Phoenix symphony, opera and chorale are keeping the music alive during COVID. Here's how

Thursday May 14, 2020

USA Today

Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this article misstated how the Phoenix Symphony used funding from the Paycheck Protection Program. 

While many people are isolating themselves to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, performing arts groups throughout metro Phoenix have had to leave concerts unperformed, sheets of music unsung and instruments unplayed.

As choirs, symphonies and orchestras have canceled performances and events due to the spread of COVID-19, the grandiose venues where they normally would showcase their year's work now sit eerily silent.

Not only have classical music groups taken a financial hit from lost ticket sales, but they're grappling with a difficult reality: They don't know when they'll be able to perform together again.

But fine arts groups throughout the Valley are finding ways to share their music from the safety of home. Here's how the Phoenix Symphony, Arizona Opera and Phoenix Chorale are coping and staying connected with their audiences.

Lost ticket sales and layoffs 

The Phoenix Symphony, a 66-person orchestra that has performed throughout the Valley for more than 70 years, had to cancel the remainder of its spring season — 32 of the nearly 90 performances the group averages annually. Those lost ticket sales cost the symphony nearly half of its revenue for the year.

As a result, the organization laid off all 66 musicians and a third of the artistic and administrative personnel.

"That was a very heartbreaking chapter for the organization," President and CEO Suzanne Wilson said. "While we were able to provide their health benefits, they were not able to stay on salary."

Suzanne Wilson is president and CEO of the Phoenix Symphony as of Jan. 21, 2020.

But soon after the organization took dire measures to preserve itself, it caught a break.

The Phoenix Symphony received funding from the first round of the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program and was able bring back its musicians three weeks after they were let go.

Wilson said the PPP funds will provide eight weeks of salary for employees. As a 38-week orchestra, members are typically released in June and come back in September.

"When we were able to bring them back, there was a tremendous amount of excitement, because this has been an economic crisis for many individuals, and this will provide the musicians a salary through this crisis. The PPP gave us that last eight weeks of our existing season," Wilson said.

The Arizona Opera also received PPP funding worth $391,200.

The opera company canceled its production of "Ariadne auf Naxos," one of the five works on its schedule, as well as the spring gala luncheon fundraiser — its largest fundraising event of the year. The group says ticket sales comprise about a third of its revenue.

But according to President and General Director Joseph Specter, the cost of cancellations is more than financial.

"Organizations like ours live for providing value to our communities. So when we're unable to do that, it's not just a financial impact, it's really painful for us because we're not doing the thing that we love to do most, which is to serve the community," Specter said.

Raising money and performing online

The emotional toll of losing that in-person contact is shared by many arts organizations. The Phoenix Chorale, a 28-voice, Grammy-winning choir, is struggling with isolated conditions after they canceled its end-of-year concert due to COVID-19.

"Choir means being together in a room, standing closely together, breathing together. So it's really hard to not be together right now," President and CEO Jen Rogers said.

But the group is taking matters into its own hands as well. They usually spend this time of year raising funds for upcoming seasons, and now the donations are more important than ever.

Shifting its spring fundraising campaign online, Phoenix Chorale members are posting performance videos to theFacebook page and encouraging fans to give money.

The video engagements include a hilarious pandemic-themed parody of Billy Joel's "The Longest Time," sung by J.J. Rafferty, as well as a goosebump-inducing cover of "Ave Maria," performed by Cassandra Ewer.

"It's not just about raising funds. We try to have fun with everything that we do. We're looking for ways to really try to bring hope and joy to people and let them know that we genuinely care about our fans," Rogers said.

After the members of the Phoenix Symphony returned from layoffs, they took the opportunity to create several outreach initiatives.

"[The musicians] are very anxious to perform their craft and to re-engage with the community that they love. So we went through an extensive conversation, and ideas started to flow very quickly between the staff and the musicians. In this moment, it became very clear what we wanted to do," Wilson said.

Every Monday at 7 p.m., the "Phoenix Symphony Broadcast Series" plays recordings of past performances on Arizona PBS. The broadcasts are often preceded by livestreamed conversations with Virginia G. Piper Music Director Tito Muñoz.

The group has started an online “gratitude series” of performances dedicated to health-care workers and first responders. The first video of the series shows a socially distanced performance of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 5" as Phoenix Symphony members record themselves playing their instruments from home.

And more online outreach initiatives are in the works, such as a series of interviews with symphony members.

The Arizona Opera also has found ways to bring their music to fans through online performances, such as a livestreamed performance by Jennifer Johnson Cano and Christopher Cano.

Arizona Opera's Joseph Specter posts "video postcards" on the group's Facebook page updating supporters on Arizona Opera's outreach initiatives and what to expect for the 2020-2021 season.

What the future may look like

But as the opera company creates ways to engage with supporters online, Specter looks forward to a time when Phoenix's vast arts and culture community can reemerge in person.

"We're so fortunate to live in a state that has all these wonderful performing arts and other cultural organizations. It's part of a tapestry that makes Arizona a fantastic place to call home," Specter said. "On the other side of this pandemic, there's nothing that means more to us than making Arizona a vibrant, wonderful place to live."

Although it's not known when fine arts groups will be able to publicly perform again, Phoenix Chorale's Jen Rogers stresses the importance of maintaining arts and culture now in order to continue enjoying the work in the future.

"Everything that we're doing as a society right now to pass the time and to be connected to each other is through some kind of creative medium. It's either you're watching what some creative person has done or an artist has created, whether it's film or television or listening to music," Rogers said. "It's so important to try to help keep the fabric of our arts and culture community intact so that we have that to come back to."

But while online performances are better than nothing, performing arts groups find they're just not the same as the collective experience of making music together.

"People are finding ways to make music. We're looking for creative ways to continue sharing music, but it's tough trying to plan when you don't know what exactly to plan for," Rogers said. "I hear from singers all the time in our group and in our communities just how hard it is to be apart. We really can't wait until we're able to be together again."

Phoenix Symphony's Suzanne Wilson shares the same viewpoint.

"Having that shared experience of live music, there's nothing like it. We're trying, through these new digital resources and all of these initiatives, to continue to connect, but the real loss is that opportunity to have that shared experience," Wilson said.

"When this crisis is over, the performing arts will be an important part of how we heal, and they're going to be an important part of how we connect again. It's a continual bridge between the crisis and the bright future."