GRAND RAPIDS — Leaders of the Grand Rapids Symphony got creative over the past six months with new ways of sharing music with the community. But as capacity restrictions begin to lift on venues, the orchestra is gearing up again for in-person audiences.
In late September, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order allowing various venues to welcome back guests at 20 percent of the facility’s capacity beginning Oct. 9. While the order and dozens of others are now uncertain after a landmark Oct. 2 Michigan Supreme Court ruling, the symphony is preparing live, in-person performances after months of virtual and limited events.
The symphony’s first concert with an in-person audience is scheduled for Oct. 16 at St. Cecilia Music Center. The crowd capacity is limited to 50 based on Whitmer’s 20 percent capacity order, said Grand Rapids Symphony President and CEO Mary Tuuk. Crowds will be capped at 500 at the Van Andel Arena, while performances return to DeVos Performance Hall in January with capacities slightly fewer than 500.
“Our usual DeVos audience ranges between 1,000 and 1,500 people, so it’s definitely a big drop, but we are excited to get back to performing with an audience,” Tuuk said.
It would have been easy for the symphony to go on hiatus this year as many orchestras have done, but Tuuk wanted to keep operations moving.
“We were very deliberate in finding ways to keep going and delivering music,” Tuuk said. “This year will be forever remembered in our organization’s history.”
After widespread shutdowns in March, the symphony developed a three-stage plan to continue operating without in-person concerts.
The “From Our Home to Yours” series featured musicians performing from inside their homes during the spring and summer months. A video engineer created a virtual production that was available to watch online for free, Tuuk said.
The Grand Rapids Symphony then held neighborhood concert performances in August to kick off its summer season.
“Musicians would perform on their porches for small gatherings in their neighborhood,” Tuuk said. “Everything was outdoors, and we also did small pop-up concerts in city parks.”
The symphony also offered “Sidewalk Serenades” where patrons could rent a small ensemble to perform outdoors for 30-minute sessions for groups of 10 or fewer people. Tuuk said about 60 packages sold and brought in some revenue in the absence of large concerts.
“We then made the decision to postpone the artistic season we had planned for the year and reimagined a new season called ‘Pathways,’” Tuuk said. “This is our path to full recovery post-COVID.”
Patrons can subscribe to stream virtual, live performances by 15-17 symphony musicians as part of the series. This fall’s monthly performances take place at Van Andel Arena and St. Cecilia Music Center with a socially distanced orchestra, and every musician that is able wears a mask, Tuuk said. Musicians unable to play an instrument masked are tested the same week for COVID-19.
All of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s roughly 50 contracted musicians, along with administrative staff, were fully paid through the 2020 fiscal year that ended on Aug. 31, Tuuk said. Staffing adjustments and a 5-percent pay reduction across the board followed for the current fiscal year.
“We finished the prior fiscal year in the black,” Tuuk said. “This year will be more challenging because of the budget deficit we’re projecting with the loss of a lot of ticket revenue, but we have a plan with a special donor campaign to achieve a balanced budget.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified venues for this fall’s symphony performances. They will be held at St. Cecilia Music Center and Van Andel Arena.
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