With its indoor Masterworks Series canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra will offer a Winter Chamber Series online.

Maestro Andrew Sewell will lead the orchestra’s 34 musicians in chamber works for multiple ensembles, ranging from trios to octets who will be recorded, hopefully before a small audience, at the Sylvee theater in Madison.

Joe Loehnis, the orchestra’s CEO, said COVID-19 is forcing the organization to think outside the box and come up with new ways to program. He said he expects some of it to stick after the pandemic is over.

“It’s interesting for us because we’re pivoting a bit from a live ensemble orchestra to a video-production company,” he said. “So in some respects, this pandemic has made us (focus) creatively on how we engage our audiences.”

There’s pressure, Loehnis said, to deliver compelling programming. “We’re now competing against anything you can stream online. So the production value has to be really high.”

Tickets for the first Winter Chamber Series concert, to be aired on Jan. 22, are $30, or $10 for youths and students, and are on sale through WCO’s website, wcoconcerts.org. The other dates are Feb. 26, March 26 and April 16.

The concerts will be available at 7:30 p.m. on each date and on-demand for the next three days.

The concerts will be 60-75 minutes long and include WCO musicians sharing stories about the music, as well as post-concert reflections. Each performance will include a pre-concert talk with Sewell and Wisconsin Public Radio’s Norman Gilliland.

Loehnis said the interweaving of the musicians’ stories will break up the musical content. Rather than 30-minute concerts, symphonies or big works, WCO is doing movements. “So if you’re listening at home, it’s just fresh, right? Every five to six minutes you get something fresh and real and alive,” he said.

The Sewell-Gilliland conversations will serve as a 30-minute pre-show, Loehnis said. The concerts will take place from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. or 8:45 p.m. and include the musician interviews. The post-concert will run from about 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. During that time, musicians will participate in a “talk back” with audience members who want to hear about the recording of the piece and about the experiences of musicians playing during a pandemic.

Uncertainty lingers

Public Health Madison and Dane County’s current order prohibits any gatherings until Dec. 16, but Loehnis is hopeful that by the time they record the first concert, the WCO can have an audience of 10 to 25 sponsors, donors and other stakeholders. “But we won’t know for certain until we get to January.” he said.

Loehnis said it’s likely the pre- and post-concert programming will not be available to on-demand viewers.

Sewell said the Winter Chamber Series will be unlike anything the orchestra’s done before. “Our passion is playing for the community, and this allows us to do that,” he said. But it will also allow musicians to interact with the audience “and give the performances an even deeper storyline — bringing it to life in ways not possible during a traditional concert,” he said.

60 years

Founded in 1960, the WCO is the professional chamber orchestra behind Concerts on the Square, the longtime popular free music series around the Capitol. This summer, due to county-mandated restrictions on gatherings, WCO played two of those concerts before a small number of donors at Breese Stevens Field.

Those concerts were broadcast live on a screen at the Madison Mallards baseball stadium at Warner Park as drive-in concerts. They were also streamed on WCO’s website and broadcast on 89.9 WORT-FM.

Loehnis said that for the Winter Chamber Series, the orchestra will adhere to social-distancing guidelines and wear masks when possible, depending on the instrument. For example, strings will be 6 feet apart, and winds and brass will be up to 15 feet apart.

Read the full Wisconsin State Journal article + view their Concerts on the Square image gallery, here.

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