Arts Beat: SLO Symphony finds ways to play together

Jul 22, 2020

Packed stadiums for sporting events and theater seats filled for live performances are now a thing of the pre-pandemic past. But for the San Luis Obispo Symphony, the music plays on.

Principal oboist for the symphony, Jessica Hoffman, has been playing solo these days. Back in March, the pandemic shutdown meant she could no longer play live with her colleagues in theaters. For a while, she says, she lost the music in herself, having only recently brought her oboe out of its case after collecting dust for months.

“I couldn’t face picking it up knowing that I can’t play for people,” said Hoffman.

The last SLO Symphony performance in front of a crowd was on March 7; then the state went into lockdown. At the time, Hoffman and her fellow players didn’t think the closures would last very long.

“Then April happened, and then May,” Hoffman said. “Then my closest friends and I were dying, because it's just not as much fun to play by yourself.”

At that last concert, Anna Miller was in the audience, watching the symphony perform live for the first time. She had just moved to the Central Coast from Washington to take on her new position as the symphony’s executive director. But leading up to that performance, word about a deadly virus was spreading.

“There kind of was this feeling that things were not normal,” Miller said. “So it was interesting to look around. Some folks were still hugging and shaking hands, other folks were keeping distance and about half of our audience didn’t feel comfortable being there at all.”

Suddenly Miller had to start a new job, in a new home, during a new crisis. But the stay-home orders didn’t stop her from working on ways to keep the music playing.

“We have a Plan A through Z, essentially, of how our musicians are going to be able to play and create their art form in a safe and healthy way,” Miller said.

The SLO Symphony is launching two new ways to enjoy its music. One is by streaming concerts in the comfort of your home. Or for a more social experience, in August the company is hosting a drive-in theater series, when the audience watches a recorded concert on the big screen from their cars.

For oboist Hoffman, it’s a chance to be reunited with her fellow musicians.

“For creative people, if you don’t have your outlet, you’re not as happy,” Hoffman said. “Playing music with other people...for other people...is really one of the things that really makes me happy.”

The plan is to record the orchestra playing in an empty concert hall together; the musicians will be spaced further apart and the ones who can wear masks while playing will do so.

Conductor Andrew Sewell said it’s better for the orchestra to perform live together in person than through a Zoom call in separate rooms.

“The thing about musicians is that we love to perform together, and it’s been very difficult not being together,” Sewell said. “In an orchestra, so much depends on ebb and flow and nuance and creativity. So you do lose that sponantity that is inherent in a live performance.”

Since ticket prices to the drive-in experience will be less than the usual price for a live concert, Sewell said he hopes it’ll attract a new audience, people new to classical music. Like Hollywood blockbusters do.

“The films of John Williams—’Riders of the Lost Ark,’ ‘E.T.,’ ‘Star Wars,’” Sewell said. “The amount of times people watch those films and hear the great music perform, it gives them exposure to that music.”

Miller said she’s been hearing an overwhelming amount of bad news in the arts world due to the pandemic domino effect, but she thinks art and music are going to get us through it.

“To me, those are things that are not only a metric of health for our society and for our community, but really the life blood of our experience as individuals,” Miller said.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from The Shanbrom Family Foundation.