The Future of Virtual Performances: Learning from 2020.21

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2020.21 Season, MSO Notable

The Milwaukee Symphony has never had a season like 2020.21 in its history, and it hopes it will never have another one like it. But lessons learned in the pandemic will carry over into the future.

Like many other orchestras, the MSO presented a partial season of music for smaller forces via streaming, starting with chamber music in February and ending in June with a concert that included Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. And overall, “we got lucky,” said Bret Dorhout, vice president of artistic planning. “Other orchestras had positive COVID tests and had to change programs or personnel. We didn’t have any of that. We set good protocols and stuck to them.”

“We were very pleased with the results of our first foray into a digital season,” said Susan Loris, the MSO’s executive vice president for institutional advancement. The symphony’s digital content received 37,000 views for a total of 17,000 hours, and 18 percent of the virtual subscribers were new to the MSO, mostly from outside Wisconsin.

For the season beginning in September, the MSO plans to stream seven Classics concerts, both as its own subscription package and as an add-on to an in-person series. “We can’t just go back to in-person performances,” Loris said. “We’ve got to have both.” Milwaukee residents who spend winters in warmer climates, for instance, will be a built-in audience for streaming.

The country is returning to normal in many ways, but with the knowledge that things could change quickly, as they often have in the last 18 months. “The plan is to open as a normal year,” Loris said. “But we understand that things may change, and we’ll be better prepared for it if it does happen.” In March of 2020, no arts organization had a plan B in place, “but now we’ll have plan B and plan C.”

Streaming concerts presented an opportunity to do things differently, and Music Director Ken-David Masur’s introductions to the music and interviews with musicians and composers were very well-received by the virtual audience. For the upcoming season, the symphony envisions some kind of intermission feature for the live-streamed concerts.

“We’ve learned that people like to hear from Ken-David and the musicians,” Dorhout said. But if future concerts involve more speaking from the stage, “we’ll have to be more deliberate about how we do these things. It used to be that we just got a mic ready. But it’s a visual world, and there are a lot of visual things we’re going to have to think about.”

On the production side, Audio & Video Producer Jeremy Tusz and his crew had a steep learning curve with cameras, lights, and software. “We were very lucky that our entire video team had a background in music,” he said.  “What took a little longer was figuring out a notation system that would allow all four of us to collaborate together.”

The first several weeks of concerts were pre-recorded, and the first live performance, in March, was “a bit nerve-wracking,” Tusz said. “The most important thing is not to allow a little mistake to throw you off. You have to keep looking ahead in the score to the next camera change or quickly improvise something on the spot. The music doesn’t stop. I think that’s where the musical background of our team really showed.”

Educational concerts, too, will have a virtual component in coming seasons. The two streamed concerts that the MSO put together in the spring, at no cost to schools, reached a total of 70,000 students, almost three times the in-person figure from previous years. Schools too far away to bus students to Milwaukee were a main beneficiary. Loris said that in the coming season, the MSO will do both live and streamed educational concerts, which will not be free, but “it’s important that they be affordable.”

Other adjustments will be necessary when the full-strength orchestra gathers in the Bradley Symphony Center for the first time ever. Sitting at a normal distance in a new acoustic, “Ken’s going to need time, and the musicians are going to need time,” Dorhout said. But “we should gain a huge amount of dynamic range, particularly on the softer side.”

The first full rehearsals, which will involve adjusting the cloud reflectors above the stage, will affect both acoustics and lighting, Tusz said. And as a video director, he has another reason to look forward to a full stage. “With social distancing, it was often difficult to get shots of pairs or trios of musicians without having empty space in the middle of the frame,” he said. “It’ll be nice to have the screen filled with people, and musicians sitting close together again.”