By Mary Kopco, Executive Director and Wes Kenney, Music Director
The Fort Collins Symphony (FCS), in the middle of its Platinum Season 70, hosted a concert titled “Silver Linings” on March 7, 2020. In the weeks leading up to and following the concert, the coronavirus—COVID-19, went from an infectious outbreak in a few states to an international pandemic. By March 26, Colorado Governor Polis had issued a “Stay at Home” order which effectively ended the Symphony’s Season.
The prescient “Silver Linings” title has inspired the FCS throughout the pandemic as board, staff, and orchestra have all worked together to find the silver linings where classical music can continue to shine through these dark clouds, and bring a modicum of joy during a time of great uncertainty and tragedy.
From the outset of the shutdown, Maestro Wes Kenney, the board, and staff all agreed to find ways for the Fort Collins Symphony to serve the Northern Colorado community. As Maestro Kenney maintains, “Classical music has the ability on one end of the spectrum to be a reflection of the world in its current state (see all the works written in reaction to 9/11), or to inspire and energize, and finally soothe the soul, help us reflect, and particularly to assist in making sense of our world. No matter what an individual may be feeling at this time, there is a piece of classical music that is going to resonate with that person and help them through this trying time.”
An organizational commitment to financially and emotionally support musicians and to continue serving patrons has driven the FCS to find funding and performance opportunities outside of the norm. To provide immediate financial relief to musicians, a “Keep Us Playing” campaign was established in March with lead gifts from Maestro Wes and Leslie Kenney and Executive Director Mary and Paul Kopco. By early June, over 84 households from 12 states had donated $21,505. The money was divided equally between tenured and provisional members.
The importance of this support is evident in a couple of comments received: “I want to sincerely thank you and anyone else helping fundraise to pay the FCS musicians. I’m sure I speak for everyone when I say we really appreciate this so much. Thank you for everything you guys are doing to help us out during a tough time.” Another musician wrote, “I wanted to thank you for making the KUP campaign successful. Turns out my check arrived the same week I was having to pay my instrument insurance bill! Perfect timing.”
To provide emotional support, the FCS invited musicians to record themselves performing a favorite piece of music to share on the Symphony’s website. Twenty-eight musicians gave 34 recorded “Tiny Concerts.” In addition, musicians and Maestro Kenney recorded their funny stories about being professional musicians for the online “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stage” project.
One of the best aspects of the Tiny Concerts has been being able to see FCS musicians up close and personal. Who didn’t love seeing Derek McDonald playing his trumpet while his baby is in the background smiling up a storm and when cellist Peter Linder’s daughter tries to get her dad’s attention so he can open her drink? Seeing spouses Jean and Alan Denney, Tom Bittinger and Beth Wells, and Ezgi and Igor Pikayzen perform together was an additional treat. Professional composer Morgan Denney even wrote a piece for her mother violinist Jean Denney to play (in her pajamas!). One FCS donor wrote, “I am loving these virtual concerts. Not only are they beautiful, but they also give me a chance to meet orchestra members so when I go to concerts I will know more of them as individuals.”
It has also been gratifying to be watching FCS musicians come up with ways to challenge themselves in fun and unexpected ways. For example, violist Sabrina Lloyd chose to play piano instead of her primary instrument, flutist Sandy Tiemens tackled three variations of her instrument, bassoonist Tom Bittinger and violinist Chris Menter duplicated/quadrupled themselves, and principal bass Brett Armstrong used looping software.
During the spring, the FCS received a Payroll Protection Program (PPP) forgivable loan which was used to pay the orchestra for the cancelled final concert of the 70th Season. The money also supported performances by eight musicians via Zoom to Dementia Together audiences who attended the weekly June Virtual Variety Shows.
When the number of COVID cases began to decrease in Colorado in late May (“flattening the curve” in COVID parlance), the FCS began looking for opportunities to make live music while the sun is shining as scientists postulated that social activities are safer being done outside rather than indoors. With PPP money still available, the FCS approached the Fort Collins’ Lincoln Center to see if the orchestra could give its traditional July 4th performance. At the same time, personnel manager Jean Denney noted that the Holiday Twin Drive-In (one of only 321 Drive-In theatres in the nation) was beginning to host some small live concerts.
