- Kurt Heinecke
Starting a new job is always stressful, even more so if you're moving to a new city to do so. Now add the fact that you're making these life changes in the middle of a pandemic. And throw on top of that the fact that you're trying to figure out how to get a performing arts organization back on stage for audiences again.
Steven Brosvik was announced as the new President and CEO of Utah Symphony / Utah Opera in June, making a move from his previous position as Chief Operating Officer for the Nashville Symphony. Less than a month after officially starting this position, Brosvik is overseeing the re-launch of the USUO fall season, with significant modifications necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The season kicks off Sept. 17-19 with a program headlined by Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings; seating capacity will be extremely limited to ensure social distancing, which is why the Symphony will perform each program in three individual performances instead of the usual two.
As unsettling as it has been trying to figure out the logistics of this new normal, Brosvik has been trying to look on the bright side of coming into a new situation at a time when everyone is already having to think in new ways. "We've gone back and forth here at home between, Is this the worst possible time to make a transition," Brosvik says, "or maybe is it the best?"
Brosvik began the process of looking ahead with a couple of factors firmly in mind. "One, was continued safety for everyone," he says, "whether that's the performers on stage, support staff backstage, or the audience. But the second one is a really intense focus here in getting live music back onstage. The company has been working on this collectively since March, so there was a lot already in place."
As the company moved toward making that focus a reality, it became clear that safety considerations would impact the works that could be programmed, at least initially. The stage configuration for the musicians will allow for greater distancing between the performers. Additionally, only those musicians who can perform while wearing a mask are permitted on stage—which means no woodwinds or brass, and only strings, percussion, piano and harp.
Brosvik notes that the conversations between the USUO staff and the musicians are ongoing as circumstances continue to evolve. "So much of that conversation has been really open, so we can understand what the levels of concern are, and answer follow-up questions," he says. "Staff musicians were on furlough for a healthy chunk of the summer, so we were having a lot of conversations before everybody came back in, sending everyone the safety protocols and making sure they understand. ... Everyone has stepped forward and been willing to lean into the conversation, but also lean back and be willing to listen."
While the goal is, of course, ultimately to get a full orchestra back on stage, Brosvik insists that will only happen if it can be done safely. And because the question of what is and is not safe changes on a seemingly daily basis, the people who decide the USUO programming have been forced to plan only a few weeks at a time. "[Utah Symphony music director] Thierry Fischer and [Utah Opera artistic director] Christopher McBeth have reprogrammed these first weeks of concerts several times," Brosvik says. "It was, 'If we can't do this, what's another option?' There's been a lot of work and contingency planning."
An additional challenge for a symphony and opera company is the reality that a significant percentage of the audience is older, and therefore likely to be in higher-risk groups for COVID-19 complications. Brosvik says that there has been a concerted effort to reach out to season ticket-holders, work with them and address their concerns. "We're asking, 'How are you feeling, are you planning on attending,' explaining the situation and our current safety protocols, trying to help them make safe decisions for them," he says. "Everyone has a different level of comfort. If somebody wants to wait, keep all of their tickets on account, and wait to see how things progress, that's absolutely fine."
Waiting to see how things progress is now part of Brosvik's job description as well. He notes that as these first scheduled performances take place, he's going to have his eyes and ears on several things. That includes how the musicians and conductor interact on stage in this different set-up, both in terms of how safe and comfortable they feel, and how they adapt to the process of listening to one another in a different configuration. But he also wants to be listening to the response of the audience—"Is there a buzz in the lobby, or are people being quiet as they go to their cars," he says.
Everyone will be adjusting, it's clear, but Brosvik says, "I'm feeling very positive about what lies ahead." As anyone starting a new job knows, that's half the battle.