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'We Really Need To Play': The Austin Symphony Prepares For A Virtual Season

Maestro Peter Bay
Maestro Peter Bay

Maestro Peter Bay of the Austin Symphony has been ready to pick up his conducting baton again for a while. It’s been months since the orchestra has performed, and not conducting is a strange and unfamiliar thing for Bay.

“I don’t ever recall a time where I had five months without conducting,” he says. “Not since the late '70s, when I was in high school, so we were off for the summer months. But that would [only] be three months.”

“I’ve spent the majority of my time at home,” Bay says. “The one positive thing that’s come out of this is that I’ve had unexpected hours of pleasure being able to listen to music that I’ve not had the time to [listen to] when we’re normally working. For example, as soon as we were locked down I had made a plan to listen to all thirty-two of Beethoven’s piano sonatas – half of which I’d never heard before – and all of Beethoven’s string quartets, and there are a lot of those. And I’d say there’s about a third of those I’d never heard before. So I feel very nourished musically just from being able to listen to music, but I certainly miss the interaction with the players and making music live.” 

After a long hiatus, ASO is ready to begin a new season, but it’ll be very different from seasons past. For starters, there won’t be a live audience for any performances at least through the remainder of 2020. Concerts will be filmed and shared later with an at-home audience. Social distancing guidelines have also affected Bay’s selection of pieces to perform.

“Because of the gathering regulations now, we can’t assemble an eighty-piece orchestra at the moment,” Bay says. “We’ve had to change all the programing so that the largest piece has no more than 35 [or] 38 players, something like that.”

For the Sept. 11 season opener, dubbed “Pomp and Circumstance,” they’re performing three pieces, including the original thirteen instrument version of Aaron Copland’s  Appalachian Spring.

Safety precautions have been taken into account for the performances and all rehearsals, Bay says.

“Our director of operations and personnel manager, Sandy Culhane, she just started here just a few months ago and boy has she been thrown into the fire,” Bay says. “She has consulted with the city health experts [and] the National Associations of Orchestra Managers, [who are] all sharing information about aerosol [and] what instruments make the most spray, how far the players have to be set up on the stage, all of these protocols.”

Players that can wear masks (those playing strings, for instance) will, as will Bay. But masks aren’t feasible for woodwind and brass players, so they’ll perform behind plexiglass shields. There’s a lot of moving parts involved when even a downsized orchestra plays during a pandemic.

“It’s very difficult,” Bay says. “But we understand that the precautions that we’re taking are for everyone’s best interest. And at the same time, we really need to play. And we’re going to try to proceed as safely as possible, and then allow our very faithful audience to be able to hear us play after … five months of silence. It’s going to be a very unusual rest of the year, but I think one that will be filled with music. I know that Austin Symphony really wants to be back at it.”

The Austin Symphony's 2020-2021 season starts virtually Sept. 11.

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Mike is a features producer at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for kut.org. When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.