The FCS reached out to both the Lincoln Center (LC) and the Holiday Twin Drive-In to explore possibilities. Since the City of Fort Collins wanted to discourage large gatherings of people, LC General Manager Jack Rogers came up with the idea of having music acts perform on the stage so they could be recorded and then streamed to an online audience. Holiday Twin owner Stephanie Webb completely embraced the concept of hosting a live patriotic concert with a light show.
Of course, the devil is always in the details and with that in mind, Wes Kenney, Mary Kopco, Production Manager Kevin Wolfgang and Personnel Manager Jean Denney did an assessment of how many musicians could be safely distanced (per current CDC guidelines) on the Lincoln Center’s performance hall stage. It was determined that up to 44 musicians plus a conductor could safely perform. Maestro Kenney then programmed a patriotic concert based on that number of musicians.
Jean Denney prepared a COVID-19 Manual with detailed instructions of protocols to be followed during rehearsals and performances. The manual was sent to musicians and was also posted on the FCS website for musicians to access. The manual continues to be updated as new information becomes available and additional CDC and Larimer County Health Department regulations are enacted. Mary Kopco created 2 COVID supply bags which include infrared thermometers, nitrile disposable gloves, disposable face masks, first aid kits, hand sanitizer, anti-viral wipes, isopropyl alcohol and hand wipes, and disposable plastic containers and bags.
On Friday, July 3, 2020, 43 FCS musicians performed together for the first time since March 7th at the Fort Collins Lincoln Center. Because the Lincoln Center parking lot, dressing rooms, and backstage gathering spaces were under construction, musicians were only allowed access to the Center through the Founder’s Room where they were able to store their instrument cases and belongings. Up to nine people were allowed in the room at a time. Mary and Jean recorded each musician’s temperature, asked approved health-related questions, and made sure musicians were wearing masks and understood the protocols required. The hall had been thoroughly cleaned and everyone on staff at the Lincoln Center was wearing masks and helping direct musicians.
At downbeat, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was striking how quickly everyone was on the same page given the unfamiliar circumstances of being physically distanced from each other and having to wear masks. After rehearsing from 2:00 to 3:15, musicians took a 15-minute break with one-way access to bathrooms and one-way access back to the stage. The Lincoln Center recorded the performance with Mayor Troxell giving a pre-recorded introduction. It was streamed at 7 p.m. on July 4th on the Lincoln Center’s website.
The Holiday Twin Drive-In concert was a totally unique and wildly different experience. The Drive-In paid to host the orchestra which made the performance financially feasible. Although the Holiday Twin planned for 355 cars, a total of 398 cars with over 1,200 people actually attended the concert.
The HTDI rented a tent that was 36’ x 40’ with a raised stage platform. They also hired Rythm EFX to do a light show at the conclusion of the concert. Owner Stephanie Webb hosted a VIP reception for 50 people who were willing to pay a premium price. Her son CJ Cesar, a professional chef, prepared a delightful spread, complete with wine, and a nice takeaway of popcorn, water, and 4th of July decorations.
Outdoor concerts are not for the faint of heart. This concert was no exception. At 2 p.m., thunderstorms stormed through the region. Upon arriving on-site, a major windstorm was wreaking havoc under the tent as chairs, music stands, and sound shields were overturned. The brand new 10’x10’ canopy recently purchased by the FCS was completed destroyed by the wind. Thankfully the wind storm was short-lived, and the stage was able to be re-set as musicians began arriving.
The reception began at 6 p.m. with welcoming remarks given by Stephanie Webb and Maestro Kenney, again with no dry eyes at the reception. As the event concluded, the grounds were quickly filling with cars and a very light rain fell. This delayed the 7 p.m. rehearsal by about 15 minutes. As a rainbow filled the sky, the musicians were able to rehearse but not without the sun blinding the cello section for about 10 minutes. A large ladder, blanket and the help of a patron provided shade.
