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How New Haven Symphony Orchestra Supports Musicians Amid Coronavirus


How New Haven Symphony Orchestra Supports Musicians Amid Coronavirus

‘These musicians give so much of themselves. It’s our turn to serve them.’

Hours before the New Haven Symphony Orchestra would take the stage at Woolsey Hall in Connecticut, the organization’s leaders decided to livestream the concert. It was March 5, and anxieties around COVID-19 had begun to mount.

The livestream concert — a first for the symphony — allowed anyone who wasn’t feeling up to going out to still enjoy the music of early 20th century African-American composer Florence Price from home.

What NHSO’s leaders couldn’t predict at the time was that that decision would be a small adjustment compared to the major shift in operations that was coming in the weeks that followed.

The mid-sized symphony orchestra has been flooded with the same mess of questions nonprofit organizations and small businesses around the nation have. How do we serve our community that’s hurting? And how do we pay our musicians when we can’t have concerts?

“These are incredibly talented people who have a skill that they use to bring joy to people and unite people. And right now, they can’t use that skill,” Elaine Carroll, the orchestra’s CEO, said in a recent interview with Artistic Fuel. “Our first priority was finding ways to support them in the short term.”

New Haven Symphony Orchestra
The New Haven Symphony Orchestra is revamping how they serve their 65 musicians and the community at large. [Courtesy of New Haven Symphony Orchestra]

A call for help

In the same meeting that the NHSO decided to cancel several upcoming concerts, the board of directors all agreed to set up the NHSO Musicians’ Relief Fund. Then, they sent out an email to ticket holders to make their need known and to boldly ask for help.

“While we are all navigating challenges related to COVID-19, freelance artists like our orchestra members face additional uncertainty. Can you help them through this crisis?” the email pleaded.

They urged ticket holders to donate their tickets for any canceled NHSO events to the Musicians’ Relief Fund. Shortly after, one of the symphony’s musicians offered to match donations from any NHSO board member, up to $1,000. Within a few days, the push had raised $18,000, enough to pay the musicians 20 percent of their paycheck.

“It’s just a start. At least to get them grocery money in the short term,” Carroll said.

Getting musicians back to work

After that initial push, Carroll and her team got to work looking for any other available help. They urged their representatives in Congress to not forget nonprofits and self-employed workers like musicians and artists.

Carroll said she was thankful to see that the coronavirus relief package signed into law last week could offer a lifeline for organizations like NHSO. It includes $350 billion to provide loans to small businesses. Any portion of that loan used to maintain payroll, keep workers on the books or pay for rent, mortgage and existing debt could be forgiven.

“We’re going to apply for a loan to try to get some payroll protection money,” Carroll said. “And if we can secure that loan, we want to put the musicians back to work in whatever way we can.”

A different kind of harmony

For all the difficulties that have come with the coronavirus pandemic, it has provided the community of New Haven, Conn., with an opportunity — call it a sharp nudge — to illustrate just how much they value the orchestra’s hardworking musicians.

“People are donating and talking about how much the musicians mean to them and that, while they miss being in the hall with them, they want to support them,” Carroll said.

Plus, each of the NHSO’s 25 board members agreed to reach out to three or four musicians. Every one of the orchestra’s nearly 70 musicians and fellows received a personal call or message thanking them for their work.

“There needed to be an acknowledgement that while it may be necessary to cancel this work, it’s a hardship to take work away from musicians,” Carroll said. “Just because you can’t help doing something, doesn’t mean you don’t feel sorry for doing it.”

And the words of gratitude have gone both ways. Conductor Alasdair Neale reached out to personally thank those who donated to the orchestra.

“I almost didn’t answer the call because it was a San Francisco number,” D. Cristi Stroud, a member of NHSO’s board of directors, said of the call she received from Neale. “That was really touching.”

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Conductor Alasdair Neale
Alasdair Neale, conductor of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, recently held a livestream fireside chat from his home in San Francisco. [Courtesy of New Haven Symphony Orchestra]

The show goes on

The orchestra’s leaders have a plethora of ideas to not only keep their musicians working but to continue serving the New Haven community and beyond. And they’re already setting them in motion.

Neale, the symphony’s conductor since September, held what he called a virtual fireside chat from his home in San Francisco. He live-streamed the conversation with fans and supporters on the symphony’s YouTube channel. What started with questions about how he was faring during the pandemic led to questions about his favorite works to conduct and what instruments he played as a child.

Other ways the symphony is reaching audiences outside of concert halls include:

  • Virtual Q&As: Principal Pops Conductor Chelsea Tipton will host a fireside chat at 7:30 p.m. EDT April 9.
  • Livestream performances: In place of the concert planned for April 17, violin soloist Alexei Kenney will livestream a recital. The performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. EDT.
  • Podcast: The Listen UP! podcast series shows listeners how some of their favorite modern music is inspired by the classics. “From Lady Gaga to Bach to Axl Rose to Wu-Tang Clan, you might be surprised at what is lying under the surface of your favorite songs.”
  • Online lessons for kids: NHSO’s education director Caitlin Daly created multiple quizzes to go along with each Listen UP! Podcast.  These are easy-to-use tools for teachers and parents-turned-teachers that will get kids excited about music.
  • Recorded music: You can listen to the symphony’s music anytime. Just follow the New Haven Symphony Orchestra on Spotify or YouTube.

Many art groups are in similar situations as the NHSO, seemingly navigating a new set of challenges each day. From symphonies and community theaters to galleries and studios, they want to keep their artists employed and continue serving their communities with life-giving work.

As Stroud said, so often when she’s down or just wants to relax, she turns to the arts to lift her up.

“I listen to music or go to a museum. These are the people who make us feel good when we need it,” she said. “They give so much of themselves. It’s our turn to serve them.”

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