Due to the coronavirus outbreak, Woolsey Hall’s 2,650 seats will remain empty this spring — not only for Commencement season, but also for New Haven Symphony Orchestra audiences.

Woolsey — an ornate concert hall featuring a gold-trimmed ceiling and a 12,000-pipe organ — typically houses convocation, Commencement and countless student performances. Yet the hall does not merely house Yale events. It is also the formal performance location for New Haven’s primary professional symphony orchestra: the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. 

According to the orchestra’s website, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, or NHSO, has a mission to “increase the impact and value of orchestral music for our audiences through high quality, affordable performances and educational programming.” Its members are professionals, ranging from Yale students to seasoned musicians who have performed with the orchestra for decades. On March 5, the orchestra performed its last in-person concert — featuring the music of Antonin Dvorak and Florence Price — and is transitioning to virtual performance and educational outreach.

“We still want to bring our art form to larger and more diverse audiences,” said Alasdair Neale MUS ‘86, NHSO’s music director and principal conductor. “We just need to find more creative and unusual and unconventional ways to fulfill that mission. Like everyone else, we’re in uncharted territory. There isn’t a rulebook for what orchestras do during pandemics.”

NHSO Chief Executive Officer Elaine Carroll explained that the connections between both the performer and audience, as well as among members of the audience, are vital to the orchestral art form. Because of this, the cancellation of the NHSO’s live programming through the end of May creates a two-way loss. 

The orchestra’s musicians are primarily paid by service and do not receive a regular salary. When concerts are canceled, the musicians do not receive pay. Carroll described this economic burden as “tremendous hardship.”

From the audience’s perspective, Carroll said that they “come to [the NHSO] for spiritual nourishment,” and with live programming cancellations, audiences can no longer do that in person.

During this unprecedented time, NHSO’s orchestra members and staff are working together to create content focusing on educational and community outreach. They are also finding ways to compensate the orchestra’s musicians.

NHSO’s website has recently added a new section with materials for music teachers and parents to use, supplementing increasingly popular distance-education measures. Caitlin Daly-Gonzales, the NHSO’s education director, created these materials.

The orchestra currently partners with almost 150 schools across Connecticut, and the transition to online learning has made music education difficult. 

“We have a pretty firm belief that New Haven, and the whole state of Connecticut, is our community, and we want to give back to it as much as we can,” Daly-Gonzales said. 

In one example of the orchestra’s educational outreach, a podcast series called “Listen Up!” explains foundational concepts in music education. After each podcast, students can take a Google form quiz testing their understanding of the concepts discussed, such as rhythm and meter, harmony, dynamics and texture. In an effort to engage a wider audience, the quizzes’ examples draw from multiple music genres. Since the podcast series was released, schools beyond Connecticut — including some in Chicago, New York and North Carolina — have used the NHSO’s materials. 

The NHSO usually hosts concerts every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. In an effort to keep the NHSO’s audience base engaged, the orchestra initiated a series of weekly events. Past events included a “Fireside Chat” with Neale and a livestreamed watch party of the orchestra’s March 5 concert. This Thursday, April 9, the orchestra will broadcast a Q&A session with NHSO principal pops conductor Chelsea Tipton. The following week, violinist Alexi Kenney, who was scheduled to solo with the orchestra, will stream a solo recital.

“[The livestreamed events] made it feel like you were with people again,” Daly-Gonzales said. She hoped that people would “feel like they’re a part of the New Haven Symphony family.”

Other educational events, such as virtual symphony musician visits and outreach “concerts” to schools and convalescent centers, allow both audiences and performers to continue engaging with music. The NHSO staff is also working with orchestra members and unions to create a program called “From Sound to Solace.” This program hopes to use Paycheck Protection Program loans to compensate the musicians for their services. 

Additionally, on March 17, the orchestra established a Musicians’ Relief Fund to collect donations and returned tickets. The fund, which has raised over $20,000 so far, will be distributed to the musicians. 

The pandemic has created a difficult situation for the orchestra, but Neale hopes that when it ends, audiences’ appetites for live symphonic music will increase.

“There is ultimately no substitute for the real thing,” Neale said. “When the time arrives that we are all comfortable and safe in each other’s presence, we will be so hungry for that live connection with each other, that there will be an increased sense of appreciation for the art form and for the act of experiencing these wonderful emotions as a group.”

The 2019–20 concert cycle marks the NHSO’s 126th season.