At 8 p.m., the Fort Collins Symphony joined Maestro Kenney on-stage to perform the only live orchestral concert presented to a live audience in the entire nation. The neighbors lit up the sky with fireworks and Mother Nature provided clear skies, a kind breeze, and a full moon. The lighting under the tent was magical as it outlined the orchestra in beautiful pastels. Like clockwork, the digital fireworks dramatically accompanied the 1812 Overture. Kenney observed that the fireworks not being subject to the weather were timed perfectly that evening. As the orchestra performed Stars and Stripes, local Fort Collins business Rythm EFX surprised everyone with a breathtaking fire show.
Applause throughout the evening was a combination of clapping, hooting, and honking of horns. Maestro Kenney noted how it was probably the first time ever that the audience was part of the horn section. The evening concluded with resounding honking and then the playing of a FCS-commissioned and recorded piece–Symphony Interruptus– on the big and small movie screens during intermission. Following intermission, guests were treated to a screening of the movie Ghostbusters.
Always in the back of everyone’s mind was the big “what if” any of our musicians or audience members were exposed to the virus at the concerts. Although significant precautions were taken to keep everyone safe, bringing people together still carries risk. The FCS held its breath as the numbers of those testing positive for Covid-19 began to rise across the country. Contract tracing indicated the rise was due to 4th of July family and neighborhood gatherings where people did not social distance or wear masks. FCS’ careful planning and precautions paid off and no one reported getting the virus.
In early July, the FCS sent out a survey to patrons about their comfort levels of attending concerts. While many responded they would not feel comfortable attending a live performance inside, many said they would attend a small concert in an outdoor venue. The FCS events committee with financial support from Dr. Peter Springberg, quickly pulled together 4 “Music’s in the Air” concerts in large gardens at private homes. These concerts feature small ensemble performance of FCS musicians, including a brass quintet, jazz quartet, and 2 string quartets. The free concerts were a way to thank donors and long-standing patrons, and to get many of those members out of their homes in a safe environment to hear live music. Up to 50 people (including musicians and host) were allowed to attend.
Following the first concert, one musician wrote, “Thank you to everyone who made this concert (and all our concerts!) possible. Thank you for opening your home up to all of us, performers and patrons alike! Working with each of you makes our jobs as performers so much easier and more conducive to artistry! We loved performing for you and truly hope to do it again very soon!” One of the FCS patrons said, “I want to thank you again for your efforts to make the evening such a fun event. A great evening get-away from the Covid ‘stay at home.’”
Since the FCS had to cancel its spring Pops concert, the board was committed to finding summer venues to host the concert. The planned Sci-Fi concert scheduled for late March required too many musicians so Maestro Kenney went back to the drawing board to program a movie-theme concert. The Holiday Twin Drive-In immediately jumped on board. The Gardens on Spring Creek (GSC) with its new outdoor stage at Everitt Pavilion was also willing to host the FCS for their first concert. Although the GSC great lawn will normally host 1500 people, only 175 people could be properly social distanced on-site as mandated by county regulations. The hunger for live music coupled with first performance in the gorgeous gardens resulted in the 175 tickets being snapped up in under 48 hours, with a waiting list to boot.
As if a pandemic wasn’t enough, major forest fires blew up in Colorado. The Cameron Peak fire, approximately 60 miles northwest of Fort Collins, began on August 13 and swept through the region with a vengeance causing evacuations and extremely unhealthy air quality. The blood red sunset on display during the garden concert at the home of Gary and Carol Ann Hixon was both terrifying and extraordinary to behold.
Leading up to the weekend of the “Heroes and Legends” pops concerts, staff checked the air quality dashboard repeatedly. Afternoon temperatures in the 90s did little to help the situation. Venues and musicians were on standby wondering if the concerts would be cancelled.
On August 22nd, musicians showed up at the Holiday Twin at 2 p.m. to rehearse. The heat under the tent was intense but the winds were keeping the smoke at bay. The orchestra performed at 8 p.m. to a full house of cars. The orchestra was projected on the movie screen above the tent with Maestro Kenney looking larger than life. Several photographs give the appearance of Maestro Kenney, in his white tuxedo, looming over the tent as if he were the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. The 90-minute concert featured popular cinematic music from James Bond, Hamilton, Wonder Woman, Batman: The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Titanic, Forest Gump, March from 1941, Cinema Paradiso, Dance of the Hours and Night on Bald Mountain (Fantasia). The concert ended to the resounding honking of horns as applause.
