Utah Symphony begins a new season with a new CEO, and new challenges from COVID-19

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Steven Brosvik, named president and CEO of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, is pictured at Abravanel Hall as the Utah Symphony prepares for its first concerts since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The first shows will feature the string section, no brass or woodwinds (because they can't play wearing masks), spaced far apart on the stage.

Steven Brosvik said he knew, when he started his new job last month as president and CEO of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, that it wouldn’t be long before the symphony would return to the stage of Abravanel Hall.

“There is so much great intention in the community to help fund [the symphony], help support it, help get it going,” Brosvik said in a recent interview. “It’s not the same in every community. I think we’re really lucky here.”

Exactly one month after he stepped into the job, the Utah Symphony — well, for now, just the string section — will be performing for the first time in six months, since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down music venues across the country.

The first concerts will happen Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 17-19, at 7:30 p.m. each night, at Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.

“It means the world” to have the Utah Symphony performing again, said Thierry Fischer, the symphony’s conductor and music director. “We are artists, and if we cannot do what we have spent our entire life to do, we are missing a big part of ourselves. … Nothing will ever replace sharing live music with people.”

Fischer is excited for audiences to hear the first Masterworks program — so much so that he won’t give any opening remarks when the concert starts.

“We had all this debate about who should speak before the first piece, and make a speech,” Fischer said. “I said, ‘Stop talking, guys.’ There will be no word before the first sound. That’s what matters. That’s what we need. … I didn’t want to spoil the evening with a word.”

That first sound will be a celebratory one: “Joyful Day,” a 1955 work by Fela Sowande, a Nigerian-born composer who lived his later years in the United States.

“It’s from a utopian point of view,” Fischer said of Sowande’s piece. “It’s childishly happy; it’s like children’s music. I thought it’s what we needed. I needed it.” Fischer started humming the melody. “You say, ‘Maybe it’s African. No, maybe it’s Aaron Copland.’ But, no, it’s a Black American composer. And he wrote about the beauty of ‘every day is a new day.’”

From that upbeat work, the program will move to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which Fischer called “a stirringly deep, emotional piece.” In America, he said, Barber’s work often signifies memorials in hard times, so it seemed fitting in the midst of the pandemic.

The “main course” of the program will be Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings” — an orchestra-sized work that many orchestras don’t perform, Fischer said, because it’s considered a chamber piece.

After the Tchaikovsky, Fischer said he would finally take the microphone, to welcome the audience and to announce “three little presents” — which he won’t reveal before the concerts.

Making music together — safely

Getting the Utah Symphony performing for audiences is a project that started before Brosvik took the job in August.

“Everybody’s got live music as their goal, and we’re going to make it happen,” Brosvik said. “We’re really focusing on making sure whatever we do is safe.”

Onstage, that means fewer musicians on a larger stage. The Abravanel stage has been expanded 12 feet into the audience space, so musicians can spread out. For the first shows, only the 40 members of the string section will take the stage, about half of the symphony’s full roster of 85 musicians.

The string players “can wear masks, they can be distanced, that’s not a problem,” said Keith Carrick, one of the symphony’s percussionists, who served on the committee that is writing the symphony’s COVID-19 prevention plans.

As a percussionist, Carrick said, “I’m probably the most comfortable one. I don’t have an instrument up to my face.” Also, drums create their own social distancing. “We’re used to having big instruments around us. We can’t stand next to each other.”

Bringing in the woodwinds and brass — instruments that musicians blow through — is trickier, considering the danger of aerosolized moisture from people’s breath carrying the coronavirus.

“The nature of my instrument is blowing air out, away from myself,” said Lee Livengood, who plays bass clarinet in the symphony. “The sound comes out of all the holes.”

Some wind and brass musicians have experimented with playing with modified masks, Carrick said. “The only thing I know for certain is that it makes it harder to play their instruments,” he said. “I don’t know for certain that it actually makes anyone safer.”

The symphony has commissioned airflow studies of the hall, and worked with a doctor to figure out the safest way for the musicians to perform together for an audience, Carrick said.

