It's been nearly a year since the last live performance of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) when COVID-19 hit like a freight train, and brought live entertainment to a screeching halt. That is, until now.
After months and months of research across the entertainment industry, RiverCenter for the Performing Arts has implemented state-of-the-art safety protocols that will begin allowing limited audiences back into their venue this Spring. Thanks to their on-going partnership with the CSO, these safety protocols also mean that our hometown symphony is headed back to the stage.
We sat down with Kristen Hudson, CSO's Director of Marketing, to better understand their plan to bring the symphony safely back to our community once again.
This interview had been edited for length and clarity.
Q: First of all, let's talk about how you all arrived at the decision to bring the orchestra back to the stage. I know this was not been a decision that's been taken lightly. Can you walk us through the process?
A: Absolutely. Our team at the CSO has been working diligently since last March to put together plans for a way to safely perform live for our audience again. We worked through the fall researching what other orchestras and arts venues around the country have been doing to ensure they can keep their musicians and audience members safe.
The team at RiverCenter for the Performing Arts has worked very hard to put together the safety protocols we will be following for the season. Every decision they have made has been based on months of research. All protocols will uphold the latest recommendations from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) at all times.
Q: Are the protocols for the audience members only? Or do the musicians have additional protocols on stage as well?
The musicians will certainly have additional protocols on stage. It's taken months of very careful research and planning, but we've finally been able to put together a season that we can perform while keeping our musicians and our audience safe.
That's why we waited until now. We wanted to make sure we knew we could provide a safe experience for everyone. It's also why we've been so excited to unveil our season. We know we are truly ready!
Q: Wonderful! I'm so excited to hear this. Can you tell us more about what the instrumentalists will be doing? Can you give us an idea of what to expect on stage?
A: Yes. There were there were a lot of tricky spots when planning for the season. You have so many instrumentals on stage when you're dealing with an orchestra. So first and foremost, it was figuring out how many instrumentalists we can fit while playing socially-distanced on stage in Bill Heard Theatre.
You will see an orchestra of no more than about 45 instrumentalists. This is to ensure we have room for everyone to have enough space around them to play safely. Our repertoire has been programmed so wonderfully by George del Gobbo to accommodate our numbers. He has chosen pieces where we can highlight and utilize the correct number of musicians we can safely and effectively handle on stage.
Q: Will we see any additional measures in place other than social distancing?
A: Definitely. All instrumentalists will be seated at a safe distance from one another at all times. All of our string instrumentalists will be masked for the duration of the performance. Wind instrumentalists will wear masks when they are not playing. Additionally, wind instrumentalists will be seated at a distance that is farther apart than our string players.
We also have put various cleaning protocols into place such as having sheets under their chairs to collect any moisture coming through the instruments. This is to ensure the moisture they produce while playing their instruments will not touch the stage.
Additionally, we will have shields in place to protect the instrumentalists from one another. Having shields not only protects our wind players. It will also protect our string players from being hit with the air from anyone who happens to be sitting behind them.
So yes, you'll see a lot of new things happening on stage. Both to protect our musicians, and our audience as well. No matter what, safety will come first.
Q: I cannot imagine performing in an ensemble with shields between myself and the other musicians. I know it's essential to bring live music back safely, but what will this be like for the musicians?
A: It's certainly going to be a very interesting experience for them because they're so socially distanced from one another. Audibly, it's going to be a big change because no one is used to playing music so far away from everyone else. Playing this way is going to make each of them feel a bit more like a soloist.
For George [del Gobbo], conducting the ensemble will also be quite different. With each musician in their own little space, he's got quite the task of keeping everyone together and in tune. There's not going to be the usual intimacy of playing near someone and feeding off of the other players' energy. It's really going to be a unique experience for everyone, but I'm confident they'll perform beautifully.
Q: This all sounds wonderful. Thanks so much for giving our audience such detailed information about the safety protocols you'll be following this season. My next question is what to expect as an audience member? If things are different for the musicians, I'm assuming there are new things for audience members to know as well.
A: Oh, yes. Certainly. Again, our main focus is keeping everyone safe, and that means following RiverCenter's exceptional protocols to a tee. If it's okay, I'll actually start talking about the audience experience beginning with the ticket buying process.
Q: Definitely. Let's start there.
A: The first thing to know is that RiverCenter's box office is not open to in-person walk-ins right now. All of our ticket purchasing is happening online, via the phone or email orders. If you're purchasing season tickets, you can purchase them online via an online order form. You can also download the form and mail it to us, or you call the Columbus Symphony Orchestra's main line and speak with me personally.
Single tickets will only be on sale online through the RiverCenter box office or over the phone. Single ticket buyers will all be general admission this year. When you purchase your ticket, you will also select an entry time into the venue.
Q: An entry time?
A: Yes. Season ticket holders can arrive at any time the night of the concert. That's sort of a perk of being a season ticket holder. However, single ticket holder's entrances will be staggered. This way, everyone is not arriving to the venue at the same time. We'll have staggered entry times when you can arrive to be seated.
Q: Well, that's brilliant and it makes a lot of sense.
