Philharmonic Society Cobbles Together a COVID Season, Looks Forward to Live Events in January

Photo courtesy of the Philharmonic Society/Jake Turney

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is an artist-in-residence for the Philharmonic Society with his sister Isata Kanneh-Mason. They performed a virtual concert recently for the organization.

You may not have noticed, but the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, our area’s oldest presenter of classical music, has quietly put together a 2020-2021 concert season and has, in fact, already launched it. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many orchestras, opera companies and other performing groups have canceled performances through as late as June 2021, the Philharmonic Society decided to forge ahead.

A glance at the schedule reveals just about the usual number of big-name artists, too, though only one orchestra. The season starts out virtually, but in January, the group plans to switch over to live concerts in Segerstrom Concert Hall and other local venues.

“We don’t see an option this year of just hibernating or weathering the storm,” said Tommy Phillips, the Society’s president and artistic director. “We want to make sure we remain relevant and that we have a voice.”

Photo courtesy of the Philharmonic Society/Robin Clewley

Isata Kanneh-Mason is an artist-in-residence for the Philharmonic Society with her brother Sheku Kanneh-Mason. They performed a virtual concert recently for the organization.

The Society has presented several virtual concerts in October and November, including a pair by its “virtual artists in residence,” the celebrated violinist Hilary Hahn and the brother-and-sister duo cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason. Attendance has been modest but not bad, around 150-170 a concert.

“But what we’ve found most interesting, trying to find the silver lining in this year, is that we’re not bound by the physical barriers of our county or when people can get to the concert hall,” Phillips said. “So we’ve actually had about 10 different countries log in per concert, and in total we’ve reached 42 different countries.”

The group is charging $20 per virtual concert, though less if you buy several. Most of the concerts are available for a week. Some of the concerts are live, some are pre-recorded, but patrons, Phillips said, are asking for more live events.

“So our next concert, with pianist Jeremy Denk, later this month (Nov. 21), is going to be live-streamed actually from Orange County. He’s going to be here, the Irvine Barclay Theatre has allowed us to use their space, with no audience.” All the pandemic protocols will be followed; cameras will be operated remotely. Denk is scheduled to perform a program of Robert and Clara Schumann, Missy Mazzoli and Johannes Brahms.

Among other virtual concerts planned before in-person concerts begin in late January are a Triumph Over Adversity Festival in early December, with clarinetist Anthony McGill and flutist Demarre McGill, who are brothers, performing several events devoted to musicians and composers from marginalized communities; and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who will record an outdoor performance with the musicians observing social distancing.

Then, on Jan. 21, the fun begins, with a recital in Segerstrom Concert Hall by the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. In-person performances — by violinist Joshua Bell, by pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, by soprano Renée Fleming and many others — are planned regularly after that, through June. (For the full list, visit philharmonicsociety.org.) It’s a crazily ambitious schedule, given the uncertainty of the pandemic, but Phillips assured that few if any events would need to be canceled.

Photo courtesy of the Philharmonic Society/Drew Kelley

Tommy Phillips, president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County

“The artists, the managers, the presenters like us, we all have about three or four contingency plans,” Phillips said. “This is Plan A if we can have in-person concerts with an audience. This is Plan B if there’s no audience. This is Plan C if the artists can’t travel, where are you going to do it from? You know, there’s a list. Because everybody wants this to happen.”

State and local guidelines still need to be established for these concerts, and Phillips says the Segerstrom Center is working with the Californians for the Arts organization to advocate for live performance guidelines to be given. Right now, Phillips says, classical concerts are in the same category as rock concerts and stadium events, which he feels is ridiculous.

“Patrons go to the symphony or go to a classical concert to sit and listen. There’s no talking, you only face the back of other people’s heads. You’re going to be socially distanced by rows and seats apart and in my opinion it’s the perfect opportunity to demonstrate what a safe and socially distanced entertainment experience is. There’s no yelling, there’s no eating, there’s nothing that would require you to take off your face covering.”

Phillips doesn’t yet know the number of people that might be allowed into a concert in Segerstrom during the pandemic, but it really doesn’t matter, he says.

“Even if that number is severely limited — so if it’s 50 people, if it’s 100 people in this nearly 2,000-seat performance space — we intend to move forward.”

The Philharmonic Society will of course take a huge financial hit on all this. But except for one part-time worker, the nonprofit hasn’t been forced to layoff any employees. The board is aware of the financial shortfall that is sure to come, but is determined to proceed, Phillips said.

“We want to project an optimistic outlook because our hopeful intent is that we will resume normal concerts in some way. Frankly, my feeling is that when we do come back on a more full scale in future seasons, people are going to be clamoring for live music again. I think it will be an overwhelming response.”

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].