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During The Pandemic, Springfield Symphony "Rethinks Things On A Pretty Broad Scale"

(courtesy Springfield Symphony Orchestra)

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed lots of plans.  Symphony orchestra concert seasons, for one.

“Everybody in society is navigating uncharted waters. But it's been especially strange and difficult for us in the live performing arts, because everything we do involves gathering together. So we've definitely had to change and reschedule and cancel and rethink things on a pretty broad scale here.”                                             

That’s Kyle Wiley Pickett, Music Director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.  We talked by phone a few days ago to catch up on how the orchestra staff and musicians are getting along after making the decision to cancel the remainder of the 2019-2020 season.  Three concerts in March, April and May were cancelled, along with the orchestra’s fundraising gala scheduled for May 9th.  Pickett talked about how those cancellations affect the orchestra musicians in particular.

“Well, it is a particularly tough time for orchestras” all over, he said. “We had been on a record pace this season,” which was the Springfield Symphony’s “American Playlists” season featuring mostly music by American composers. “And it had been just it had been going like gangbusters, as far as ticket sales and audience attendance, and of course, audience appeal and feedback. And that was part of what was very disappointing in canceling the remainder concerts, because we had three more really exciting programs scheduled.”   

The loss of revenue has been substantial, said Pickett. “But fortunately for us, because ticket sales had gone so well early on in the year, we had actually met our ticket sales goal for the season by January. That helped an awful lot to buffer us against our cancellations.”  He said the cancellation of the spring Gala—“our major fundraiser for the season… hurt a lot.”  There is also the matter of the orchestra’s annual payout from their endowment fund. Normally they take that money at the end of the season, but as Pickett said, “with the fluctuations in the stock market, we're planning to see a reduction there.”

But we were able to get one of the PPP (Paycheck Protection Plan) loans to help pay for the full time staff salaries, which offset some of those losses. And so I think as an institution, we are probably going to come out of this season more or less even or close to that, which actually is a huge success, all things considered.”

Pickett considers the Springfield Symphony to be in “relatively good” financial shape—better, in fact, than some other American orchestras. Pickett and his staff have participated in numerous conference calls with other orchestras, and the annual League of American Orchestras conference is taking place this week—online. “And so we've been hearing from other orchestras.” But it’s the cancellations of both rehearsals and concerts that have hurt the orchestra’s players, said Pickett. “Our players are all professional and they're all paid, but they're paid as contractors every time they get together to perform a rehearsal or a concert.” This is known as “per service.” And the lack of “services” performed by the Symphony’s musicians—not only Symphony concerts but any other gigs they might have been hired to play—has hit the musicians “really hard.  And so we've put together an emergency fund, and we've paid them some small portion, (though) not nearly what they've lost on all of the services that they would have played.”

The Springfield Symphony conducted a four-hour-long fundraiser on their Facebook page on Saturday, April 18, the night they should have been performing their “Great American Roadtrip” subscription concert. In addition, they conducted an online fundraiser on May 5 during the worldwide “Giving Tuesday Now.” “And between those,” Pickett reported, “we brought in about ten thousand dollars or so, which I actually consider to be a really huge success for a type of fundraiser we'd never done before. It's not as much as what the Gala would do. But we were so grateful to our our audience and fans and players and board members and everybody who got on and helped raise the money and also those who donated the money, of course. So that went well.”

Asked if the Symphony offices in the Creamery Arts Center have reopened, Pickett said, “Well, yes and no.” The Creamery building itself is owned by the City of Springfield, and will remain completely closed through at least the end of this month pending a review of the current situation. “But we are, as a staff, working full-time from our various homes. And so we are collecting mail from the office and taking phone calls from the office, and responding to people and doing our planning for next season and all that kind of thing. We're just doing it remotely. But we are still accessible. So even though the Creamery office building is closed and we're not in person in the office, we are all working and accessible.”  Pickett said he thinks the current plan is to reopen the Creamery to its current tenants in early June, but that it will “still probably be closed to the public.” Of course, it’s a very fluid situation. Their concert hall, the Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts, is owned and administered by Missouri State University, and the campus is still officially closed. “We've been watching and listening very carefully to the guidelines from the Health Department. All we can do is sort of wait and see what comes down from on high on those things.”

When the rest of the Symphony season was cancelled as of April 2nd, there had been an announced that they might attempt to perform one of the cancelled Spring 2020 concerts in late August.  “But it looks like that will probably move into September,” said Pickett. He added that the orchestra is “going ahead with a season plan for next season (2020-21). I had to completely throw out the season that I originally planned and start over. But we've got a new season planned for next year that I'm very excited about, that we're going to be announcing literally within days.”  After the makeup of one of the spring 2020 concerts in September, the Springfield Symphony plans to launch their new season in October 2020.  However, warned Pickett, these plans are “sort of at the mercy and discretion of what happens in terms of opening up the (Juanita K. Hammons) Hall, and how many people can gather.”

Like all performing and sports organizations—all those who depend on performing or playing before a crowd, a live audience, the question of when crowds of any substantial size will be allowed legally to gather is a huge question mark. “I've created a season, but with a lot of different contingency plans. So, you know, we might end up live-streaming some of our concerts, either with or without audience--hopefully with audience--but still live streaming for those who might not be comfortable coming to a public gathering yet. We have some various different-sized orchestra configurations in case we had to do some social distancing on the stage. So I've been spending a lot of my time trying to come up with interesting and exciting artistic plans based on not knowing exactly what we're going to be able to do right now.”

Meanwhile, Kyle Wiley Pickett gives Springfield Symphony Marketing Director Lexi Locke a great deal of credit for maintaining the orchestra’s Web presence with numerous videos and other kinds of information—both at and the orchestra’s Facebook page and other social-media platforms.  Pickett said, “I actually feel like (Lexi) has taken on the burden of our performing right now, by putting up things that people can watch on the Facebook page and on the social media platforms. We've got a couple of our previous concerts up there. I'm working on editing another one of them.” Of course, the Symphony hires a recording engineer for all their season concerts, which provides the orchestra with a growing archive of their performances, as well as providing a copy to KSMU for our “Symphony in the Ozarks” broadcasts every season. In addition, Pickett said, “some of our musicians are doing kind of those creative ‘living room concerts.’ We've got a family during concerts. We've got individuals who are recording their parts individually and then piecing them together. And so those are wonderful diversions. And I hope people are enjoying watching them.”