Southeast’s longest continually performing symphony orchestra paused by pandemic

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — While many hope for the day life returns to the old normal, musicians with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra hope for the return of live performance.

They’re known as the longest continually performing symphony orchestra in the Southeast. But, like orchestras around the country, their talent has been put on pause during the pandemic.

KSO has seen nearly 70 event cancellations, including 17 considered “major” events. The group’s outreach events and education programs, including a youth orchestra made up of 350 students, have also halted.

Their next event, part of the Moxley Carmichael Masterwork Series, is set for Sept. 17-18. It will feature “Tessa Lark and the Pines of Rome,” if it continues as scheduled.

Rachel Ford, KSO’s Executive Director, has experienced economic challenges on the job before, including the Great Recession. Then, she saw some sponsors become unable to continue their support of the orchestra. Ticket sales took a hit.

But, the music never stopped.

“It wasn’t as deep. It didn’t feel as long. It may just have been that this was immediate and we shut down…We were performing on the 11th of March and then, nothing. It all went cold. I think that’s the vast difference in all of this,” Ford said.

Coronavirus changes brought with them via a cut to revenue, logistical challenges, including work from home for administrative staff. They took away much more from the musicians.

“They have been the ones most impacted. They’re not performing together. That’s what they live for. That’s something that feeds them. That’s why they do what they do. I feel most for them,” she said.

Ford recognized Phase 2 of Knox County’s reopening plan would allow for a small string-quartet to play in front of a socially-distant audience; however, she doubted whether it would be financially prudent for the nonprofit at this time.

Social gatherings are still limited and indoor venues are limited to groups of 10 or fewer, spread six feet apart.

She is optimistic for the future of the orchestra, but is equally confident it will be different from what patrons and performs are accustomed. As research continues surrounding the potential for wind and brass instruments to expel more droplets from musicians and whether they pose a greater threat to those sharing a stage, Ford is planning for many scenarios, including outdoor performances, smaller events, and changes to instrumentation for individual ensembles.

That planning not only includes safety measures for those sitting in the “front of the house,” the audience, but also the many performers that make up the orchestra.

“We are normally in a group, gathering for a masterworks concert of 60 to 80 plus people,” she said. “They don’t normally sit six feet apart. Backstage facilities are tight. We have small hallways and small spaces where we put our stuff and gather and warm up — and all of that has to be different.”

Many of the musicians have produced performances, published to the orchestra’s social media accounts, for fans to enjoy.

Ford said those will likely continue. She also expressed appreciation for the continued public support, and notes of encouragement.

One of their major events, canceled due to COVID-19, included a three-day trip to Washington D.C. The symphony was invited to be part of SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras. Ford, her team, and their many musicians spent years preparing for the main event of the trip: an onstage performance at the Kennedy Center. SHIFT’s event page still lists KSO as one of four “innovative orchestras”, including groups from New York City, Baltimore, and Jacksonville.

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