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The Columbus Symphony Survives and Thrives in an Uncertain Arts Landscape

Grant Walters Grant Walters The Columbus Symphony Survives and Thrives in an Uncertain Arts LandscapePhoto by Stephen Pariser courtesy of CSO
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Building on its foundations of creativity and cooperation, the organization has explored new ways to educate and connect the community in a turbulent time

For centuries, symphony orchestras have brought important music works to life and have become integral to the cultural identities of their resident communities.

The Columbus Symphony was founded in 1951, evolving in size, scope, and significance along with our growing city. Every year, the Symphony’s reach extends to more than 150,000 Central Ohioans through its various performances and programs – and almost an additional million-and-a-half individuals who access the organization’s productions via radio broadcasts, online media, music festivals, and other outlets. In 2018-2019 alone, it’s estimated that the Symphony’s initiatives generated over $14 million in economic impact for Columbus and the surrounding region.

But like other performing arts organizations, the Symphony faced significant obstacles when the onset of the coronavirus pandemic halted their activities early in the year. On the precipice of their 70th anniversary, the Symphony’s board of trustees, administration, and musicians were forced to reimagine their entire operation.

“It certainly has been a very challenging and unusual time,” reveals violist Steve Wedell, who has served with the Symphony since 1983. “Most of us who have been in a music or performing arts career for a while have experienced work stoppages in our past. You’ll take on a project and it comes to a conclusion and you’re done for a while until the next project comes along. Or, every once in a while there’ll be some sort of work dispute, and the organization and the musicians part company for a bit, and then they work it out. We’ve all experienced that kind of thing in the past. 

But this is the first time that any of us can remember when the stoppage has been created by an external event completely beyond anybody’s control where the government has had to step in.”

The Symphony’s Executive Director, Denise Rehg, explains that everyone in the organization worked quickly and thoughtfully to take action once it became clear that their 2020 was going to look exceptionally different from other years.

Steve Wedell – Photo by Scott Cunningham courtesy of CSO

“We are doing everything we can given the circumstances,” she shares. “Early on, before we even had to start canceling concerts, we were contemplating what the options would be if we eventually ended up in that situation. And we did end up there in the early-to-mid part of March, and we had to cancel everything. But we also spent that time devising a pivot plan, and we had to adjust it continually for two or three months before we came up with exactly what we were going to do.”

According to Rehg, that plan was focused on keeping the Symphony’s 45 full-time musicians and 14 staff members employed, and on finding ways to keep the Columbus community engaged in its work, with particular attention paid to new and diverse audiences that may not have had prior familiarity with the Symphony’s programs.

“So many symphonies have laid people off,” Rehg says. “We committed pretty early on that we were going to try and keep everyone together. We had a new strategic plan that was voted on by our board in January, and it really called on the Symphony to be more of a community asset and community service provider. The new mission of the Symphony is to inspire and create strong community through music. And that’s actually quite different than the ones that say, ‘provide excellence in music.’”

Of course, that all comes with a price tag. Since the Symphony’s revenues are down significantly this year – an estimated $1.5 million reduction – Rehg explains that patron subscriptions and the generosity of donors, partners, and sponsors have allowed them to stay afloat while offering all of their public services for free. Nationwide Insurance, who is the regular sponsor of the Symphony’s acclaimed annual “Picnic With The Pops” series, kept their financial support intact even though the signature event was canceled. 

“We haven’t charged for anything,” Rehg notes. “People did buy subscriptions and they renewed their subscriptions because they kept hoping for the best possible outcome.”

In addition to a robust menu of online performances, which includes four masterworks concerts, the Symphony staff and musicians reinvested some of the time and resources they would normally spend on live performances to focus on developing and expanding on the organization’s community services.

The Columbus Symphony performs Beethoven 250 Cycle: Symphony No. 6, which premiered on November 20, 2020 as part of its virtual Masterworks concert series.

“[We created] our education website, which we always said we wanted to do,” says Rehg. “And it’s more than just an educational website because that would lead you to think that it was just for educators and kids in school. It’s called Kid’s Korner, and it’s got all kinds of things on it. Our musicians produced over a hundred videos, which we put online. We worked with Columbus City Schools and actually created a curriculum that is now in the system, even remotely, for the entire third grade. We were very excited about that.

And, truthfully, these things wouldn’t have happened if we were doing regular business because we wouldn’t have had the time to do them. Our team is very small. When we’re in regular mode, we are exhausted running around trying to keep the big concerts moving, and everything.”

Partnering with the Cincinnati-based wellness group, The Well, the Symphony began offering local schools access to the ‘Mindful Music Moments’ program last year.

“The Symphony worked a deal with them and paid them a flat fee,” Rehg discloses. “And we love [it] because somebody either online or through a public address system, depending on whether you’re in session or not, gives the kids an issue or something they want them to ruminate on. Then, they play a piece of music while the kids do that. We love it because we don’t think that children often have that sort of down-time and a safe place to just do some thinking outside themselves. But, we worked it out with them, and they’re just fabulous people, where we could make it available to all grades across Columbus City Schools, as well. We even had a business sign up for it. And on top of that, it’s free to every pre-school in Central Ohio. We’re actually one of three symphonies that offers it – Cleveland and Cincinnati have done something similar. When would it be more timely to give kids an opportunity like that in the middle of their school day?”

