It all happened so quickly.

Just a few months ago, no one beyond a few scientists had ever heard of a dangerous new virus. But in early January, reports began emerging from the Chinese city of Wuhan about the outbreak of a novel (because new) coronavirus (named for its spherical, spiky shape). It appeared to cause a brutally virulent flu—a terribly sad situation in a distant country. Then COVID-19, as the disease caused by the virus is called, spread quickly, with often fatal results. The virus leapt borders: toward the end of January, cities across Asia were being hit. A very few weeks after that, the localized epidemic metastasized into a global pandemic; millions carried the virus; thousands perished. At this writing, the United States leads the planet in the number of cases, with nearly 600,000 people testing positive. (China and India each have four times the population of the U.S. but at press time report only a fraction of cases compared to the U.S.) The pandemic upended the global economy and hammered healthcare systems.

Orchestras have not been exempt. The widening effect of the virus on orchestras paralleled its global spread. In late January, the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra was one of the first to cancel concerts. As cities in Asia went into lockdown, ensembles including the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra canceled concerts, then the rest of their seasons. In Europe, La Scala, La Fenice, the Paris Opera—enduring landmarks of classical music—shut down. The earliest direct impact on American orchestras was the cancellation of international tours by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony.

Soon, American orchestras of all sizes were responding with alacrity, motivated by ethical concern for the health of musicians, staff, and audiences. As stay-at-home recommendations became legal mandates and limits on public gatherings shrank from 500 people to 100 to no more than ten, orchestras shifted from postponing individual concerts, to canceling concerts a few at a time, to shutting down the remainder of their seasons. Suddenly, as “social distancing” became critically important to limit the spread of COVID-19, one of the most beautiful things that humans do—come together in groups to make music—had become one of the most dangerous.

Concert halls, performing arts centers, and conservatories nationwide closed, due to safety precautions and governmental restrictions, and the rare and sobering sight of shuttered concert halls became commonplace. But the music did not stop. Orchestras and musicians, recognizing that one of the safest ways to share their collective art is online, livestreamed concerts without in-person audiences, performed from musicians’ own homes, posted chats by music directors, hopped on social media, and made educational resources and archival recordings available. Youth orchestras and music schools went virtual, with instruction and coaching delivered digitally. Orchestras rushed to make their music available to anyone anywhere—usually free of cost. These generous acts may take a financial toll down the road, as they do not generate income.

Orchestras are taking multiple approaches, tailored to their own situations, to the loss of box-office revenue imposed by the pandemic. Some have furloughed musicians, administrators, concert-hall workers; some are paying musicians for canceled concerts; some have committed to paying everyone for the remainder of the season; still others have reduced salaries across the board while maintaining benefits including health insurance.

A few months ago, no one knew about coronavirus. Now it has spread nearly worldwide and disrupted modern society in unprecedented ways. As they have before, orchestras are finding innovative ways to keep the music going—even as they confront extraordinary challenges.

League Resources

Find information and resources concerning the pandemic from the League of American Orchestras throughout this issue of Symphony. In addition, the League is posting updates about coping with the pandemic as a service to the orchestra field. These resources include information about the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security package; discussion groups and one-on-one consultations for League members; webinars led by experts on key topics; guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and other authorities; and more. Visit the League’s coronavirus preparedness site.