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St. Louis Symphony Cancels Fall Concerts, Plans Online Content

St. Louis Symphony launched the online series "Songs of America" in July. Here, Ferguson-based songwriter Brian Owens performs with orchestra musicians, billed as The 442s.
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra via YouTube screenshot
Ferguson-based songwriter Brian Owens performs with orchestra musicians, billed as the 442s. St. Louis Symphony will shift from live concerts to online content for the fall because of coronavirus concerns. Among its offerings will be a continuation of the series "Songs of America," launched in July.

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is canceling its scheduled concerts through at least the end of the year because of the coronavirus. The organization plans to ramp up its offerings of new content online while Powell Hall remains closed to the public.

St. Louis Department of Health regulations allow for large venues to reopen at up to 75% of audience capacity. But it’s still not safe to gather the full orchestra or perform for audiences, Music Director Stéphane Denève said Tuesday.

“The situation deteriorated quite strongly in July,” Denève said of coronavirus case counts, which began steadily rising in St. Louis after local and regional officials relaxed stay-at-home orders in June.

The organization announced that it will resume its 2020-21 season as scheduled in January, but its leaders conceded that any reopening date remains tentative and depends on the state of coronavirus spread.

The number of new cases per week in the St. Louis metro area has trended downward in August but is still at a level far higher than when cultural organizations began postponing live events because of the virus in March. St. Louis Symphony Orchestra last performed on March 9, before cutting short Deneve’s inaugural season as music director by two months.

A shift to online performances

The organization is still developing a schedule of performances for orchestra members to record in small groups this fall for online distribution.

“It will be of course little chamber groups right now because we cannot reunite the full orchestra, which is really sad,” Denève said. “Most of those videos are not with a conductor because they don’t need one, so it’s not yet time for me to reunite with the musicians onstage.”

Denève said he will remain for the time being with his family in Sweden, where he will lead the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the annual Nobel Prize Concert in December. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies the COVID-19 risk in Sweden as high and discourages nonessential travel between there and the United States.

This fall the orchestra’s contemporary music series, Live at the Pulitzer, will be recorded for online viewing, and a series of holiday-themed performances is in the works.

The orchestra also will continue its online series “Songs of America,” launched in July, which features orchestra members performing in small groups at historic sites around St. Louis.

Installments so far mainly featured African American composers. Performances have included a sextet rendition of Scott Joplin’s “The Easy Winners” at the Scott Joplin State Historic Site and a collaboration between orchestra musicians and Ferguson-based songwriter Brian Owens on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” recorded at Kiener Plaza Park.

An altered role for musicians?

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra leaders are negotiating with the musicians union over changes to their duties prompted by the reconfiguring of the season’s first months.

“People-first is our motto,” President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard said, “so basically we’re trying to see how we can continue to keep them very engaged, because a lot of these digital programs require their expertise and artistry. We’re looking at the contract to make it as nimble as possible to adapt to circumstances.”

Citing the ongoing negotiations, Bernard declined to comment on whether the organization is asking the union to agree to furloughs or layoffs in the event that the organization is unable to safely resume a regular concert schedule this season. But she said her immediate focus is developing new programming that involves orchestra members.

“I’m one to believe that as long as I can give them performances and artistic involvement, that we can keep everyone whole for the time being,” Bernard said. “We’re trying to find as many ways as possible to engage them in continuing to perform their orchestra duties in a different fashion.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.