The concert on the following day at the GSC great lawn proved to be even trickier as the air quality went from bad to very bad during the noon hour. At 1 p.m. rehearsal time, the wind shifted and the orchestra was able to rehearse. Everyone remained on pins and needles throughout the afternoon. By 6 p.m., the orchestra was given the go-ahead to play to a carefully spaced audience of fans seated in lawn chairs and on blankets. Children skipped, jumped, and danced to the music while guests snacked on picnics. The evening concluded with a moving performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
All of the knowledge gained from performing live concerts during the summer made it possible for the FCS to find creative ways to continue performing in September and early October. The board made the timely decision to record the performance of the Youth Education Series (YES) concert in late September rather than attempt live performances in mid-January. For 69 years, the orchestra has performed these educational concerts for Larimer County 4th and 5th grade students. Currently, the concerts reach over 4,300 students, many of whom had never attended a live symphonic performance and are at the point of deciding whether to learn to play an instrument. These concerts are a critical piece of the FCS sustainability plan.
With grant funding in place, the orchestra played composer Greg Smith’s “An Animated Orchestra” and premiered his “Shave and a Haircut” for orchestra, plus other music recommended by the Poudre School District’s Music Memory curriculum. According to one musician who performed at the concert, “I’m pleased with the fairly comprehensive Covid policies designed to make it as safe as possible for musicians and staff. And I’m extremely happy about the approach of passwording the video and not posting it for general public access. And I’m happy that the orchestra has prioritized and found a way to have a meaningful educational experience for the students of Ft Collins—certainly something we need right now.”
The YES concert was recorded on September 26th with a limited audience of education committee members and donors present. Steve Roberts with Crescent Sun Pictures was hired to record and produce the concert. The recording will include interviews with musicians as well as graphics plus a packet of educational materials will be forwarded to teachers in early 2021 with a password to show the concert to students at an appropriate time. The concert will be made available to elementary, middle, and high school students.
The FCS concluded its season of live performances with “Winds of Change” concerts on October 2 and 3, 2020 at the Fort Collins Lincoln Center. In pre-pandemic times, the Symphony would have kicked off its new season on the first Saturday of October by performing one concert to an audience of over 1100. The orchestra instead performed three 90-minute concerts with no intermission to small (55 to 76 people) physically distanced and masked audiences. To save on expense and reduce exposure time, the program book and Maestro Kenney’s pre-concert talk were made available on-line. In addition to the live performances, a live-stream of the Friday night concert was made available for viewing over the weekend.
The “Winds of Change” live and live-streamed concerts featured Louise Farrenc’s Overture No. 2 and Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 2. By all accounts it was truly an inspiring performance by our musicians, Maestro Wes Kenney, and guest artist Igor Pikayzen. These first indoor concerts came on the heels of an unprecedented summer of performances when the pandemic spurred the FCS to “make hay while the sun was shining.” This included six socially distanced live concerts, three small in-person garden concerts, three virtual concerts, and a number of other smaller on-line presentations—all while following Larimer County Health Department and CDC safety protocols.
Despite Lincoln Center and the FCS efforts to keep everyone safe, it was clear that most FCS patrons currently do not feel comfortable attending live indoor events. Although there were no reports of anyone in the audience or on-stage contracting the virus at the October concerts, the FCS Board of Directors made the wise decision to postpone the rest of the planned “Sounds of Change Season 71” concerts until COVID cases decrease dramatically.
When the FCS is able to return to live performances, Maestro Kenney has developed an entirely new repertoire constrained to 44 musicians on-stage at any given time. This means that not only strings will have the opportunity to play but also woodwinds, brass, and percussion (just not all at the same time). These smaller orchestras on stage will make it possible to return to live performance more quickly and economically. Lastly, in keeping with the increasing awareness of the Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and other social justice movements, the repertoire reflects the diversity of artists who compose classical music.
