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SPO experiments with ‘new normal’ for COVID-19 times

SPO director Osmo Vanska leads the orchestra during a livestreamed concert Friday at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul. (SPO)
SPO director Osmo Vanska leads the orchestra during a livestreamed concert Friday at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul. (SPO)

The prolonged COVID-19 crisis has been pushing the performing arts scene to search for new ways to share their art, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra has found a way to perform together onstage while complying with the social distancing measures.

The SPO, a Seoul City-funded orchestra, had originally planned to perform onstage with an in-person audience at the Seoul Arts Center on Friday. The plan, however was canceled due to renewed concerns about COVID-19 community spread.

The orchestra then proceeded to pursue a performance that would be streamed live online. For the concert, the SPO, which typically performs with about 100 musicians onstage, made changes to the original program, performing pieces that required small ensembles to accommodate the social distancing requirement for the musicians. At any point in the concert, there were no more than 50 musicians on the stage at once.

Titled “#ThankYouAll,” the concert was held under the baton of director Osmo Vanska, who traveled here from the US for the occasion and was subjected to a two-week quarantine upon arrival.

While Stravinsky, Symphonies of Wind Instruments and Vaughan Williams, which requires 24 orchestra members, and Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for String Orchestra, which requires 50 musicians, were kept from the original program, Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme Enigma, Op. 36, a grand orchestral work, was replaced by Mozart Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K.543, which required 43 musicians.

All the orchestra members onstage -- except for the wind instrument players -- wore masks. The conductor and string players were situated 1.5 meters apart, string players were 1.5 meters apart from each other and string players and woodwind players were distanced 3 meters apart.

Though it is customary for two string players to share one music stand, for this concert, each player had an individual music stand. Transparent plastic barriers were placed in front of wind instrument players.

In concert halls, it is hard to detect small hand gestures and facial expressions of the orchestra members and the conductor from a distance. However, the streamed video captured even the smallest details and delivered them to the audiences watching the show at home.

“With the post-coronavirus era, the SPO considered developing a proper production process, adjusting to the ‘new normality’ for the safety of the musicians, artists and the audience in the concert hall,” SPO CEO Kang Eun-kyung said before the concert streamed online.

She also said the orchestra will consider changes to the artists and programs slated for the rest of the year, keeping artists from overseas to a minimum and adjust the concert schedules, taking into consideration the 14-day quarantine rule for foreign arrivals.

The online concert was streamed via the orchestra’s Facebook and YouTube accounts. The video clip has also been uploaded to watch again on Naver TV and YouTube. The concert recorded 23,000 viewers as of Tuesday.

By Im Eun-byel (