The Delaware Symphony Orchestra will offer live music to a live audience Wednesday, launching a new season that will see all concerts recorded and packaged like a PBS special and delivered digitally to ticketholders.
Only the chamber ones, like that at the DuPont Country Club today, will have a small, socially distanced audience, and its members are sure to notice DSO’s new addition right away.
The musicians — Kimberly Reighley on flute, Stephanie Wilson on oboe, Daniel Spitzer on clarinet, Colleen Hood on bassoon and Karen Schubert on horn — will perform behind plexiglass barriers.
If a brief listen Tuesday night to a rehearsal at the baby grand was any indication, the clear shields don’t interfere with sound at all.
This week’s rehearsals and the performance Wednesday are the first times any of the five musicians will have practiced and performed for a show since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, slamming shut the doors of auditoriums along with the rest of the world.
The 48-inch tall shields are three feet wide in front of the player with wings that extend two feet back on each side.
They took a little getting used to, the musicians said.
“It reminds me a little of playing in a Broadway pit, because they do that a lot,” said Wilson. “But now that I’m more accustomed to it, I’m adjusting. Is it my favorite way to play? No. But is it going to keep people safe? Yes.”
The symphony had moved the smaller chamber concerts into the fall, on the hope that the six larger classical concerts could take place in the new year with live audiences. But then The Grand Opera House announced in July that it would close until it could reassess in 2021, and Broadway announced theater shows would not come back until June of 2021, at the earliest.
That sent the symphony scrambling for venues and a way to get their music to paying customers.
Theaters and performing groups have to worry about protecting both the audience and the performers.
DSO’s Plan B means the larger orchestra will gather to perform without an audience, but they still had to protect the musicians.
“Early on, people started to talk about wind instruments and aerosols and the safety of play,” said J.C. Barker, who moved to Wilmington in March to take over as executive director of the orchestra.
As he researched how to protect musicians, “oddly, I found some of the first specific information from the U.S. Army,” Barker said. It was an extensive handbook for the West Point band.
The idea for the plexiglass shields came from one of Barker’s friends, who plays for the Hong Kong Philharmonic. The friend posted photos of the plexiglass shields created for them.
DSO Technical director Stephen Manocchio found some plexiglass in New Jersey and a Newport company crafted the shields and the floor braces to hold them.
The wind and brass players behind the shields will not wear masks as they perform. Concerts that include string and percussion players will not put those performers behind plastic, but they will be wearing masks.
The musicians voted on whether to accept that arrangement. They were given a diagram that showed how chairs would be set up and a photograph of the room at the DuPont Country Club. They talked to people at the country club, who explained that it uses a highly rated Merv 13 filtration system and that air in the room will be turned over more often than the Centers of Disease Control recommends. They were also told that guests would be wearing masks and everybody will have their temperatures checked as they arrive.
The players voted to perform.
Once behind the plexiglass, Wilson said, “It took some time for us to get adjusted, and it will be yet another adjustment when we get into the country club ballroom, because the acoustics are very different than what’s on this stage here.”
A 20-plus-year-veteran of the DSO, Wilson said the sound from her oboe hits the shield and sounds deadened when it’s reflected back at her, but music doesn’t sound that way as it soars into the room.
“I don’t know how I’m projecting in the room, how loud I am, how soft I am,” she said. “I only know what’s coming right back at me.”
The height of the room will make a difference during a performance, Barker and the musicians said, because sound rises.
The plexiglass will prevent any aerosols coming from the instruments from spreading through the room.
Wilson said she expects orchestras will continue to use safety measures like the plexiglass shields until a good vaccine is available and the numbers of those with COVID-19 begin to drop.
She hopes the shields don’t put off any members of the audience. While the players are clearly visible, it’s a different look from the traditional, regimented all-black attired players sitting snugly side-by-side.
Wilson thinks every organization is likely to do things slightly differently.
“I’m hoping that we’ll be at a good place, a better place, so that we can remove these things and get back to playing the way I’m used to,” she said.
Concerts for the time being are going to look and feel differently, Wilson said.
“But you know, it’s an honor to get the chance to bring music to people because this what we love to do and not being able to do it in the last six, seven months has been hard,” she said.
She’s a little nervous about performing Wednesday, but says she’s always nervous before a show.
“But I look forward to it and I’m incredibly grateful that I’m getting the opportunity.”
Even if symphonies play behind plastic for a while, Wilson doesn’t think it’ll be hard to reacclimate herself to once again playing without a shield when that day comes.
“I would imagine it’s probably like riding a bike,” she said.