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Southern Methodist University bans live audiences at classical concerts, forcing ensembles to adapt

The coronavirus pandemic has placed several new challenges on classical music groups. Organizations must figure out how to safely assemble musicians and audiences for concerts, or whether to hold their events solely online, if at all. In North Texas, many performances remain virtual, though the Dallas and Fort Worth Symphonies (among others) are producing live concerts.

Ensembles also must secure a concert venue. On Sept. 4, with the opening of its fall symphonic series just two weeks away, the Fort Worth Symphony was told it couldn’t use Bass Performance Hall until at least January. The orchestra then scrambled, and was luckily able to shift its fall symphonic series to Will Rogers Auditorium.

Two other local organizations have recently dealt with venue issues as well. Voices of Change, Dallas’ contemporary music ensemble, and Dallas Chamber Music Society — which were both planning to hold their seasons at Southern Methodist University’s Caruth Auditorium — were notified on Sept. 28 that SMU’s office of Risk Management had decided to ban live audiences at performances given by outside organizations.

Sam Holland, dean of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts, said in a statement that the university made this decision considering “state and local health restrictions related to COVID-19 and under guidance from the CDC and top regional medical experts.” Now, performances by DCMS and Voices of Change can only be livestreamed at SMU, just like student and faculty concerts.

DCMS will livestream its first concert of the season — a multimedia celebration of soundtrack music written by Charlie Chaplin — from SMU’s O’Donnell Hall on Monday, Oct. 12. Musicians will be violinist Philippe Quint and pianist Marta Aznavoorian.

Initially, DCMS had planned on hosting the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble on Oct. 12. But that group had to cancel, says DCMS president Gregory Hustis over the phone, because “they’re not traveling across the pond.”

“This whole COVID business has thrown the arts world into turmoil,” says Hustis, who served as principal hornist of the DSO from 1976-2012. “And we feel very badly about this, not for Dallas Chamber Music Society, but for all of those fantastic chamber ensembles who are basically unable to perform anywhere.”

Determined to have a live concert, Hustis reached out to the DSO’s chief executive Kim Noltemy last week and was able to secure the Meyerson Symphony Center for DCMS’ Nov. 12 performance. That concert will feature principal players from the DSO and will include the world premiere of an oboe quartet by American composer Jeremy Gill.

Violinist Maria Schleuning and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya perform in a Voices of Change concert at Caruth Auditorium, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas on Feb. 16, 2020.
Violinist Maria Schleuning and pianist Liudmila Georgievskaya perform in a Voices of Change concert at Caruth Auditorium, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas on Feb. 16, 2020.(Lawrence Jenkins / Special Contributor)

Voices of Change will begin its season on Oct. 18 with a livestreamed concert from Caruth Auditorium, the organization’s performance home for 45 years. The program will consist of Charles Ives’ Variations on America for solo organ, Dallas-based composer Jonathan Cziner’s Violin Sonata No. 2 and