Audiences will return to Orchestra Hall in June, the Minnesota Orchestra announced Tuesday, a year after last hosting people there.
Those audiences will be smaller — 400 in a room built for 2,000. They'll be masked, distanced, staggered. But they'll be back.
"Even to have a small audience in the beginning, it's a big step for us," music director Osmo Vänskä said by phone.
The orchestra also announced another round of livestreamed concerts for at-home audiences watching on TPT, listening on Classical MPR and viewing on the orchestra's website. The orchestra will continue broadcasting Friday-night shows this summer, even after audiences are back.
The musicians picture audience members as they perform for microphones and cameras, said Vänskä, 68, who got his second dose of the vaccine this month. "But of course it's going to be very emotional to see real people to play for."
The orchestra will use dress rehearsals for livestreamed concerts in April and May to "put into action the protocols we've established," testing mini-audiences of staff, musicians and donors, said Michelle Miller Burns, president and CEO.
Arrivals will be staggered and seats will be distanced. Concerts will be shorter and intermissions will be nixed.
At a time when some U.S. orchestras have gone silent, the Minnesota Orchestra has continued to perform — first for small, outdoor audiences on Peavey Plaza and then for at-home audiences from Orchestra Hall.
"We've been pushed into a circumstance that otherwise might have taken a long time to roll out," Burns said. "But the pandemic pushed us along to say, 'You really do need to explore this digital sphere.' "
Those broadcast concerts, called "This Is Minnesota Orchestra," have nabbed more than 240,000 views on the orchestra's website, TPT's website, social media and other platforms where counting is possible. (One person who watched four concerts would count as four views.)
This month, viewers got a survey asking about their experience of those concerts. One question: "How interested would you be personally if the Minnesota Orchestra offered the following options in addition to in person concerts?" Answers included: "The ability to re-watch a concert ..." "Live-streams of in-person concerts available at the same time as an in-person concert ..." and "Exclusive pre-recorded concerts ..."
The orchestra is developing a digital strategy to keep connecting with viewers via livestreaming, Burns said. "Who is it that is tuning in? ... And how can we continue to engage audiences in that way?"
The newly announced livestreamed shows include works by more composers of color, including Eleanor Alberga, Yaz Lancaster, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a prolific 18th-century composer known, for better or worse, as "The Black Mozart." Guest conductors include Marc Albrecht and Fabien Gabel, as the podium is closely watched for a successor to Vänskä, who will step down as music director next year.
Vänskä himself has a work on the calendar: the world premiere of "Overture," during the season finale June 25. Vänskä wrote the piece during quarantine, a pause during his usually packed conducting schedule.
He's thankful for the Minnesota Orchestra's board, which "made the decision to try to keep the orchestra alive."
"I'm sure it has been a lot of work to try to keep the orchestra going without box office income," Vänskä said. "But I know that all the players and I, we are really happy and grateful that we have been able to work."
But both he and Burns are thrilled at the prospect of gradually filling Orchestra Hall, which has felt so empty for those performances.
"A wonderful work is performed so beautifully by our musicians, and then there's silence at the end," Burns said. "Won't it be wonderful to have that immediate response, that acoustic response of an audience applauding?
"It's part of the concert-going experience that we're missing."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna