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San Juan Symphony plans full season despite COVID-19 pandemic

Organization offers alternative take on live concert format

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
The San Juan Symphony will present a season this year, but its performances will take place in a very different format from the traditional live concert setting.
  • The San Juan Symphony has planned four "concerts" that will be presented in a virtual setting.
  • The events will be streamed on the symphony's website and will be available on a subscription basis.
  • The symphony will shoot its first event this weekend on a ranch in Hesperus, Colorado.

FARMINGTON — Unlike various other performing arts organizations in the Four Corners area that have had to cancel entire seasons since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the San Juan Symphony will forge ahead with four "concerts" over the next several months — but it will do so in a way that is well outside its traditional format.

Symphony officials announced their 2020-21 season lineup last week, a series of concerts that will be presented in a virtual format that offers a mix of live programming and prerecorded performances. The symphony's 35th season, which it has titled "Essential," will begin Oct. 3 and continue with other programming in November, February and April.

Thomas Heuser, the symphony's music director, said the new approach is the organization's way of staying connected with its supporters.

"Ever since the cancellations were thrust upon us, we realized we had to perform somehow to stay engaged with our audiences," he said of the symphony, which typically splits its season between Farmington and Durango, Colorado.

But developing an alternative to live, in-person concerts of classical music in the age of social distancing was easier said than done.

"There weren't a lot of good examples in our industry to work from," Heuser said. "We had to start from scratch."

Thomas Heuser, the musical director for the San Juan Symphony, says his organization had to start from scratch when it came time to putting together it new season in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Symphony officials already had planned their 35th season when the pandemic struck, and they had little choice but to abandon those plans and start over. Over the past several months, they have developed a plan in which the symphony's concerts will be streamed on the organization's website, with memberships being sold in lieu of the standard season or individual performance tickets.

With social distancing making it impossible, and inadvisable, to assemble an entire symphony of several dozen musicians to perform together, Heuser said this season will feature smaller assemblages of musicians performing together in circumstances that place an emphasis on safety. Those performances will be shot on video, then presented online during the four subscription events that also will feature other material, including Heuser's preconcert talks, and interviews with composers and musicians. Some of those latter elements will be presented live.

Heuser said he will join 13 of his musicians on Aug. 22 at Blue Lake Ranch in Hesperus, Colorado, to shoot the performances for the first event, which will be highlighted by a performance of Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring Ballet." Heuser said he chose that composition because it was written during World War II when musicians were in short supply, like everything else. Copland adapted to that situation by writing it for a small group before turning out a later version designed for a full orchestra.

More:Rebuilding America: Fine arts groups take creative approach to addressing shutdown issues

The event will be titled "Black Voices and a Ballet for Martha" and will feature the performance of two new works by Black composers. Symphony officials said in a press releases the event is designed to launch a season-long conversation about diversity and inclusivity.

Heuser said the symphony has hired a professional video production team to record the performances, which he hopes will help mitigate any possible issues that arise from shooting in an outdoor setting. He said the musicians will be placed under an open-sided tent so there will be a flow of air through the structure. The performers also will be spaced several feet apart and will wear face masks.

Heuser and his ensemble also is prepared to deal with weather challenges. The skies above the Four Corners area have been filled with smoke from Colorado wildfires all week, and Heuser knows the event will be taking place in the middle of monsoon season, meaning conditions could go south in a hurry if a storm kicks up. But he is determined to make the most of it.

"We're not trying to get a perfect take," he acknowledged. "We might do a take or two, but there likely will be the sound of wind or birds, and that's part of the experience. I actually look forward to it."

Related:Symphony leader cites growth, improvement as new season approaches

Heuser is less sure about the setting for the symphony's other performances later in the year, when the weather likely will be even less accommodating and the events probably will have to be shot indoors.

"We have a few options in the works, but nothing confirmed yet," he said. "That's going to be the challenge."

The content offered on the symphony's website throughout the season also will include solo performances or performances by small ensembles that the symphony's musicians are shooting themselves. Heuser said the sound quality of that material will be ensured by the use of certain microphones and other audio equipment.

While no one knows when the symphony will be able to return to a traditional concert format, Heuser said, strictly from a creative perspective, he is pleased with the multifaceted plan he and other symphony officials have crafted this year as an alternative.

"I wasn't sure I would be, but I can say yes," he said. "I know it won't replace the live experience, but it will keep us engaged until the point where we can meet in person again."

Digital season passes are available by visiting the symphony's website at sanjuansymphony.org. Heuser said other, lower-priced options would be made available as the season draws closer, including a $25 pass good for one week, a $5 day pass good for limited content, and coupons for students and music teachers. For more information, call the symphony at 970-382-9753.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.