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caption: In the first Seattle Symphony performance since the quarantine, musicians were distanced and guest artist Whitney Mongé performed from a separate platform.
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In the first Seattle Symphony performance since the quarantine, musicians were distanced and guest artist Whitney Mongé performed from a separate platform.
Credit: Photo courtesy of James Holt/Seattle Symphony

Seattle Symphony returns to Benaroya for virtual audience

This weekend, the Seattle Symphony kicked off its new concert season. It was an opening night like no other. There was no one in the seats at Benaroya Hall, and just a third of the usual musicians onstage to comply with health regulations.

Guest artist Whitney Mongé performed from her own platform 30 feet from the stage.

"You know, to play live music in these times is just so important, so thank you for being here!" she told the virtual audience.

The symphony streamed the concert online for free, and to a drive-in movie theater in Marymoor Park where concertgoers honked their applause from their cars.

Cathy Capers was at the park. She’s the symphony’s director of human resources. She said it’s been a joy to hear rehearsals start up again.

“I found myself mesmerized because we can actually observe the rehearsals on television -- it was lovely,” she said.

Concertgoer Linda Koa said normally she’d go to see the symphony perform once a month. She played violin growing up and likes to observe the string players up close.

“I like to see their interactions together, I watch them. So I’m always in the front row. So that’s what I miss the most," she said.

caption: For the Seattle Symphony's kickoff concert Sept. 19, audience members watched online or from a drive-in at Marymoor Park.
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For the Seattle Symphony's kickoff concert Sept. 19, audience members watched online or from a drive-in at Marymoor Park.
Credit: KUOW/Amy Radil

Pam Johnson of Seattle said it felt good to have a night out, even if it wasn’t the concert hall.

“It’s wetter!” she said. “There’s no substitute for live music, it’s just not the same experience, but we do the best we can and we have to support the symphony.”

And she saw one upside for the symphony: “I think the live stream, all the things they’ve done, they now have a worldwide audience.”

The symphony has streamed concerts from its archives during the quarantine. But Saturday’s concert marked the first time the musicians have performed together since the pandemic started.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s been a really stressful time,” said symphony President and CEO Krishna Thiagarajan. “Musicians need an audience.”

He said there are typically 80-90 musicians on the roster, but currently musicians can choose whether or not to perform, and there are 30-40 who are taking part in the initial concerts.

“We want to make sure that everybody who’s with us onstage feels comfortable with their own health and safety,” Thiagarajan said. “As we go through this experience there may be more musicians joining us, but for now while we’re in Phase 2 that’s roughly the roster we’re working with.”

Saturday’s concert was recorded a few days earlier, but Thiagarajan said upcoming concerts will be streamed live. He said they want their audience to know they are “proudly producing from downtown Seattle,” even if other buildings are currently dark.

“We live downtown Seattle with our creative process, and we are now a very large recording studio called Benaroya Hall,” he said. “We want to make that point.”

Logistics have been a challenge. Thiagarajan said the smoky air from wildfires presented a new threat to the drive-in movie event, but the air cleared just in time. He said they’re always plotting multiple scenarios simultaneously for future concerts depending on the rules in effect.

“So what we’re doing now is we’re only announcing six weeks at a time. Because we don’t want to keep announcing constant changes of repertoire and personnel,” he said. “And the biggest concern is there are guest artists who may not be able to come and travel here.”

That currently includes the symphony’s music director Thomas Dausgaard, who on opening night sent his video greetings from Denmark. It was associate director Lee Mills who led the orchestra. But Thiagarajan said he thinks for now they’ve found a way to offer their audience what he calls "clean, good -- careful -- fun."