When Orchestra And Chorus Policies Collide

It was bound to happen. An orchestra’s guidelines requires as much masking for on stage musicians as possible. A chorus that operates as a separate entity has a different policy and refuses to wear masks. As a result, any works that require a chorus are removed from the program.

An article by Peter Dobrin in the 8/19/2022 Philadelphia Inquirer reports on this exact scenario and to make matter even stickier, it involves the Philadelphia Orchestra on an international tour and the Edinburgh Festival Chorus (EFC).

Nutshell: the orchestra performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the US right before leaving for tour and the chorus there was indeed masked. But when the EFC was informed of the orchestra’s policy, they pulled out of the performance.

According to the article, the Edinburgh Festival said they were following government guidance and according to that policy, staff, artists, and audiences were not required to wear masks.

The orchestra’s policy is set using guidance from Penn Medicine, a major multi-hospital health system headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. Those guidelines strongly recommend masks for choral performances and given that the orchestra has seen a small number of instances of musicians diagnosed with COVID this summer, they want to continue to marginalize risk.

Given that this is a tour, the need to be extra vigilant is paramount. Even when you remove a pandemic from the equation, keeping staff and artists healthy on a tour is always a risk mitigation task.

While these sorts of public disagreements are something both organizations would have preferred to avoid, it ultimately comes down to how much risk you’re willing to absorb.

Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if similar disagreements emerge on the home front between orchestras and their chorus when the latter operates as an independent organization.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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