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San Juan Symphony continues season next week with string program


'Lyrical Threads' was recorded Oct. 14 in Durango

Mike Easterling   | Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — As they continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic with a season that is presented entirely online, San Juan Symphony officials are learning an entirely new set of procedures they hope will maximize the audience's experience and enjoyment in the digital setting.

So far, so good.

Musical director and conductor Thomas Heuser said there were only a handful of technical issues when the symphony presented its season-opening concert online on Oct. 3, and those quickly were ironed out.

He expects things to go even more smoothly when the season continues with its second webcast next week, a performance of the string orchestra program "Lyrical Threads" that was filmed Oct. 17 at the Reising Stage Event Center in Durango, Colorado.

But Heuser said the webcasts haven't been an easy adjustment for him. Before the recorded performance is streamed for the audience, Heuser opens the events with a live introduction from the Rochester Hotel in downtown Durango.

Heuser traditionally performs the same function during live symphony concerts before the music starts, and he said he always feels a fair amount of tension during those moments, much like an athlete keyed up for the start of a competition. He looks forward to the point where the music starts, when he can stop talking and start leading his musicians through the program.

"The thing I'm learning about these (streaming) nights is, I really miss getting to conduct the music," he said. "That calms me down. So it's a whole new world for me with these live events."

Heuser said everyone associated with the symphony is still learning on the fly as the season continues. Because of physical distancing and mask-wearing requirements, the concerts do not feature the full symphony, with smaller groups of musicians featured in scaled-down programs.

Symphony officials have tried to compensate for that reduction by filming the performances in outdoors locations set against impressive backdrops, but those circumstances present their own challenges.

Heuser said his musicians had to perform multiple takes of composer Aaron Copland's "Appalachian Spring Ballet" when they were shooting their season-opening concert on Aug. 22 at the Blue Lake Ranch in Hesperus, Colorado. A late-season monsoon storm kicked up halfway through the first take, scattering the players' sheet music and disrupting the performance.

But Heuser knows situations like that are to be expected in outdoor settings, and he said his performers responded by regrouping and delivering a beautiful version of the piece.

"Those challenges are minor in comparison to the pandemic," he said.

The musicians have had to deal with other issues, as well, he noted. The physical distancing required during the concerts makes it much harder for the musicians to hear each other, and the face masks make it harder for them to read Heuser's expressions and body language while trying to follow his direction.

"It's difficult to perform without the regular means of communication," he said. "But we're finding ways to adapt. We're growing more comfortable with this new way of playing, but I don't think it's anyone's preference."

Heuser chose the Reising Stage Event Center because of its acoustics for the "Lyrical Threads" concert. The program will feature performances of "Lyric for Strings" by George Walker, Edvard Grieg's Holberg Suite and Pachelbel's Canon in D Major.

The program also will feature a performance of Eleanor Alberga's "Remember" by the symphony's principal string quartet as the group was silhouetted at The Rim Studio in Durango. The piece is intended to serve as a tribute to the more than 200,000 Americans who have died from the virus.

Plans are still being made for the remainder of the season, a task that will be complicated by the onset of cold weather and the symphony's inability to perform outside.

"My goal had always been to do half the season in Colorado and half in New Mexico, as is our tradition," Heuser said.

But the differences in public health orders between the two states may make that impossible, he said. With the restrictions on the size of gatherings in New Mexico, it may not be possible for the symphony to assemble a workable group of players in one place at the same time, and that may force the entire season to be performed in Colorado. Heuser expects the decisions about the rest of the season to be announced by Jan. 1.

That kind of alternative planning is something almost every arts organization is having to do a lot of these days, he said. As long as it remains impossible to perform traditional concerts or other creative events, arts organizers won't be able to rely on their usual playbook — no matter how impatient they become.

"There's a lot of creativity and fresh thinking going on right now," Heuser said. "I would say I like what's going on in regard to that. … But I look forward to getting back in front of a full orchestra and having that sonic experience as soon as possible."

"Lyrical Threads" will be streamed at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 14. Digital season passes are available for $99, while weekly passes are sold for $25. Visit sanjuansymphony.org or call 970-382-9753.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.