Do you know which instrument in an orchestra requires the biggest spit shield?
You said the tuba, didn’t you? Or maybe the trombone?
Anyone who spent time in a school band will likely know the correct answer: it’s the flute.
"There’s some studies done in Europe, mainly, that say the instrument that maybe projects the droplets a bit further than anything else because of the nature of the instrument is the flute," says Jean-François Phaneuf, the vice-president of artistic operations and community engagement at the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, gesturing to a pair of Plexiglas shields that look almost comically oversized.
These are the kinds of things Phaneuf and his team need to think about in the era of COVID-19. It’s the last Friday afternoon in September and we’re standing on the stage at the Centennial Concert Hall where, a week later, a scaled-down WSO will return for Opening Night: Beethoven and Bach on Oct. 2 and 3.
Phaneuf has just spent the last two days touring small groups of musicians through their new normal before rehearsals get underway. The full 67-member orchestra has not been in the hall since March, when the global pandemic spelled curtains for its season.
And it won’t be now, nearly seven months later: a maximum of 40 musicians will grace the stage in a configuration that allows for physical distancing. "The safety of our musicians is paramount," Phaneuf says.
For months, Phaneuf and his team, which includes production manager Laura Lindeblom, have been hard at work on the Herculean task of getting an orchestra back onstage safely amid a pandemic, casting an eye across the Atlantic for a rough blueprint.
"Because Europe went through its first wave before us, we were starting our plans working off guidelines that they had in place, and their stage setup," Lindeblom says. "They were doing research about wind instruments before North America was. A lot of this was adapted from other plans."
The WSO’s plan is rigorous in its detail, and it’s had to evolve many times over. In May, for example, the organization had a thick book of protocols and plans that, by the second week of June, had to be tossed.
"A lot of tears, a lot of bottles of wine," Phaneuf jokes. "But we adapt and that’s what we do."
So is the ever-changing nature of planning during a pandemic. Even that afternoon, as Phaneuf was giving a tour to musicians, the province announced it would be moving to level orange on its pandemic response system and masks would be mandated in public spaces.
Previously, musicians could remove their masks once seated onstage. "We’ll need to have a meeting and look at the order," Phaneuf says. "The ones who are not wind players, obviously, may have to keep their masks on."
Adapt, adapt, adapt.
The WSO’s safety plan begins backstage. Musicians must use the self-evaluation tool before entering the hall, and masks must be worn. Hand-sanitizing stations, one-way traffic flow, designated distanced spaces for lunch — all kinds of measures, big and small, have been put in place. Dressing rooms are not available, neither are water fountains; only two people can be in a washroom at a time.
Prepared music goes into musicians’ boxes 72 hours prior to when they need to collect it. After that, they are the only ones to touch it.
Scheduling has also changed. Typically, orchestra musicians rehearse for 21/2 hours. Those have been scaled down to 90 minutes in order to eliminate breaks.
"Breaks are deadly," Phaneuf says. "We don’t want breaks." Musicians are also not to show up early or hang around afterward.
Out on the vast concert hall stage, chairs for 40 are meticulously placed. "We decided that 40 was the maximum, which is more than many orchestras in North America," Phaneuf says.
Unlike many of the halls North American symphony orchestras call home, the Centennial Concert Hall does not have a permanent orchestra shell, which meant Phaneuf and his team had more stage to work with. The venue recently replaced its broken retractable shell with an acoustic control system, or ACS, which Phaneuf describes as an electronic shell. "Which is kinda nice, because this helps the musicians to hear themselves on stage," he says.
Being able to have 40 musicians allows the WSO to draw from a larger repertoire of symphonies; orchestras operating with smaller numbers are mostly confined to chamber music, or are simply not performing this fall at all.
The music is also what determines which 40 members of the orchestra will take the stage for a given performance.
"If you do a Beethoven symphony, there’s certain instrumentation," Phaneuf says. Some sections also simply have more players than others and so, the orchestra will be performing with a scaled-back string section on a rotating basis.