The string musicians will be spaced 6 feet apart from each other onstage, which will take the musicians time to adjust their playing.

“We learn how to play sitting close to each other,” Carrick said. “We’ll learn how to play standing a little farther apart from each other.”

The audience members also will sit farther apart from each other. Only about 400 seats will be sold in Abravanel Hall, which usually can sit around 2,700 music lovers. Two rows out of every three will be empty, and groups will be given a three-seat buffer in the rows that are filled.

The program for the first shows will run about 70 minutes — roughly half the usual running time for a symphony performance — and will have no intermission, which Brosvik said is easier, logistically, “both for the audience and for the stage and back of house.”

‘A career and a calling’

Brosvik, who served as chief operating officer of the Nashville Symphony for five years before moving to Utah, said he “fell in love with the community really quickly, and especially with the people. [They] showed me the warmth and welcoming aspect of this city.”

Brosvik is moving to Utah with his wife, Cassandra, a violinist and youth orchestra director who has run programs both in Nashville and Houston, where Brosvik was general manager of the Houston Symphony for 10 years. They have three daughters, two in college and one attending Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan.

Fischer said that in talking to Brosvik via teleconferences (as of Friday, the two had not met in person yet), questions about the pandemic dominated the conversation. Through that, Fischer said, “I certainly did appreciate a lot his sense of honesty and his experience.”

Brosvik, Fischer said, “is a natural leader. He doesn’t need to score [points]. He knows how to listen. He knows how to decide. I think he can, and he will for sure, bring a lot to our organization.”

When he applied for the job, Brosvik said, he was “really intrigued” that the president oversees both the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera. The opera company aims to open its modified fall season with two one-act operas with small casts, running Oct. 9-17 at the Capitol Theatre.

USUO’s plan, selling a small percentage of their theaters’ usual seats, is within a wide spectrum of approaches Utah arts venues are taking this fall. Some, like Hale Centre Theatre in Sandy and Tuacahn Amphitheatre in Ivins, are selling tickets at near-capacity, with audience members asked to wear masks.

At the other end, the University of Utah has shut down its venues through the fall semester, meaning arts groups like Pioneer Theatre Company will remain dark until 2021. (The one exception at the U.: The nationally televised debate Oct. 7, between Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris, in Kingsbury Hall.)

The last six months have been tumultuous for USUO. In March, the symphony canceled the remainder of its spring season — including a planned 75th anniversary gala with violinist Joshua Bell — and furloughed all 85 of USUO’s musicians. The opera company pulled the plug on a production of “The Barber of Seville” that was days from opening.

Over the summer, Utah Opera’s costume shop started making face masks from fabric left over from making costumes. Meanwhile, the symphony canceled its summer series, the Deer Valley Music Festival.

USUO has stayed afloat through private donations, and a fair amount of government aid: The nonprofit received around $2.8 million in Payroll Protection Plan funds from the federal government, and another $1 million grant through the Utah Legislature’s appropriation of federal CARES Act funds. That’s on top of the money it gets as one of the biggest recipients of Salt Lake County’s Zoo, Arts and Parks program.

The musicians were brought back to work at the first of September, and being unemployed made for a difficult summer.

“Music, a lot of us feel like it’s a career and a calling,” said Livengood, who chairs the symphony’s orchestra committee. “Not being able to function [with something] that is so integral to your being, that’s hard. It’s demoralizing.”

Seeing colleagues in rehearsal has been a pleasure, Carrick said. “It’s a really tight-knit family,” he said. “It’s a congregation of people that work all the time together. And for the last six months, we haven’t seen anybody.”

Livengood said the musicians “are excited to find a way to get back to performing, and bringing music back to Utah. Obviously, that’s our life, something we’re all invested in.”

Fischer is eager to get back to the podium. “I think it will mean a lot [to the community], but I have no idea,” Fischer said. “The only idea I have is what I feel I have to do for the community. … I need to do something for this community. And my job is: I’m a musician.”

Brosvik feels that need. “This is what they do,” he said. “It’s extremely meaningful to them, not just as a profession but as a way of life. This is what their passion is.”