'Like finally coming back to church': Live audiences return to Seattle Symphony
For the first time in over a year, applause echoed through Benaroya Hall on Thursday as Seattle Symphony musicians performed for a live audience. Performances were cancelled last spring when the pandemic started. Symphony musicians eventually resumed playing on the stage, but to empty seats: the concerts were livestreamed. Now the symphony is carefully welcoming back members of the public.
The mood at the concert hall was both hushed and celebratory.
Concertgoer Terry Miller from Seattle was ready. “Getting to hear live music tonight is so important. This is like finally coming back to church," Miller said. "It’s our meditation, it’s our quiet time, it’s our time to reflect on the day, the week, the last year. And it’s important that we finally get to do it in a public space with other like-minded people who are also here to gather and reflect on this time.”
Jeffrey Fair is the symphony’s principal horn player. “I would say the hardest thing about performing without anybody out there is when we stand up to take a bow, we turn towards the audience, the audience that isn’t there. And the silence is deafening,” he said.
He said with an audience, “you can feel the energy of those people, and that actually changes what we do onstage. To have it taken away for a year-plus and then to get it back, you really can sense the difference.”
The symphony is opening remaining concerts this spring to its existing ticketholders. People attending the concerts wear masks, undergo temperature checks, and sit in socially distanced clusters. There’s no coat check, no bar, and no intermission during the shortened programs.
Andrea Jones from Bellevue said her return was a long-anticipated event. “This is my first live concert in over a year. And during this pandemic, honestly listening to recordings has brought me to tears because I’ve just missed live music so much, so this is an incredible treat.”
“We’ve missed our audience,” said associate principal cellist Meeka Quan-DiLorenzo. She said friends have even sent her photos of themselves applauding the symphony’s livestreamed concerts, but it’s just not the same.
And she’s ready to pack the stage and play some large-scale works as soon as it’s feasible. “I love the music that we’ve been performing, we’ve been doing a lot of smaller works like we are tonight, Beethoven, Mozart,” she said. “But I definitely will be glad when we can put a big Mahler symphony on, or Wagner: Something with the whole orchestra onstage together plus a chorus plus singers plus an audience that’s jam-packed.”
Mo Moore is an usher and said her 9-year-old grandson has been asking when he can return to hear the symphony play again. She said, “Coming back, just having the opportunity to come in here and feel the life and see the enthusiasm and joy and life and healing of the spirit that comes with music -- it’s just awesome.”
Violinist Andy Liang said, “Tonight it was great to see –I don’t know how many there were, 100 or so? But all spread out through the hall, it’s just really nice to see familiar faces and new faces and people in general out in the audience.”
Liang said an upcoming concert featuring guest violinist Augustin Hadelich and Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot will help “close out this season on a high note.” The symphony also said artistic director Thomas Dausgaard will be back in Seattle next fall; the symphony had to rely entirely on guest conductors during the pandemic.
Krishna Thiagarajan is President and CEO of the Seattle Symphony. He said the last year has been a long journey from the rehearsal he had to shut down last spring.
“When I had to walk into an ongoing rehearsal on March 11 in 2020 to stop what was happening, that was the first time in my life that I dared to interrupt musicians while rehearsing,” he said. After a year of what he called “cross-training” to get stagehands to operate cameras, and to figure out the health guidance for having musicians together onstage, Thiagarajan said Thursday’s concert gave him a small sense of triumph over the pandemic.
“I know we’re not completely out of the woods yet, but the fact that we found a way with a Covid-secure environment to get our musicians back together and get a limited amount of audience members now into the hall to hear the music live again -- It really gave us a sense that we can overcome this, and that we can find a way to a new future,” he said.
And he said some changes will be lasting. “I believe this is a wake-up call we will use to develop the new way in which classical music and non-classical music will be heard, not just live here in Benaroya Hall, but also online,” Thiagarajan said. “We will integrate the themes that came up last summer including the themes of equity and justice, cultural representation, building a vibrant and dynamic downtown in Seattle again, [and] supporting the causes that are important to people of greater Seattle.”
The symphony expects to increase capacity and allow new ticket sales for its season starting in September.