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Seattle Symphony creates ‘hospital grade environment’ to bring back the music

The Seattle Symphony began offering broadcasts and livestreams online during the pandemic. (AP Image)

The Seattle Symphony is going to kick off its new season this month, but in a very different way. Krishna Thiagarajan, president and CEO of the symphony, said the pandemic has made them adapt to the digital age and come up with creative ways to make music.

Seattle arts learning to adjust in the age of the pandemic

“This was a really, really difficult challenge, and that’s why it took us nearly six months to work this out,” he said of determining how to safely play in a pandemic. “And we’re doing this in many ways — the wearing of protective masks by all of the string players as well as the conductor; we have some protective covers for our brass and wind instruments; but most importantly, everybody is at minimum six feet away from each other, which is what we were told is the minimum requirement for distance.”

Instruments that have aerosolization, like brass and winds, he said are closer to nine feet apart. Plus, in their opening concert this month, the singer will be on a separate platform in the audience, 32 feet away.

“We have changed the filters and installed a double filtration system,” he added. “We’re trying to recreate, in our hall, a hospital grade environment for our musicians.”

All the musicians are volunteers, he added, as King County remains in Phase 2 of Gov. Inslee’s Safe Start plan, and the symphony is not forcing anyone to return if they’re not comfortable doing so.

“We’re asking only people who want to think outside the box and give this a try,” he said. “… But these musicians who are volunteers together with us here in the building realized that if the pandemic keeps going, and it seems to be going, and we do nothing and we just stay dormant that we will be in the fight not just for our jobs, but in the fight for our profession, and in the fight for culture as we know it across the United States.”

By training, Thiagarajan is a pianist and previously studied aeronautical engineering, but says he had no idea he’d become an “armchair specialist in epidemiology.”

The upcoming season will be online, broadcast from Benaroya Hall.

“We’ve basically turned a 2,500 seat hall into one of the world’s largest sound stages, that is, without any audience,” Thiagarajan said. “So it’s going to be a recording studio only. We’ve purchased camera equipment for online streaming. We’ve signed agreements with a number of companies to provide us with an online platform, and we’re going to stream everything from Benaroya Hall on a weekly basis.”

It will be a combination of free and subscription based performances. The opening night concert on Sept. 19 will be free, as will a lot of other concerts, but the regular season concerts will have a paywall.

“I’m extremely grateful for all the donations that were sent in, for all the tickets that were converted into donations or into subscriptions for this online product that we have,” he said. “As you can imagine, the business model originally is built on selling as many tickets as possible in the 2,500 seat hall, three times a week.”

“So we’re not going to be able to do that,” he added. “And we’re not planning with ticket sales for at least 12 months.”

As far as the future of arts in Seattle, Thiagarajan says he’s optimistic.

“I actually am very optimistic because it’s not the first crisis in our history,” he said. “The orchestra is nearly 125 years old, so it did go through that flu pandemic in the 1920s. We’ve gone through multiple world wars. We will find a way to get through this.”

“And the community is rallying around us because I think people are beginning to understand more and more that music isn’t just entertainment. Music is also part of health and well being. Inspiration is important for the soul. Inspiration is a healing power for the soul, and music can actually serve that purpose,” he added.

Washington arts organizations expected to exhaust funds by November

Thiagarajan also says the pandemic has forced all of the arts, especially the legacy organizations that have been around for a while, to jump into the digital age.

“This is something where all of us were a little slow to react to it, but now we’re moving very quickly, and the Seattle Symphony in particular is moving very quickly,” he said. “I can guarantee you that the online component is going to stay with us. And it’s interesting because since March, when we were rebroadcasting older recordings of the Seattle Symphony, we actually attracted 750,000 new viewers to see us online, and that is worldwide.”

“The world is beginning to discover the Seattle Symphony, and I think this puts Seattle on the map in a much more significant way than it’s ever been for its arts and culture,” he added.

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