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St. Louis Symphony Cancels Planned August Return, Citing Rising Coronavirus Cases

Gemma New conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in Pines of Rome in March 2018.
St. Louis Symphony
The Powell Hall stage will remain dark until at least late September. The orchestra canceled concerts previously rescheduled to August because of the coronavirus.

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra has canceled plans to resume concerts in August. 

Powell Hall has remained dark since March, when orchestra leaders began postponing or canceling concerts to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Orchestra officials said in late May that performances originally planned for June would be moved to August. 

But they announced Thursday that they cannot safely reopen because the region is seeing increased coronavirus infections.

Although St. Louis health guidelines would allow concerts to begin as early as August, that would jeopardize audience members and staff, President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard said. 

“I think we need to be modeling behavior that supports the health of our community, so I just want to be sure we minimize the risk,” Bernard said. 

Spread of the virus has accelerated since local and regional officials removed prohibitions on public gatherings in June. 

As a result, the orchestra has canceled a planned August tribute to singer David Bowie and a concert of jazz and blues songs. It postponed programs of songs performed by the Beatles and the music of Motown next May or June.

The organization also postponed three performances of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 in Concert,” scheduled to begin Sept. 11, to next spring.

The orchestra’s musicians last performed publicly as a group March 8, at Powell Hall. Since then, some members have performed together in smaller ensembles at Powell Hall and at historic sites around St. Louis for a video series dubbed “Songs of America.”

Green light from city government

A June 9 St. Louis Department of Health order allows cultural venues to gradually increase their audience capacity through June and July. But officials are waiting to see if the daily total of new hospitalizations in the St. Louis region exceeds 40 for three days out of any four-day period, or if the seven-day average exceeds 35. 

City health officials have not yet decided if they will close venues or limit crowd sizes should that occur, a health department spokesperson said. 

Daily hospitalizations have not reached those levels but are trending in that direction. 

There were 34 new COVID-19 hospitalizations on Wednesday, up from 27 the day before, and a seven-day average of 31, according to the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

'Nurture the trust with our audience'

Bernard said the orchestra will announce next month whether it will proceed on schedule with its 2020-21 subscription season at Powell Hall, due to begin Sept 19. It has yet to determine if it will proceed with a free performance in Forest Park on Sept. 15. 

Powell Hall and other large venues may reopen if St. Louis officials approve their safety plans to protect audience members and staff from spread of the coronavirus. City guidelines allow for cultural venues to open at full audience capacity as of July 20. 

Bernard said that while the organization would be able to enhance its cleaning procedures and require patrons to wear facial coverings, it could not enforce proper social distancing with more than 700 audience members, which is a little more than a quarter of the venue’s capacity. 

She said that when Powell Hall does reopen, she’d want to increase capacity to that level gradually.

“I would not necessarily encourage us, when we decide to return, to go to the maximum,” she said. “I want us to ease into this.” 

In the meantime, the organization is developing safety policies for its eventual reopening in consultation with a team of infectious disease experts affiliated with Washington University. 

“What we are trying to do is put all the conditions in place to continue to nurture the trust with our audience that we’re doing the right thing,” Bernard said, “and that if they choose to come to a live performance at Powell Hall, that they know we’re taking care of them.”

Bernard said St. Louis Symphony Orchestra leaders have also consulted with representatives of other large St. Louis performance venues, including the Fox Theatre, Stifel Theatre, the Sheldon and Enterprise Center to share notes and help develop best practices. 

They have also consulted with city health officials about new safety protocols. 

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyDGoodwin

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