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Pandemic Profile: San Diego Symphony CEO On Making It Through The Era Of COVID-19

Rafael Payare conducts the San Diego Symphony at Copley Symphony Hall in an u...

Credit: Courtesy of Raindrop Marketing

Above: Rafael Payare conducts the San Diego Symphony at Copley Symphony Hall in an undated photograph.

It’s a question leaders of performing arts organizations over the world have had to answer as a result of this pandemic — how do you keep performing when live performances aren’t possible?

It’s an especially tough prospect for the leader of one of San Diego’s largest arts organizations.

Last March, COVID-19 silenced live performances for the world-class San Diego Symphony.

Listen to this story by John Carroll.

“And so what do you do? You take a deep breath and you start to imagine what life looks like in the next, in the next iteration," said San Diego Symphony CEO Martha Gilmer.

For the Symphony, the next iteration looked like the next iteration of many arts organizations; moving online to the world of Zoom. The musicians logged in and performed from remote locations instead of on stage. That lasted for a couple of months, then as we all began to understand more about the virus, the look and sound was refined.

“We were actually able to return to live performances, socially distanced with strings, wearing masks," Gilmer said. "And this is the best quality live experience in a natural acoustic with beautiful camerawork, bringing you really close to the players in the comfort of your own home.”

There have also been some new performance opportunities. “We do some beautiful pieces that often don't make their way to that concert program in our kind of traditional times. But beautiful serenades for strings alone or winds alone," said Gilmer.

In 2002, the San Diego Symphony received a $100-million donation from Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife Joan who, we should note, are also supporters of KPBS.

Gilmer said the Symphony only draws off the interest of that donation. The principal is left untouched. So, keeping the Symphony in good financial condition is a never-ending effort.

The group’s full-time musicians are on reduced hours and reduced pay, but their health benefits haven’t been touched.

Fortunately, Gilmer says season ticket holders and other donors to the organization have been generous, so the Symphony is doing as well as can be expected.

RELATED: Pandemic Profile: How One San Diego Arts Leader Pivots 3 Performing Arts Groups To Virtual Spaces

Now, Gilmer is looking forward with great anticipation to performing again in front of live audiences.

The first place we’re likely to see that is the new Shell at Embarcadero Marina Park South, a magnificent addition to San Diego’s waterfront.

“Right now, when you when you go out there, you'll see that they're putting the inner liner in, covering up all of that technology... so it's it's not yet available, but it will be, I hope, very soon," she said.

Very soon can’t come soon enough for Gilmer.

“There is the emotional impact of that of the pandemic on our musicians and on our staff and on our audience and our entire San Diego Symphony family. One of the things that is most difficult for me is that people really need at this time more than ever to be able to be together and to experience music, which just, you know, carries you away, it takes you to another place. And of all times in our history, we need it more now than ever.”

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John Carroll
General Assignment Reporter & Anchor

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI'm a general assignment reporter and Saturday morning radio anchor for KPBS. I love coming up with story ideas that aren't being covered elsewhere, but I'm also ready to cover the breaking news of the day. In addition, I bring you the local news headlines on Saturday mornings during NPR's Weekend Edition.

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