The ever-nimble Fort Collins Symphony has now shifted its course onto virtual stages. The “Sounds of the Season” concert, recorded on November 16, features 15 members of the Fort Collins Symphony performing popular, medieval, ballet, modern, Gregorian, klezmer, and jazz. The string quartet, woodwind quintet, brass quintet, timpani, and the 15-piece ensemble play winter favorites chosen from Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice traditions. Maestro Kenney, as the master of ceremonies, animates the concert, and also conducts the full ensemble performing two pieces. The concert streamed over the course of two weekends in December.
The seasonal concert was such a success and proved there was an appetite for watching recorded FCS performances. In early February, the orchestra performed “Love Notes” with the music streaming on Valentine’s Weekend. The string orchestra played more traditional fare such as Mahler’s Adagietto from his Symphony No. 5, and Sibelius’ Romance. As part of the FCS’ on-going commitment to diversity programming, the concert featured British bi-racial composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Noveletten Nos. 2, 3, & 4. We also welcomed a vocal quartet who performed selections of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Walzer. It was the first time in almost a year these musicians sang with an orchestra.
While members of Northern Colorado are being vaccinated against COVID-19, the FCS continues to record concerts, including the Friends of Symphony’s sponsored Musical Zoo performance of “Peter and the Wolf.”
The Celtic Fantasy concert included traditional Irish music written by male and female composers, and streamed during a classic Colorado spring blizzard on the March weekend before St. Patrick’s Day. In late April, the orchestra played “America Awakens” with Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and Tender Land Suite plus Black American composer Adolphus Hailstork’s Church Street Serenade.
On May 13, 2021, the White House and CDC issued new guidelines allowing people who are fully vaccinated to begin to return to normal activities. Performance venues are beginning to reopen, and there is great optimism that live music to in-person audiences will resume during summer 2021.
That being said, the FCS will be back on-stage at the Holiday Twin Drive-In on July 4th and Gardens at Spring Creek with even larger audiences able to enjoy live classical music. Likewise, the summer garden concerts with small ensembles for patrons will continue, as will streaming live concerts in the fall.
The question might be asked why the FCS has gone to the trouble and taken the risk to keep finding ways to perform during a pandemic. The answers are found in two recent comments shared:
By a FCS musician:
“I just want to tell you all, thank you. Everything you have all done means a great deal to me, and I know pretty much all of us. Ever since this all began, you have all been one of the most supporting organizations that I belong to, and it has made my living situation sustainable. Without the work you have done, I have no idea where I, or my family would be. So, I just want to say how amazing it has felt to play music again with you all, and thank you, wholeheartedly for everything you are and do. You have my respect forever.”
By a patron:
“I have been thinking about that beautiful concert Friday evening. Everything was perfect, the beautiful music, safe environment, cool evening with nice breeze, and beautiful setting. As I was listening to the music and looking at the surroundings, I realized that I actually felt normal.” The world of the virus disappeared for me, and I was transported to a place of joy. That is worth so much, and I thank you for the evening.”
There are many silver linings the FCS has recorded in its playbook during this stormy season. At the end of the day, it really comes down to music being a tie that binds us together, bringing solace and hope.
We invite you to support our efforts to bring fantastic music to our community by visiting our Support page.
Support for the Fort Collins Symphony is provided by Bank of Colorado, City of Fort Collins Fort Fund, City of Fort Collins Small Business Assistance Program – CARES, Colorado Creative Industries, Fan Foundation, First Western Trust, Flood & Peterson, Friends of the Symphony, Lincoln Center Support League, National Endowment for the Arts, Joe and Jan Carroll, Pattie Cowell & Sherry Pomering, Carol Ann and Gary Hixon, Wes and Leslie Kenney, Mary and Paul Kopco, KRFC 88.9 Radio Fort Collins, KUNC 91.5, Roberta Mielke, Kenneth and Myra Monfort Charitable Foundation, Ken and Paisley Pettine, John Roberts, in memory of Lea Schwartz, Small Business Administration Payroll Protection Program, Dr. Peter Springberg, Bonnie and Kim Szidon, Dr. Ed Siegel, Trois Coeurs Foundation.