Citing “an unprecedented financial situation,” the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra took the unprecedented step Wednesday of eliminating guest soloists and furloughing its five artistic partners — a roster of internationally famed performers who mount special programs.

Instead, the SPCO will rely on its own musicians to fill the gap. Fifteen will be featured as soloists in the season scheduled to begin Sept. 11 at Ordway Center with an unconducted performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. All told, 101 performances are scheduled at 11 Twin Cities venues — a significant reduction from the 124 concerts and 17 venues planned for the current season, which was curtailed by the coronavirus outbreak.

The announcement acknowledges how fragile the planning process is, given the pandemic.

“We are anticipating social distancing protocols for next season,” SPCO president Jon Limbacher said in an interview. “We will be developing contingency plans for all of our venues in the coming weeks and months, and will be engaging in discussions about those plans with our venue partners.”

Limbacher also revealed the body blow the COVID-19 crisis has already dealt to the orchestra’s finances.

“We are planning for our revenue to be down 31 percent in financial year 2021 compared to our FY20 budget,” he said. “We will be offsetting this decline with expense reductions, our Rainy Day Fund and special one-time fundraising.”

The SPCO said it “remains hopeful that concerts will be performed this fall,” and will continue to offer free ticket exchanges or refunds if concerts are changed or rescheduled.

The absence of guest artists is a major disappointment, but it also serves as a hedge against future COVID-related travel restrictions.

Kyu-Young Kim, the SPCO’s artistic director and principal violin, said he views 2020-21 as “a unique opportunity for our own musicians to step up” in “a true team effort.”

Soloists next season include principal cellist Julie Albers playing Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations (Oct. 16-18); principal horn James Ferree in Mozart’s Fourth Horn Concerto (Jan. 8-10) and concertmaster Steven Copes in Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata (Nov. 13-15), in a new arrangement by former SPCO artistic partner Stephen Prutsman that had been scheduled for this spring.

Among the venues the SPCO will visit is the Capri Theater in north Minneapolis, with a three-concert series at the refurbished venue.

Although the season leans on some tried and trusted favorites — including holiday concerts of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Handel’s Messiah, and Thanksgiving weekend performances of Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” — the SPCO continues its commitment to contemporary music.

It will present the U.S. premiere of a string orchestra work by English composer Thomas Adès, and the world premiere of American composer Sky Macklay’s chamber piece “If a Train Leaves New York.”

The SPCO’s strong outreach to younger audiences continues in the fifth year of its New Generation Initiative, offering free tickets to concerts for children and students.

The orchestra also will continue to expand its online Concert Library, which has been visited more than 80,000 times during the coronavirus crisis. Launched three years ago, it provides video recordings of previous concerts free of charge.

Free livestreaming of selected concerts also has been a feature of recent seasons. Those will continue only “if special funding becomes available,” the orchestra said.

Limbacher said that protecting the orchestra’s financial health and the compensation of musicians and staff “continue to be our core objectives.”

“The members of the SPCO are receiving their full contracted compensation,” he said, “but there are no guarantees in a crisis of this nature with so many unknown elements.”

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at