Since The Florida Orchestra began playing music in 1968, no season has been like this one, and no experience – including various woes and hurricanes – compares to what Covid wrought over the last year.
The 2020-21 season, which wrapped up last weekend with works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, could have been a time of strife, if not chaos. Like many orchestras did across the country, TFO could have shut down or gone digital only. Many of its 67 fulltime musicians worried early on about their livelihood, just as patrons fretted over losing the state’s largest performing arts organization.
None of that happened. Like a football team behind on the score and clock, the orchestra huddled and scrambled for the lead, and fans not only got what they paid for, but more than they expected. Guest conductor Thomas Wilkins summed it up like this:
“Everything is different now,’’ he said about the Covid environment. “And we keep using the word ‘fluid’ because the protocols and the schedules have changed. It’s all about how adaptable you are. … We’re creating a new product, and we’re doing it with a reduced ensemble.’’
Being creative and adaptable led to a number of changes: performances in one hall (Mahaffey Theater); limited seating with face masks for all; fewer people on stage; online program notes; shorter concerts with no intermissions; and for the first time, live stream and on-demand concerts for anyone not ready for the concert hall. The orchestra painstakingly followed safety protocols when it returned in October, including extensive weekly Covid testing for musicians and backstage staff – 4,762 swabs by the end of the season.
Music Director Michael Francis also took a fresh look at the repertoire. An example was a program featuring a rare six-part fugue from Johann Sebastian Bach’s A Musical Offering that put just 20 musicians on stage. Francis took advantage of the socially distanced ensemble by bringing out exquisite details that would otherwise be lost within a full orchestra. The night continued with Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, featuring soloists Nancy Chang and Sarah Shellman, and a riveting performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony.
A favorite for many listeners was the Serenity program, designed by Francis to offer an “ethereal’’ experience during stressful times. The blissful night included Ahmed Alabaca’s Across the Calm Waters of Heaven; Tomaso Albinoni’s Concerto for Oboe No. 2; Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight;
Ralph Vaughan-Williams’ Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The audience was riveted to the encore, a hypnotic performance of Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Part, a duet by Concertmaster Jeffrey Multer on violin and Principal Harp Anna Kate Mackle.
The orchestra continued to put first-class talent in the spotlight, evident last November when two of its principals – flutist Clay Ellerbroek and harpist Mackle – teamed up for a master class in musical dialog with Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp.
Finally, Francis and guest pianist Natasha Paremski closed the season with Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, her incisive, biting attack on the keyboard giving a palpable edge to this often-heard warhorse. Ending on a high note, Francis chose Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, with its hymn of gratitude that symbolized our emergence from such a challenging year.
While many orchestras around the country stopped playing in 2020, TFO performed 86 concerts for live audiences, and about 30,000 screens tuned into digital concerts. TFO offered a fresh mix of about 185 different works from nearly 100 composers, including African-American and women artists. Highlights were Florence Price’s Dances in the Canebrakes, Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, and George Walker’s Lyric for Strings.
After facing so many challenges head-on, TFO will carry lessons learned into its new season in September. Multer called it “a magical year.’’
“We had to think about what we were going to play with Covid affecting everything, and the music director and management brilliantly reimagined the season,’’ he said prior to his appearance as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in April. “Our silver lining is that we are staying open and doing this kind of programming. We’re able to do these chamber-oriented pieces. Yes, we’ve had our challenges, but it only increases our musical ESP.’’
In reflecting back on this season, TFO defied the odds. A number of national arts officials said Covid would create severe if not fatal pressures on much of the country’s performing arts groups. Dark halls and layoffs would lead to a cultural scorched earth for years. But predictions of TFO’s demise were exaggerated.
The 2020-21 season will be remembered not only as a cautionary tale, but as a success story. Yes, the orchestra adapted quickly and efficiently, and this resilience may well be what kept the organization alive and functioning at a high level – and delivering the goods in new and refreshing ways.
But something else made this season both memorable and momentous: our community’s need for live classical music. For all its adverse impact, Covid made us aware of just how precious this uniquely human art form is to us, why we crave it, and how different things would be without it.