"All the other strings prepare the part, and they are on call," Phaneuf says. "Right now, the possibility of someone being called in is much higher. Even if someone has a little throat, a little fever, a little cough, boom."
Onstage, every musician has a two-metre circle of personal space, except for woodwind and brass players, who get a three-metre circle.
"The legislation says the two metres should be from the end of their bell," Phaneuf explains. "If you’re a clarinet, it doesn’t matter, it’s within two metres. But if you’re a trombone, the slide and the bell goes beyond."
In addition to Plexiglas shields, brass and woodwinds have plastic containers with lids by their chairs for towels, cleaning rods and other tools used to deal with the condensation that develops on their instruments. Musicians are in charge of their own container and nothing is to touch the floor — which is also a change.
"Sometimes you’d see a little puddle," Phaneuf says of the stage during normal times. "No more puddles right now."
The conductor — who, for this weekend’s shows, will be associate conductor Julian Pellicano — will wear a microphone so that he doesn’t have to yell and therefore potentially shower the orchestra with droplets, and his directions will come through monitors above the musicians’ heads.
"I joked to the conductor that he’s going to sound like God," Phaneuf says with a laugh.
The plan has been warmly received by orchestra members.
"We have some musicians in their 70s and everyone felt very safe," Phaneuf says. "The musicians are much more concerned about being able to play Beethoven’s symphony when the timpani is half a football field away from the first violin. But that’s why they are professional musicians."
Indeed, Phaneuf and his team are confident the new setup is safe. What they won’t know, until the musicians actually get into the space, is how it will sound.
"That’s the million-dollar question," Phaneuf says.
The following Tuesday afternoon, WSO principal clarinet Micah Heilbrunn finished his first rehearsal with the orchestra since March, and his first rehearsal in the new normal.
"It was great to see everybody and play some music together again," he says on his walk home from the concert hall. "We’re like a big family there. Everyone’s really close. It was just nice to be able to get back together and see everyone in person.
"But definitely, everything is different."
Being so far apart on stage is an adjustment, to be sure. As for that million-dollar question, the orchestra’s musicians are pros. "The experience we have on stage is actually quite different from the experience people in the audience would have," he says. "I mean, we’re spread quite far apart. Normally, the second clarinet would be almost touching me. Now, we’re three metres away from each other. It’s almost like playing in another room. But we adjust. Everyone’s a great musician and I think we made it work."
Besides, as cellist Emma Quackenbush points out, the orchestra performs in all kinds of environments that present their own challenges.
The latest updates on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
"We play in high school gyms and we play outside," says Quackenbush, who also serves on the WSO’s health and safety committee. "I played at the airport this summer in a small group. It is part of our job to adapt to those different situations. The Winnipeg Symphony, in particular, that’s one of our strong suits as an orchestra."
And so, distancing onstage is another challenge this orchestra is prepared to meet. "Through the rehearsal, after about an hour, we found our groove," she says.
The WSO usually takes a break in the summer, but this year’s reunion felt extra special, Quackenbush says.
"It gave us hope, I think."
Jen Zoratti Columnist
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Just as the musicians must navigate a new normal in a COVID-19 world, so, too, must symphony-goers. Here's what ticketholders can expect:
Each concert will be approximately 90 minutes with no intermissions, in order to mitigate congregating in the lobby.
Audiences will be capped at a distanced 420. Every second row, as well as three seats between cohort groups, will be blocked off. Rows 1 to 5 are also not available to accommodate distancing from the stage.
Masks must be worn.
All ticketing will be done electronically, with timed entries to the hall to avoid congestion in lobbies.
Instructions on staggered exits after the concert will be announced from the stage.
Seats will be disinfected between concerts.
The Centennial Concert Hall has also updated its ventilation and air filtration systems. "I was saying to my husband, I feel more comfortable in the concert hall than I do in some grocery stores," says WSO cellist Emma Quackenbush.
Remember the fundamentals: if you are unwell, stay home.