ST. PETERSBURG — Masked patrons young and old flowed into the Mahaffey Theater on Halloween afternoon for the Florida Orchestra’s first in-person performance since March.
They found their pairs of seats in the theater for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, well spaced from others in their rows, with one whole row left vacant between them.
Mark Cantrell, president and CEO of the Florida Orchestra, stepped on the stage and welcomed everyone back, emotionally thanking them for their continued support despite the orchestra’s last concert happening 230 days ago.
The audience cheered and clapped. When music director and conductor Michael Francis bounded onto the stage, people stood up — the applause and cheers got even more furious as he gestured toward the orchestra.
It didn’t look the same as a typical orchestra concert, but that was to be expected. Stringent measures were taken by the Florida Orchestra and the Mahaffey Theater to ensure safety for phase one of their reimagined season.
The audience capacity has been reduced to 25 percent. Audience members are required to wear masks for the duration of the concerts, which have been reduced to about an hour without intermission.
In an effort to promote safety, yet keep all of the musicians working, smaller ensembles perform, but there are more concerts. While Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was performed three times Oct. 31-Nov. 1, another ensemble performed Legends of the Americas over the course of the same weekend.
At Saturday’s concert, the string musicians wore masks and were spaced six feet apart. Brass and woodwind musicians didn’t wear masks but were spaced eight feet apart. New backstage protocols for musicians include revised uncasing methods and strategies for social distancing. Musicians are tested for COVID-19 extensively and have their temperatures checked before every rehearsal and performance. So far, not one member has tested positive.
If the thought of aerosols expressed from brass and woodwind instruments makes you nervous, the Florida Orchestra considered this carefully.
Edward Parsons, general manager of the Florida Orchestra, said in a telephone interview Oct. 30 that they’d looked at studies conducted in Germany and with the Minnesota Orchestra.
“The evidence generally is that (the aerosols) don’t spread much further than someone talking,” he said.
Parsons said the tuba expresses almost no aerosols because of how far the air has to go through the mammoth instrument. Even with the flute — the most concerning instrument because the musician blows over the mouthpiece, sending their air outward — the aerosols die out in a three- to six-foot range, he said.
In the Mahaffey Theater, Parsons said, there is about a 15-foot buffer between the orchestra and the audience. He said that the theater has an advanced ventilation system that circulates air quickly.
For those who are uncomfortable going to a live performance, select performances, including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 are streamed and archived on the Florida Orchestra’s YouTube channel, where they can be viewed for free.
The number of musicians performing at concerts varies, but it is now 20-40 members compared to 60-80 before the pandemic. Having fewer and more spaced-out musicians produces a different sound. Parsons said it causes the musicians to hear themselves more, making it harder to blend. But they have adapted to it quickly.
That adaptability was on full display Saturday, as the orchestra embarked on a powerful, passionate performance of the dance-themed program.
It began with Strum, a contemporary work for strings from violinist and composer Jessie Montgomery, whose Detroit-based group Sphinx Virtuosi was in residence at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, earlier this year.
Next was Hungarian composer Zoltan Kolady’s Dances of Galanta. Composed in 1933, Kolady incorporated material from the 18th century dance called the verbunkos. He took inspiration from the gypsy tunes he heard while living in Galanta, which is in Slovakia.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was the main event, and at 38 minutes long was made up of different sections with rhythm and joyous dance. Francis encouraged the audience to notice “the psychotic grip of cellos and bassists.”
The audience sat rapt through the entire performance and gave a long ovation when it ended.
Margie Davis of Gulfport said that the experience brought tears to her eyes because she was so grateful to see a live music performance again.
Going in, she was concerned about safety. But she felt better once she saw the measures in place.
“They gave a lot of thought to everybody protecting each other,” she said. She also enjoyed that, in lieu of concert programs, there are videos of discussions with Michael Francis and program notes on the Florida Orchestra’s website.
Elsie Visel of St. Petersburg is a season subscriber. She said that although it wasn’t the full orchestra and the acoustics change when the room isn’t full, the performance was still “lovely.”
“It’s so good to be back,” she said.
Mother and daughter Shannon and Arwyn Ivey of Tarpon Springs both said they felt safe during the concert.
They also found it incredibly emotional.
“I cried through the first piece,” said Arwyn, a musician who plays double bass. “It was the first tuning A and I just wept. It’s the first I’ve heard it since March so it was wonderful.”
Shannon said she worried that with a reduced audience, the musicians would feel like they were playing to a smaller crowd and be less enthusiastic.
“But . . . we were so thirsty for this,” she said. “Everyone was so focused that we were hearing every sound, every note that the strings made.”
Arwyn agreed that there was clarity. She said having less musicians did make it quieter, but not less powerful.
“It still hit me with a wave of emotions,” she said.
If you go
The Florida Orchestra’s season continues with Ragtime Kings on Nov. 7-8 and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 Nov. 14-15. All concerts take place at the Mahaffey Theater/ Duke Energy Center for the Arts. 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. Tickets must be purchased in pairs. $18-$48. (727) 892-3337. floridaorchestra. org. More information about free streamed concerts can be found at floridaorchestra.org/livestreams.