Best of Houston® 2021

Best Of Houston® 2021: Pandemic Pivot in the Performing Arts

Houston Symphony knows how to do the sidestep when things get tough.
Houston Symphony knows how to do the sidestep when things get tough. Photo by Jeff Fitlow
For a performing arts organization that presents nearly 170 concerts annually, what do you do when a pandemic strikes and everything shuts down? Houston Symphony simply said, “You can’t stop the beat.” It was one of the only orchestras in the world to present a full season in 2020–21, both via livestream and in front of a live audience. Further, they became the model for other organizations — from New York to Los Angeles and abroad — to follow.

Houston Symphony got creative with their programming by introducing The Living Room Series. Since many musicians are married to other artists, or have other artist children, they were already living in their bubble and didn’t have to place themselves in peril by performing in Jones Hall. All they had to do was set up some equipment in their living room – hence the series’ name – and play for an online audience. These weekly pop-up duets and trios allowed audience members to get to know more about the individuals as well, since we were guests in their homes for an hour. The series, originally scheduled for only four weeks in summer 2020, was in such demand that the organization extended the programming an extra month.

Hungry to do its part to bring life back to Jones Hall, Houston Symphony worked hand-in-hand with researchers from Rice University to understand how airborne viruses can be transmitted through their instruments and the safety implications that would be necessitated for live performances.

As the world started to understand COVID-19 a little better and people started feeling more secure, Houston Symphony slowly reintroduced live performances, starting with string instruments, to avoid the woodwind and brass instruments which involve aspiration, and worked their way up to having audience member return in small, controlled groups.

...And that was all while in the midst of planning of what would eventually become the 2021-22 farewell season for Andres Orozco-Estrada and introduction of the new artistic director Juraj Valcuha. There’s a reason they’re one of the oldest performing arts groups in the state – they know how to pivot when the situation calls for it.

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