This time of year, the Oakland Symphony‘s musicians are usually busy getting ready for their annual concert at The Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, held every Fourth of July weekend. 

Now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, symphony players are adapting to a new normal. It involves a great deal of Zoom video calls and learning new ways to connect virtually with their fellow musicians.

“Almost overnight, we all lost our salaries. We lost our places to play. We lost our audiences. And there’s such a huge connection between artists, musicians, and the audience,” said Alicia Telford, who plays French horn in the symphony. “We really miss the exchange between us that keeps us going—it’s that kind of magic. And I know that people really need us right now. They miss that magic.”

Indoor concert venues are categorized as “highest” risk under Alameda County’s reopening plan. There is no tentative date when venues will be allowed to resume operations. The yearly concert at The Craneway Pavilion was one of many concert dates that the Oakland Symphony had to postpone due to the pandemic. 

The cancellation of all concerts for the rest of the year was not just a loss for the local arts and culture scene. It was also a financial loss for musicians and a blow to patrons who benefit from the symphony’s community-oriented programming. 

“We have a professional symphony orchestra, and we have concerts that we do every month. But we actually are even more than that in the community,” Mieko Hatano, the symphony’s executive director, told The Oaklandside. “We have a community chorus, a symphony chorus made up of about 110 community members. We have a youth orchestra that is made up of about 96 players, young people from across the East Bay. We were in over 20 schools in the Oakland Unified School District, supporting music teachers. And we had about 90 kids in an after-school orchestra program.” 

The Oakland Symphony performing at the Paramount Theatre, pre-COVID-19. Credit: Oakland Symphony

The Oakland Symphony goes virtual

Last month, the symphony debuted a 130-member virtual performance of the classic Bill Withers song ‘Lean on Me.’ That massive production required musicians to follow detailed instructions on how to record audio and video of them playing separately. Footage was edited together by the Symphony Youth Orchestra conductor, Omid Zoufonoun. 

Before the pandemic, the symphony never had any need for a Zoom account. “We had to completely rethink everything about our model. A core of our mission is to bring music to our community, educate young people, and have opportunities for musical participation from our community, alongside us,” Hatano said. 

Once the symphony released its ‘Lean on Me’ performance and the community responded positively, the members of the symphony knew that they had to keep it going. Telford describes the virtual concerts as a “healing force” for both the musicians and the audience, even if they have to perform, watch, and listen through a screen. 

For the Fourth of July, the symphony’s musicians decided to record Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land.’ The first hurdle was obtaining permission from The Woody Guthrie Foundation to record the song. 

“We spoke with Nora Guthrie, who is Woody Guthrie’s daughter, and she said, ‘Go for it. We’d love it because it’s a great project,'” Telford said. “We don’t have to pay them anything, which is amazing because we don’t have any money.”

The symphony’s musicians were also able to secure funding from Conway B. Jones, Jr., a trustee of the Calvin Simmons Center for the Performing Arts and a member of the Oakland Symphony’s Emeritus Society. It was enough to mount the production. “We decided we could involve 47 musicians. It was great, pretty much everybody sent out these incredible videos. Some of them are really fun,” Telford added. “People are out in their backyards or out in the woods. It really came out great.”

A relief fund, and a new Zoom performance

The virtual performances by the symphony musicians are independent from the Oakland Symphony and don’t support its financial needs. Like other cherished institutions around town—don’t miss our look at what’s happening with the Oakland Zoo—the Oakland Symphony needs an influx of cash to prevent a longer-term closure. The symphony secured state funding for small businesses under the federal CARES Act, which they’ve used to pay for salaries. Now, they have also set up a relief fund.

The fund aims to support “all of our musicians and teachers and coaches and crew who have lost their wages,” Hatano said. “We’re doing grants of $500 as the max right now. And we can support 80 people at that level. Our corpus is about 72 musicians. But we have opened it to any of our core or substitute members who have performed with us this season.”

Until the Oakland Symphony can meet in person again, and as they continue to receive donations, Telford sees this performance of ‘This Land is Your Land’ as a fitting video given the ongoing pandemic and protest movements for racial justice. 

“We’re singing a very interesting last verse that Woody Guthrie wrote that has never been included on any of the camp songs,” she said. “‘Nobody living can ever stop me as I go walking the freedom highway. Nobody living can ever make me turn back. This land is made for you and me.'”

This story has been updated to clarify that the musicians’ virtual performance of ‘This Land is Your Land’ was not an official production of the Oakland Symphony.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.