Rebuilding the concert season: The SPCO tackles the digital terrain

Violinist Eunae Koh rehearsing for a digital concert. Photo courtesy of Peter Myers.

Currently, we are in the midst of something completely new for The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra: a fall season comprised entirely of concert video streams without an audience in the concert hall. For our musicians and artistic staff, it was the culmination of six months of plans, disruptions, and new plans. 

Since March 2020, all aspects of life have dramatically shifted from routine to unpredictable. People everywhere have been challenged to exercise their adaptability like never before. That includes The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra with three rounds of concert cancellations, now extended through the end of 2020. Behind the scenes during several months of turbulence, our Artistic Vision Committee (AVC) played a key role in the organization’s response. In an industry where orchestra seasons are typically planned 12-24 months in advance, the AVC had to creatively rebuild the 2020-21 concert season in response to COVID-19 not once but twice.

In an industry where orchestra seasons are typically planned 12-24 months in advance, the AVC had to creatively rebuild the 2020-21 concert season in response to COVID-19 not once but twice.

The AVC, a committee of musicians and senior management, formed in 2003 when the SPCO started transitioning from having a traditional music director toward an innovative musician-led model in which orchestra members guide long-term artistic goals. Since the committee’s inception, its majority has been made up of musicians who serve on a rotating basis and are elected by their fellow orchestra members 

For Artistic Director and Principal Violin Kyu-Young Kim, the AVC is an essential part of the SPCO’s artistic governance and the main vehicle for the SPCO musicians to have a voice in what, how, and with whom they play.For orchestra musicians [at many U.S. ensembles] those choices are usually made by the Music Director and an Artistic Administrator who works directly with the Music Director and maybe takes some input from an advisory committee of musicians.  At the SPCO, we don’t have a Music Director and, in recent years, we have been moving more and more to a musician-led/conductorless model so it is crucial that we are picking the music that all of us want to play and share with our audiences.” 

As Artistic Director, Kim plays a central role in the AVC and programming process. “One thing I love about programming for the SPCO is that there is such versatility in the ensemble that we can really program such a range of repertoire, both in terms of style and period,” he said. “I like to go for unusual juxtapositions of pieces from very different periods that still share a common thread.”

“But at the SPCO, the musicians on AVC are empowered with responsibilities regarding key artistic decisions…” 

Also working closely with the committee and Kim is Director of Artistic Projects and Initiatives Paul Finkelstein. “In most American orchestras, musicians on artistic committees serve only in an advisory role,” said Finkelstein. “But at the SPCO, the musicians on AVC are empowered with responsibilities regarding key artistic decisions such as the choice of Artistic Partners and major artistic initiatives.” 

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, it became clear that the SPCO would need to respond to a number of new realities: an economic downturn, potential restrictions on artist travel, and concerns about musician and audience safety. A season’s worth of plans suddenly became obsolete. The traditional planning process involving three musicians elected to AVC would no longer suffice. Instead, the organization doubled down on its collaborative model, creating a new “AVC Plus (AVC+) group that ultimately included more than half of the orchestra as well as several administrative staff. 

In just three weeks in April, the expanded group met virtually to rebuild the season from scratch, resulting in over 25 thoughtfully curated and researched concerts, a feat which would usually take two years of discussion. 

Smaller ensembles, such as the quartet pictured here, have replaced large group performances for the time being. All involved musicians and staff are required to wear face masks while practicing social distancing. Photo courtesy of Peter Myers.

By summer, however, it became clear that the SPCO needed a backup plan for its backup plan. We recognized that [the pandemic] would likely not allow us to gather safely as a full orchestra or with our audience in the fall,” Paul explained. “In response, the AVC+ convened once more to reimagine how we could plan a meaningful fall season for our SPCO family utilizing the spectacular HD video capabilities in the Ordway Concert Hall.” In August, the alternative streaming-only plan became the official plan. 

To limit larger numbers of musicians on stage at one time, AVC+ focused the upcoming digital concerts on chamber music’s natural intimacy and the direct, personal connection a smaller ensemble offers its audiences. “Viewers will really get to know our orchestra members and their individual sounds and expressions in a range of repertoire, Kim said. 

He added that, with the additional perspectives on the committee, he feels they have successfully been able to “channel our collective creative energies and come up with some really distinctive programs” for the digital fall season. 

As the AVC+ group researched and developed programs, the SPCO’s management and artistic operations teams began working with the Ordway Center staff to plan a safe return. One challenge: much of the Ordway’s staff had been furloughed earlier in the crisis, and the facility had essentially been mothballed since winter. The SPCO team worked with medical advisers that included a former CDC staff member.

The need for virtual concertgoing became even more apparent.

Another group, the SPCO’s Digital Media team, began making plans for an unprecedented increase in new video productions. While typical fall seasons have included three video concerts, from September through New Year’s Eve the SPCO is sharing six free video concerts streamed live from the Ordway Concert Hall, along with special “encore broadcasts.” The summer months quickly became booked with extensive planning, which included administrative staff members from all corners of the office, now scattered throughout the Twin Cities in workfromhome fashion. Now relying entirely on digital platforms, the SPCO saw record-breaking attendance in its spring and summer digital concerts. The need for virtual concertgoing became even more apparent.

The broadcast control room has also been partially relocated to keep the video production team safely distanced. Photo from a 2019.20 live stream production.

An all-digital season wasn’t something we ever anticipated. It’s a real challenge, but the audience response has been inspiring,” said Matt Thueson, Executive Producer of Digital Media. “We always have a great deal of teamwork and alignment across the organization, but the way that everyone eagerly jumped on board with so much passion is a testament to my colleagues’ dedication. This is certainly a memorable time,” he said, “But it feels great to be sharing music with our audience once again. 

To learn more about the SPCO’s upcoming digital concerts, visit