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Behind the Scenes

Snapshot of Season (in a Pandemic)

Musicians on stage looking out to an empty hall

With the final notes of our 2020-21 season recently sounded, we’ve taken a quick flip back through a handful of photos to tell the story of the season.

It was a year marked by masks, creative flexibility, and extraordinarily supportive audiences and donors who kept the Minnesota Orchestra powering ahead, even in a pandemic.

Is it safe to gather musicians onstage, especially wind and brass players who can’t wear masks when they play? In the early days of the pandemic, no one knew. University of Minnesota researchers, led by Dr. Jiarong Hong, conducted a comprehensive study with Minnesota Orchestra musicians to evaluate air flow and the safest strategies for bringing musicians together. Their work, combined with literature from other researchers, served as the basis for the multi-layered safety protocols Orchestra musicians would follow in the year ahead.

Masking, distancing, quarantining and COVID-testing formed the backbone of our safety plan and, with these guidelines in place, Music Director Osmo Vänskä was back on the podium in September 2020 to launch the new season.

Our programming featured many small ensembles of players early in the season and, as the year progressed, a gradual crescendo to a full-sized orchestra. A commitment that extended throughout the season was to feature works by composers of color on every program, exploring music both contemporary and historic.

It was a season (mostly) played without audiences in Orchestra Hall, something musicians never quite grew accustomed to. But thanks to livestreaming technology and partnerships with Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and Twin Cities PBS (TPT), the Orchestra presented 19 This Is Minnesota Orchestra live broadcasts for radio, TV and streaming audiences of more than 400,000—all for free, thanks to donor support.

Sarah Hicks, our principal conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall, hosted the broadcasts, sometimes appearing as conductor, too. For most performances, she was the lone person in the audience. But we knew audiences were listening and watching from the enthusiastic emails and survey responses that followed each concert broadcast. “The Friday concerts are like a beacon of light through darkness,” wrote one viewer.

Many shifted their holiday traditions in the pandemic, and the Orchestra was no different. Our reinvented offering, A Midwinter Gathering, featured holiday music and stories of home from Kevin Kling and Ifrah Mansour, among others.

Spring brought the return of guest soloists and conductors to Orchestra Hall, including dynamic pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, who played the Ravel Piano Concerto in G.

In May, we carefully opened a handful of dress rehearsal experiences to staff and guests to prepare for the return of larger audiences in the summer.

And then it was the moment we had longed for: audience members returned to Orchestra Hall in June, as the Orchestra performed for both in-person and digital audiences. Over the course of the summer, we gradually increased in-person audience capacity from 25 to 50 percent.

On the warm evening of July 30, the Orchestra Hall audience—with tickets provided by our musicians’ Bellwether Fund—comprised downtown Minneapolis frontline workers who had kept our city going in the darkest days of the pandemic. Acting Associate Principal Bass Kathryn Nettleman explained the purpose of the concert, “We want to use our work, our gift, to express gratitude for these phenomenal neighbors, on whom all of us rely.”

And now as we close the season, we extend those thanks to you. Whether you watched programs on TPT, listened on MPR, contributed a generous gift, shared a heartfelt thought via email, checked in on Facebook or attended an in-person concert, the Minnesota Orchestra made it through the pandemic season because of your support. Thank you!