SALT LAKE CITY — The pandemic has forced orchestras nationwide to grapple with the same difficult questions: Is it safe to return to the stage? Is it safe to have an audience? Is it financially viable to produce a season if that audience has to be significantly reduced? 

The responses have varied from orchestra to orchestra. But in short, the Utah Symphony’s answer to those three questions is “yes.” 

While major symphonies in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, San Antonio, Pittsburgh and elsewhere have canceled their fall seasons, some, like the Milwaukee and Atlanta symphonies, have explored virtual options.

But the Utah Symphony is the latest to join a small camp of orchestras moving forward with a revised season and safety measures in place that make the return to a concert hall — and the return of a live audience — possible. 

After everything came to a crashing halt in March, musicians will once again be performing live from Abravanel Hall beginning Sept. 17, the symphony announced Sept. 1. 

“Music deserves to be heard live and I am thrilled to be a part of an organization that is committed to bringing our orchestra back in person to heal and inspire our community during this challenging time,” Thierry Fischer, the symphony’s music director, said in a statement. 

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Before canceling its fall season, the San Antonio Symphony sent out a survey to its patrons, asking how they would feel returning to live performances. Between 70%-75% of the 1,200 people who responded said they would not be comfortable, according to San Antonio Express-News.

Here’s a look at how the Utah Symphony plans to move forward, while at the same time making sure its musicians, staff and patrons feel safe.

Inside the concert hall

The concert hall is going to look a bit different. For starters, the programs will be shorter and there won’t be an intermission. 

The symphony will also only be featuring string players for its first set of performances in September, and string and percussion musicians for the second set of concerts at the end of the month. Since they are unable to wear masks while performing, brass and woodwinds players are sitting the first few concerts out, pending a study on the concert hall’s HVAC system, according to Steven Brosvik, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s newly appointed CEO.

Thierry Fischer, music director of the Utah Symphony, conducts a practice at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. The symphony announced on Tuesday it is returning to Abravanel Hall for live performances beginning Sept. 17. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The musicians will all be appropriately distanced, thanks to a 12-foot stage extension, and Abravanel Hall will only be seating around 400 people (normal capacity is about 2,700). The concert hall will have two empty rows in front of and behind patrons — who are required to wear masks — and there will be a minimum buffer of three seats between parties, according to a news release sent to the Deseret News. 

The Capitol Theatre, Utah Opera’s home, will be seating a little over 300. 

Because of the reduced capacity, both the symphony and opera will hold more performances this fall. Other safety precautions include hand sanitizing stations in the lobby, contactless entry — patrons are encouraged to use USUO’s new mobile app for purchasing tickets — and requiring attendees to confirm they have not experienced COVID-19 symptoms before attending a performance. 

USUO has not yet announced an updated schedule for beyond October. 

“Staff, musicians, everyone is going to be making financial sacrifices this season to make it work.” — Steven Brosvik, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera president and CEO

“We’re taking it step by step, but getting back onstage is really important,” said Brosvik, adding that it will likely be a challenge to make the revised season profitable. “We’ll do what we can financially from ticket sales, but we’re really saving as much as we can. … Staff, musicians, everyone is going to be making financial sacrifices this season to make it work. We’ll also be doing a lot of fundraising as we always do, and we’ll be relying on it even more.

“But it’s important enough for us to get back to putting live music onstage,” he continued. 

Relevant music

Moving forward, safety was the biggest priority. But the music featured in September and October goes beyond simply what works with fewer musicians onstage. The scheduled programs reflect this moment in time, Brosvik said. 

From Sept. 17-19, for example, the symphony will perform Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in honor of those who have lost their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. That program will also feature Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” and a West African-inspired piece called “Joyful Day,” by Nigerian composer Fela Sowande, that celebrates returning to the stage. 

The Utah Opera, meanwhile, will no longer be doing its production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” due to physical distancing and other restrictions. Instead, the company will perform two shorter, small-scale operas back to back — Francis Poulenc’s “The Human Voice” and Joseph Horovitz’s “Gentleman’s Island.”

Both were written in 1958 and grapple with themes of isolation and the desire for human connection, according to the news release. Ten scheduled performances will run Oct. 9-18, 90 minutes with no intermission. 

Thierry Fischer, music director of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, conducts a practice at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. The symphony announced on Tuesday it is returning to Abravanel Hall for live performances starting Sept. 17. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“This is a moment right now where we really do need to focus on bringing people together and find some unity,” Brosvik said. “And I think this repertoire can help do that.” 

For the upcoming performances, USUO is first tending to current season subscribers and patrons with credit or gift certificates from a canceled performance, according to the news release. On Sept. 10, tickets to the general public will go on sale for Utah Opera performances that have not sold out on subscription. 

At this time, tickets for the symphony’s September performances will not be available to the general public due to reduced capacity. But Brosvik said that could change if seats remain available closer to the performance dates. 

The symphony is still figuring out the logistics of upcoming programs, which will be announced in the coming weeks. That includes how to fill programming without bringing in guest artists, and if it’s feasible to do the Films in Concert series — which would involve the majority of the orchestra onstage. 

In the meantime, the symphony is putting its energy into bringing music back to life in downtown Salt Lake City.

“There is nothing like bringing people together through live music. Being able to do that, and help reopen our community, it means everything for our musicians — the whole staff, frankly.” — Steven Brosvik, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera president and CEO

“Virtual music is great — it has served an incredible purpose,” Brosvik said. “But there is nothing like bringing people together through live music. Being able to do that, and help reopen our community, it means everything for our musicians — the whole staff, frankly. 

“There is some risk involved, certainly. We could have another flare up of COVID and have to take a step back,” he continued. “We’re going to be flexible. Not every community has been able to do this. Our community here has been extremely supportive in getting live music back. … I think that’s deeply meaningful. We hear that, we respect it and we’re going to do what we can to make it happen safely.” 

Below is USUO’s upcoming schedule. For additional information regarding the schedule and health guidelines, visit usuo.org.

Utah Symphony

Sept. 17-19, under the direction of Thierry Fischer

  • Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” 
  • Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” 
  • Fela Sowande’s “Joyful Day”
  • Surprise pieces announced from the stage

Sept. 24-26, under the direction of Thierry Fischer 

  • Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, performed by 10 string musicians 
  • Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” performed by entire string orchestra 
  • Surprise pieces announced from the stage

Utah Opera

Oct. 9-18, 10 productions of Francis Poulenc’s “The Human Voice” and Joseph Horovitz’s “Gentleman’s Island” 

  • Wendy Bryn Harmer, a soprano who grew up in Bountiful and has had an extensive career with the Metropolitan Opera, will make her Utah Opera debut in this one-woman production of “The Human Voice.” Edith Grossman, a Utah Opera resident artist, will take on the role in select performances.
  • “Gentleman’s Island” will feature two Utah Opera regulars, tenor Brian Stucki and baritone Christopher Clayton. Two of the company’s resident artists, Daniel O’Hearn and Brandon Bell, will take on the roles in select performances.