A: Yes. I agree. Again, this is all part of RiverCenter's extensive protocols they've put in place to keep everyone safe. Before entering the venue, everyone will have their temperature taken at the door. There will also be hand sanitization stations throughout the venue.
If you are picking up tickets through will call, you will simply let the ushers know what your name is. Then, they will let the will call office - which will be right actually there in the lobby - know you've arrived. This way as soon as you're finished going through the safe entry process, they will have your tickets ready for you so you may be seated right away.
All of our guests will be asked to wear a mask and to wear it properly, over both nose and mouth, throughout the duration of your visit to the RiverCenter. This is to protect those around you. We will also ask everyone to stay socially-distanced when you're in the lobby and in communal areas. Q: Will seating be socially-distanced in the audience?
A: Of course. Everyone will be seated socially-distanced with no exceptions. There will be at least three seats - so six feet - between each party. This distance will be maintained in-between everyone on the same row, and then there will be a full empty row in-between you and the next row of guests.
There are a few other things for in-person attendees that I'd like to point out. We've shortened the length of the concerts just a little bit so that we do not need an intermission. The whole performance will be roughly an hour with no intermission. This is so there won't be any mingling in the lobby. RiverCenter also will not be offering any concessions. The water fountains have been turned off, and they've appointed special designated restrooms that are open and cleaned with in the hall regularly throughout the evening.
Finally, when the concert is over, ushers will dismiss audience members by area to ensure social-distancing is maintained after the show as well.
Q: Wow. It seems like they've thought of everything!
A: Again, it's RiverCenter's incredible team. They have put in place all of these in-person protocols, and it's allowed our team at the Symphony to really focus on making it safe for our musicians.
I'd also like to say how grateful we are to RiverCenter for being the ones to implement these policies. They have done an excellent job training everyone on site to uphold the highest safety standards for guests.
Q: Wow. So what is your seating capacity?
A: To seat everyone safely and ensure there is enough distance between audience members, it limits us to about 20 or 30 percent of our typical audience capacity. It limits our seating quite a bit, but this has opened up opportunities for us to offer digital broadcasting of our concerts for the first time.
Q: You'll have digital broadcasting options, too?!
A: Yes, it's very exciting. We are going digital. So whether you are in the area or outside of the area, whether you feel comfortable or whether you're not comfortable attending the concerts in-person, you will be able to watch the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in concert anywhere. Which is so exciting!
Click the images above to see each concert, performance date, and repertoire.
Q: How will the livestream be offered?
A: It's through the same platform that the RiverCenter used to stream their Broadway series. The way it works is that we will email out all of the information, and each guest will have the link and an access password and that will get you into the video.
Q: How can you view the livestream?
A: Typically, it will be viewed on your computer or on your phone. If you have a smart TV or a a way to cast your computer to your television, then you can easily broadcast it onto your TV as well. We're thrilled this option will let people enjoy the CSO together as a family from the comfort of home.
Q: Will you be able to stream it live?
A: The digital broadcast will happen approximately one week after the live concert. This gives our staff time to take the video elements and put them in the correct format for your viewing. Approximately one week after the live concert it'll be broadcast for your enjoyment. The link will be up for 72 hours so whenever you're ready and it's convenient for you to watch, it'll be there waiting for you.
Q: These live stream options are such an interesting new concept for people with young children that might not feel comfortable bringing them to the venue. Or, for people with elderly parents who may not be able to travel to RiverCenter to see a show. You know? It's going to open up a whole new audience for you all.
A: It's exciting. We're hoping people who cannot come to the theatre will still choose to enjoy the orchestra this way. The tickets are also very affordable. You can purchase a pass for the whole season (all five concerts) for $50. Or, you can purchase individual concerts for $15 dollars each.
Also, it's important to our team that everyone knows we've been thinking very hard about this. We didn't want it to just be one single camera angle of the whole orchestra for the entire hour. We will have several different camera angles recorded. We're hoping to be able to get some close-ups so we'll be able to offer some shots of the soloists, and there's even talk of putting a conductor cam in there!
Q: Oh, and Maestro Del Gobbo is so fun to watch from the stage! That would be a special experience for everyone. He's so entertaining.
A: Yes! And that's one thing you won't even get in-person. We're trying to make it fun and offer exciting elements to the livestream at home until you can join us at RiverCenter again.
Q: This is all wonderful. Is there anything else that you'd like for our audience to know?
I think the only other thing that's helpful to know would be theme of this season. It's "Take a Musical Journey with the CSO." This was something we thought very hard about and another thing that George [del Gobbo] worked very hard to prepare.
These concerts are really planned around musically traveling to different places and different times. It's going to be very fun. Especially through this pandemic where it's been very difficult to vacation take in some of these in-person experiences. Join us. Use the CSO's season as a little musical vacation for yourself in a time where we're not always able to get away. We're asking everyone to enjoy a journey with us, musically. ◼︎
If You Go
What: Columbus Symphony Orchestra's 2021 Spring Season
When: March 13, March 27, April 10, April 24, May 22
Where: RiverCenter for the Performing Arts, Bill Heard Theatre
Cost: Prices vary.
More to Know: For those not comfortable attending concerts in-person just yet, each concert will also be available via livestream a week later. Click here for more information.