In September, hurricanes Harvey and Irma delivered a one-two punch to Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean, causing widespread devastation. Orchestras in Texas and Florida were hit hard, with flooded concert halls, cancelled performances, and displaced musicians and staff. Nevertheless, orchestras responded as only they can: with music. As Michael Pastreich, president and CEO of the Florida Orchestra, which is based in Tampa Bay, put it, “Yes, Irma was powerful, but music is powerful, too. It can’t turn on the lights or repair your house, but it can bring a community together when it needs it most.”
In Texas, Hurricane Harvey forced the Houston Symphony to cancel, postpone, and relocate its September concerts when its home, Jones Hall, suffered flooding. Damage was relatively minor; in contrast, the Houston Grand Opera, down the street from Jones Hall, sustained massive flooding that will require months of restoration. The Symphony of Southeast Texas, in Beaumont, reported no damage but stated that some members lost their cars or homes in the storm. The Austin Symphony was forced to cancel one concert but was otherwise in decent shape. Due to some concert-hall flooding, the Victoria Symphony had to postpone a mid-September performance until next March, but the orchestra’s offices were intact.
Florida wasn’t the only state affected by Hurricane Irma: orchestras as far north as Georgia and South Carolina were impacted. Due to flooding, the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra rescheduled its season-opening concert for October 24. Symphony Orchestra Augusta in Georgia cancelled auditions but came through the storm otherwise unaffected. Once flood waters abated, the Jacksonville Symphony held its season-opening concert as scheduled, though a concert at Sea Island was cancelled. As a safety precaution, staff members of the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra evacuated Fort Myers; they have since returned and hope to proceed with the season as planned. The Naples Philharmonic shut down prior to Irma, and on September 25 resumed activities with the restoration of electricity.
Despite the upheaval, orchestras stepped in to offer relief. Musicians from the Houston Symphony performed for free in shelters, parks, and a parking lot. Mercury, a Houston-based period-instrument ensemble, accepted donations to the Mayor’s Relief Fund, and Mercury musicians played for displaced Houstonians. The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra, also based in Houston, commissioned two fanfares as artistic responses to how Houston citizens coped with natural disasters. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra donated proceeds from single-ticket sales for two concerts to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, and musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Oberlin Conservatory, and Credo Music held a concert benefitting the American Red Cross. In Florida, musicians from the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra performed for Irma evacuees in a city shelter. The New World Symphony evacuated many of its musicians prior to Irma, and afterward offered a free, pre-recorded Wallcast for Miami Beach residents; free air-conditioning, water, and fruit were also available.
Two Houston-based ensembles started funds to help musicians recover. The Houston Youth Symphony’s Music and Instrument Fund for Harvey Victims provides grants to musicians in grades K-12 to replace or repair their instruments, offers funding to school orchestra and band programs to replace items lost in the flood, and supports the Houston Youth Symphony instrument fund. The Houston Symphony has set up an Employee Assistance Fund to help musicians and staff who suffered damage to their homes.
As the disasters unfolded, the League of American Orchestras remained in contact with orchestras in the affected areas, reporting on their situations and providing information and assistance. At https://americanorchestras.org/disaster, the League has also posted resources for musicians and orchestras affected by natural disasters, including links to organizations that give support; information on disaster response, recovery, and readiness; and ways to help orchestras and musicians affected by the hurricanes.