The small town of Wheeling, West Virginia is celebrating a huge birthday this month, as the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra turns 90. For nine decades, the orchestra has inspired patrons with engaging and innovative performances. Though the final in-person concert celebrating this feat was canceled due to current circumstances, Wheeling Symphony plans on commemorating the anniversary with its first ever virtual concert.
“I know that it’s not going to be the same,” general manager of the orchestra Bryan Braunlich admits. “But it’s a way to at least provide some closure to our 90th season. Everything stopped, and this is our way to have a celebratory close.”
In gearing up for the celebration concert, Braunlich has been hard at work with the orchestra’s new director John Devlin to stay connected with loyal patrons while physically apart. The orchestra now offers master classes, Q&As with Devlin, and is posting videos of players practicing at home and a weekly deep-dive into music, called Monday Evenings with the Maestro.
In spite of these trying times, the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra is as engaged with its audiences as possible remotely. Braunlich credits the orchestra’s ability to adapt to the leadership of Devlin.
“I think it’s a testament to John’s creativity that we’re able to move forward from this. We’re going to keep going instead of retreating, whether it’s 10 people in a concert hall or people gathering out in a field.”
Devlin has sought to make the best out of a bad situation. When he and his wife moved to Wheeling in November, Devlin was not expecting to have to direct the orchestra from afar in a matter of months. Though his command of the situation makes him seem cool under pressure, Devlin admits this is “the strangest time I’ve experienced as an artist.” With only a couple of concerts under his belt as director, Devlin was not prepared to have the season cut short but is trying to make the most of it with his team.
“We had a rehearsal on March 12 that happened for a concert on March 13 that didn’t. Since then, we have not made one note of live music together. We are trying to adapt to our new reality so that we may continue to serve our community.”
In adapting, Devlin has taken cues from his previous job running Gourmet Symphony. Instead of performing in a traditional venue, Gourmet Symphony brought music with them to table sides in the District. Presenting music in an unconventional setting, without the traditional barriers of a concert hall, is something that Devlin is an expert on – and one that is now a new reality of music.
Devlin and Braunlich have partnered with the local company Good Mansion Wines to deliver fine wine and food to audiences at home as a way to make the experience that much more unique and engaging.
“I’m not sure if there’s more that we could have done,” Devlin laughs. “But we certainly figured out a lot of ways to replicate that concert experience and deliver it to people.”
While Devlin predicts that he and his team may not be able to play for the masses in a traditional way again for a long time, the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra will still be there for its audience in any capacity it can.
Even as restrictions loosen, the orchestra will most likely be one of the last organizations to return to “normal” as the core audience tends to be older, and the traditional model requires an audience to sit close together in a packed venue.
Devlin’s main concern is keeping the orchestra members and audience safe and healthy, and therefore he continues to look for new ways to provide music as social distancing orders prevail.
“It’s a little bit of a bleak future, but it’s my job as a music director to make sure that the message we’re putting out there is [one of] hope and connectivity, because people are looking to us for that message, and so that’s what we’re trying to do with this concert.”
The May 28 concert is free, as Wheeling Symphony understands the financial hardship patrons are going through. Devlin and Braunlich look forward to being able to bring the joy of music to concertgoers once more, even if virtually.
“This pandemic is a reminder that we can never take this for granted.” Devlin states. “I am now sure about the importance of music in our community, not just to those who care about classical music as an art form, but as a fabric builder for the entire population of the city.”
If you are able to, consider donating to the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra to ensure its mission to bring music and hope to the community may carry on for another 90 years. Watch the live stream of the 90th Anniversary Celebration Concert on the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra YouTube or Facebook page on Thursday, May 28 at 8 p.m.
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