Utah Symphony and Utah Opera furlough its musicians while waiting for coronavirus relief

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Students from the Canyons School District and six charter schools from the Wasatch Front, some 2,475 5th graders, file into Abravanel Hall to hear the Utah Symphony for their annual school concert, Feb. 11, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

The 85 musicians of the Utah Symphony and Utah Opera have been furloughed, an economic byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am personally devastated that we have to take this action,” Patricia A. Richards, interim president of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, said in a statement released Monday. “But I do feel it is the best way to deal with this crisis in the short run while preserving our best options to maintain the viability of the organization so that orchestra jobs will still be available after the crisis.”

The symphony and opera boast 85 full-time musicians, in what is one of the smallest markets in the United States to support a full-time symphony. There are no plans to furlough the 57 staff members of USUO, Richards said, “as there is much work yet to be done throughout this crisis.” Staffers may see “salary adjustments,” she said.

Richards blamed the furloughs on Congress’ delay in passing the CARES Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday. “As soon as the applications are available, we will apply for [a Small Business Administration] loan,” Richards said, adding that “we cannot predict with certainty when that money will be available.”

Lee Livengood, the symphony’s bass clarinetist and chairman of the symphony’s orchestra committee, said in a statement that musicians will be applying for unemployment benefits. They “are hopeful that this will bridge the gap to the time when federal government assistance is available in the form of SBA loans to the organization. At that point, we hope to be rehired.”

The furlough should last, Richards said, “until we are able to bring everyone back under the provisions of the forgivable SBA loan. We hope this will be for the briefest period of time possible.”

The symphony and opera are one of the largest beneficiaries every year of Salt Lake County’s Zoo, Arts and Parks (ZAP) tax; through that sales tax share, state dollars and other grants, the symphony receives the second highest level of public support among the 24 biggest orchestras in the nation that participated in a 2017 report from the League of American Orchestras.

The USUO board voted to give musicians a “supplemental weekly retention payment” — and will pay for the musicians’ medical, dental and instrument insurance during this gap period. “The board also intends to establish an emergency loan fund as soon as possible,” Richards said. (Richards was unavailable Monday to elaborate, a USUO spokeswoman said.)

The Utah Symphony has not performed since early March, after Salt Lake County closed its four performing-arts venues — including Abravanel Hall, the symphony’s home, and the Capitol Theatre, where Utah Opera performs — to limit mass gatherings where the coronavirus might spread. What was to be a two-week closure was extended last week to May 15.

After the county’s action, Utah Symphony canceled the rest of its 2019-2020 season. On the list of concerts that were canceled were three of Beethoven’s symphonies — part of a celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth — and a 75th anniversary gala with violinist Joshua Bell.

Utah Opera had to cancel the last two productions of its season: Giaochino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” in March, and a May presentation of French composer Jules Massenet’s “Thaïs.”

Last week, USUO officials promised the symphony would perform again this summer, for its schedule of community concerts and the annual Deer Valley Music Festival.

“Though sad that we cannot perform together now, we look forward to bringing the music back as soon as it is safe and possible to do so,” Livengood said.