Wedell is one of many of the Symphony musicians who have personally produced online educational content, which offers website visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how the orchestra’s music is made.

“I did a video explaining some of the physics of how a string instrument works,” Wedell says. “Others did videos on how vibrato is created, or how to shift – someone created one about how you make a reed for a bassoon. It tapped into our knowledge that we use on a daily basis that nobody really talks about and brought some of it to light.”

Denise Rehg – Photo courtesy of CSO

While filling the Ohio Theatre for regular performances has not been an option these past several months, Rehg says the Symphony was able to find creative and manageable ways to still bring live music to Columbus area residents.

“We started taking a look at how we served audiences and what we can do to get out there,” Rehg says. “We did dive into the whole online thing, but I’ll tell you that, pretty quickly, people got tired of just seeing performances online. In early September, we did twenty community concerts in nine days. 

We learned so much from doing all of this, that we intend to explore how we can continue to do one free week of performances for the community moving forward. It was just so well received and personally meaningful to people. What we’d hoped to do was go into seriously underserved communities, but the city parks facilities were closed because of COVID-19. But we want to go there next year when this is all cleared up and get into those communities and neighborhoods.”

The Symphony has been able to permit a limited number of attendees at the rehearsals and recording sessions for their online performance videos, with support and approval from city and state health departments, and Ohio Health’s infectious disease department. 

Keeping musicians safe while working in the theatre has required a thorough strategy and good scientific research, according to Wedell. The Symphony administration, musicians union, and a self-appointed committee of musicians from the orchestra were intensively involved in that process.

“We’ve had many meetings [and] spent many hours over the summer poring over what other orchestras were doing,” Wedell says. “We spent time looking at scientific reports and, via the computer, attending some talks about the science of how the disease is spread and what that meant. And we came up with a very cooperative protocol document that introduced layers of safety factors onto the stage. We’ve been very successful at keeping the virus out of our workplace while we’re creating and playing music.

Nobody ever thought about, ‘Well, when you blow into a clarinet, what’s coming out the other end of it?’ And even that took a while to establish as the science was getting going. You’d see one study where they tested things in one way, and another study where they’d test things in another. For a while, if you’d ask a question, you’d get three more questions and no answers.”

Rehearsal and performance plans also required changes and upgrades to the theatre’s HVAC system, as well as placement of on-stage HEPA filtration machines to ensure the air in the space was being exchanged regularly. Social distancing, protective equipment, and individual practices were also critical considerations. All told, the measures afforded the orchestra about ninety minutes of viable rehearsal or performance time in a given session.

“Nobody takes any breaks or has the chance to congregate,” says Wedell. “Everyone has their own music stand – even the string players – and we’re all six feet apart. As much as possible people are wearing masks. For string players, that’s obviously not a problem, but for woodwinds and brass that was more complicated. We finally decided they didn’t have to wear masks when they were playing, and we decided to increase the distance between the strings and woodwinds. The woodwinds are set up in sort of a long arc, and there’s a six-foot plexiglass divider between each of the players. 

So, we’ve got layers of filtering, mask protection, and mitigating time – we’ve spent a lot of time implementing those things, and they seem to be working very well.”

Photo by Kathy Karnap courtesy of CSO

While there has been no shortage of barriers to its success, Rehg says that 2020 has still offered the Symphony a lot of reasons to be optimistic about its future.

“Don’t get me wrong, we worry every day,” Rehg says. “While it’s certainly been stressful and there have been constant challenges and pivots, we actually feel extraordinarily upbeat and hopeful and excited about where we’re headed and what we’re doing. We believe that when there are times of trouble – and I could give you many examples throughout history – symphonies step forward and provide a much-needed balm for the community.”

Wedell echoes Rehg’s sentiment by pointing out that symphonies like Columbus’ rely heavily on the ideas of creativity and cooperation, which are important tools they use to build resiliency.

“Those words represent the qualities of what we normally do as a symphony orchestra, anyway,” Wedell says. “Not only has the composer created the product we’re going to play, but we’re re-creating; we’re kind of part of the creation process when we play that work. And there’s something unique about that. 

A symphony orchestra is a great example of cooperation. The work is very labor-intensive, and yet everybody has to be timed very precisely. Business people have used orchestras as examples for years as the pinnacle of cooperation in the workplace. Those things have been linchpins as we’ve worked through this situation.”

Rehg says other orchestras belonging to the League of American Orchestras have been looking to Columbus as a model for its work during the pandemic and believes that their efforts will pay off in dividends for the Symphony and for the city now and in 2021.

“We have been putting our heart and soul into our work with the belief that we can absolutely be a positive ally and support for the people of our community in a time of need,” Rehg says. “We take that to heart and we take that really, really seriously.”

You can learn more about the Columbus Symphony‘s upcoming events, educational programs, and donor opportunities by visiting their official website

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