of the pandemic.
Janni Toomes, orchestra personnel manager, took the podium to briefly address the musicians and run through various safety protocols. She noted that this was the first time in a year she had been on stage with them, having taken time off in mid-February to assist her daughter Amy Lopez, a second violinist with the orchestra, with the birth of her first child.
The musicians had not gathered together for rehearsal since March 13, the day Mayor Ron Nirenberg had declared a public health emergency to warn of the approaching pandemic, and their performance that night was canceled. The rest of the season, and the beginning of the 2020-2021 season scheduled to begin in September, would also be scrapped.
On Monday, all staff and musicians underwent mandatory coronavirus testing to prepare for the truncated 2021 season, which begins Friday night and runs into June.
Toomes then introduced Cowart, who emerged from backstage and took the podium. “First off, thank you, everyone, for being here,” he said, the importance of that simple fact evident in his voice. “And I really want to thank … the members of the health and safety committee” for helping establish the extensive safety protocols that would be put to use for the upcoming season.
Orchestra members, who haven’t heard the applause of Tobin Center audiences for many months, applauded loudly.
Cowart said he found it “amazingly fitting” that their first day back together arrived on Feb. 3. “I think we’ve been living in February 2, Groundhog Day,” he said, referring to the popular movie in which Bill Murray relives the same day over and over. “It feels like we’re finally moving on and going forward.”
Cowart then grew serious. “Our community, our state, the world has gone through a lot of pain and loss and suffering over these last 10 months. And what we’re doing here today, and this week is an important first step for all of us to prepare to return to some type of normalcy.
“And we’re all 58 hours away from the weirdest opening night of our entire careers.”
‘Trust your ears’
Backstage as rehearsal began, Toomes empathized openly with the strangeness and rigidity of the safety protocols and the stress they must put the musicians under, but said everyone is in it together.
“There’s a little bit of a feeling of camaraderie that we’re all trying to come back,” Toomes said, referring not only to the San Antonio Symphony, but orchestras across the country, several of which she’s worked for over her 22-year career.
Toomes and Vreeland helped devise a tiered system that kept orchestra groups to a maximum of 35 members at any one time, with groups generally alternating weeks, with most musicians playing eight concerts during the short 14 weeks of the season. Lopez, for example, was not with the orchestra Wednesday and wouldn’t play the opening weekend, but would perform in the upcoming classics series concerts Feb. 19-20.
The smaller orchestras and onstage spacing present particular challenges to musicians, a fact openly noted by Troy Peters, who joined for the morning as guest rehearsal conductor before giving way to guest conductor David Danzmayr, who will lead the orchestra through its opening weekend performances.
Peters, who has also weathered a strange year as music director of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio, greeted the musicians with advice he’d sought out from “old, old, old friends” in the Philadelphia Orchestra on how they dealt with their return to the stage.
“The first hour is much harder than the next hour,” he said, noting how musicians accustomed to feeling their way through the music in close proximity with each other must adapt to the situation. Not only are there fewer musicians, but each has their own music stand instead of sharing one with another musician.
“Because they’re all spread out, it’s more difficult to hear the details of what the people around you are playing,” he said during a brief rehearsal break, but assured that “your ears are going to get used to this” as the rehearsals progressed.
Being spread out left double-masked concertmaster Sarah Silver Manzke feeling isolated, she said, rather than “being surrounded and enveloped by string sound. It really feels like you’re a soloist almost all the time.” The new sensation of distance meant the musicians would be “adapting our ears to be even more sensitive than we normally have to.”
Second violinist Beth Johnson said earlier in the week she was curious how the new arrangement would affect the onstage acoustics in the H-E-B Performance Hall.
“Usually you’re trying to play with your stand partner, which then you collectively try to play with your section, which then should collectively try to play with the rest of the orchestra,” she said. “Now, we’re each on our own, trying to play together.”
Manzke noted that at one point during rehearsal, Peters stopped a passage of Haydn’s Symphony No. 34 in D minor to ask the first violins to play more emphatically, encouraging them to gain confidence in the sound they are making as an ensemble.
“It takes a lot of bold, almost blind belief that your sound will carry, because it is an isolating feeling,” Manzke said. Normally they would focus on balance and ensemble and subtlety, she said, but “in something like this, we need to keep all of those things in mind, while also being brave enough to play fully and play confidently to overcome the distancing.”
She said that despite the woodwinds and brass feeling “almost … like they’re on a different planet,” she appreciated Peters letting them all play together for extended passages.
Certainly there are things to work on, she said, “but it’s really cool to be able to trust my colleagues and trust our level of professionalism to use our ears and our eyes and and learn this new normal.”
Manzke also was using her foot to overcome one pesky wrinkle of the new setup: having to turn her own score pages. Instead of paper, she viewed digital versions of the score on her tablet device, turning the pages with a tap of her toe on a Bluetooth-connected pedal.
The next time through the Haydn passage, the violins had gained their confidence and projected a fuller sound.
The somber quietude of American composer George Walker’s Lyric for Strings brought a hush to the resonant concert hall, with no audible evidence that the orchestra hadn’t played together onstage for an entire year.
The staff members who worked through the logistical puzzles and protocol challenges felt certain the musicians would quickly adapt and forge ahead with a season that would prove rewarding for symphony fans longing to hear live music again.
“I know that every day, we’ll get used to it,” Toomes said. “Each new day will probably be a little bit easier.”