The COVID-19 crisis has been a disaster for the arts but it has forced many organisations to re-invent themselves to stay connected with their members and audiences.
So it is with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, which had mapped a strong program for the farewell season of its much loved Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, Nicholas Milton.
That went out the window and its musicians went into isolation, a foreign state to artists that crave an audience and thrive and survive on collaboration with their peers.
The CSO’s response has been to look to the digital world to stay connected with its audience and the musicians who are its lifeblood, launching plans for a suite of online offerings including an Australian mini-series of 14 short, solo works by Australian composers.
In coming months, the CSO will also deliver online recitals, curated playlists and remotely recorded Virtual Orchestra projects in collaboration with the ANU School of Music.
This is in addition to the joint Side by Side, Byte Size project announced recently which will produce a short, virtual performance featuring both CSO musicians and ANU students and staff.
CEO Rachel Thomas says COVID-19 sent the orchestra back to the drawing board but allowed the organisation to revisit its plans and contemplate a whole new way of operating.
Still hopeful of resuming normal performances later in the year, Ms Thomas said it was crucial to not only stay in touch with the musicians and the Canberra audience but also to reach out to those who never experienced the CSO.
”The team are very responsive about how we could reshape the programs already planned and come up with new ways to reach our audience and the broader Canberra community,” she says.
”It’s important for us that we play a very important role in maintaining that connection. A lot of what we’ll be putting out is to not only reach the current audience but reach those who may not know that much about us.”
Ironically, the magic of the internet means the mini-series, when it is posted on the CSO’s YouTube channel, will take new Australian music to more audiences than ever before. It will be a terrific result for an orchestra with a stated mission of promoting home-grown art.
Ms Thomas says co-curators Matthew Hindson and Jessica Cottis commissioned 14 composers, including Liza Lim and Cyrus Meurant, to provide short works for a solo instrument to be recorded in the converted CSO office.
The works will be matched with CSO musicians keen to be part of the project.
”We are really keen for the sound and production of the music to be as exceptional as possible,” she says.”We’re hoping for that live music experience as close as possible.”
Also bound for YouTube will be a Virtual Orchestra community special in which the CSO and the ANU School of Music will invite community members to record and submit their parts at home, with artistic guidance from Dr Milton and Artistic Planning Manager Andy Baird, and production expertise from School of Music technical staff Matt Barnes and Craig Greening.
Dr Milton says the CSO family is committed to making and sharing music in 2020. “Without minimising the gravity of these circumstances for the entire creative and performing arts sector, we are embracing the opportunity to try some new things,” he said.
Ms Thomas says that the CSO was excited about the possibilities that the crisis had forced upon the organisation.
”From that perspective it’s exciting to explore those opportunities and put our brand out in a different way,” she says.
What the CSO will look like at the end of this is one question, the other is how long can the orchestra afford to do things for free.
”At what point are some of these things monetised or is there corporate or philanthropic support,” Ms Thomas says.
Financially, the CSO is holding up and there is the potential for more ACT Government support via the recently announced package for Canberra’s major arts organisations.
”At this stage, we’re very confident we’ll be able to weather what’s happening and resume some form of concert performance in the future,” Ms Thomas says.
But she is realistic about the prospects of ongoing corporate support if the coronavirus contraction persists.
”The longer it goes the harder it gets,” she says.
The CSO has benefited from its musicians being part-time and not being salaried, a flexibility other major orchestras do not have.
Adding to the orchestra’s resilience is the support it has received from the Canberra audience, many of whom have donated ticket refunds or given money to ensure the CSO survives.
Ms Thomas says the CSO is very appreciative of that incredible support.