by Todd Giles
As I get ready to dive into researching and writing the program notes for the WFSO’s 74th season this summer, I can’t help but pause and ruminate a bit on last year. It’s these thoughts I’d like to share with you, taking a few moments to look back on the 2020-21 season, as well as taking a gander to lays ahead in just a few short months.
The WFSO has weathered many rough patches throughout its long and rich history, but the COVID pandemic has been something entirely different. As we watched the numbers grow on the nightly news over the past year and learned about the economic and educational tolls the disease has had in our communities, one thing we seldom heard about is the financial toll COVID has had on non-profit arts organizations worldwide.
If there is a positive side to the last season’s challenges, principal timpanist Corey Robinson suggests that “the pandemic has caused many arts organizations to rethink their traditional approaches to performing arts. This has been a very positive move overall towards engaging audiences in different ways that will surely be employed in the post-pandemic resurgence of live events.” Indeed, the WFSO leadership was called upon to not only reconceive the 2020-2021 season, they also had to rethink the various ways in which they meet their outreach mission here in Texoma.
After cancelling the final concert of the 2019-2020 season the April before last, they also decided to delay the start of the 2020-21 season out of safety concerns. With the prospect of potentially having to jettison the entire season, the organization needed to do some quick and creative thinking about how to best continue supporting their seventy-five musicians. Thanks to the generous support of the Texoma Gives Musician’s Relief Fund, which raised over $19,000 with the help of two generous matches from the Perkins Prothro Foundation and an anonymous donor, the WFSO was able to supplement the incomes of three quarters of the orchestra’s musicians throughout the season.
Even with this assistance, though, many dedicated WFSO musicians have been without a steady income since the beginning of the pandemic. According to principal tubist Mark Finley, the pandemic has “devastated many musicians, not just because of a loss of income, but the loss of lifestyle. Musicians have spent their entire adult lives training and practicing to be performers, and without that, I’m not sure many of them know what to do with themselves.” Violinist Susan Younghans knew what she needed to do: “I have had to learn flexibility in my teaching platforms in order to maintain my private teaching income. The online lessons are somewhat effective for most students, but there is nothing like in-person instruction.” Likewise for violinist Tammy Sparks: “I have learned to teach my lessons by Skype, Zoom, and Google Meets. It’s not the same, but my students get to have lessons that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.”
The Symphony also needed to make major changes in the ways they maintain contact with their patrons and the thousands of area students they serve each year through their educational programming; they did so by going virtual and by going outside. The biggest logistical and creative task of all was recording the January, February and April concerts while following strict safety protocols. Videos of the three concerts, which included music by Beethoven, Mozart, and Emmanuel Séjourné, were professionally produced and made available at a discounted rate online. Throughout the season, the WFSO also offered several free pop-up concerts at venues such as Art and Stroll in downtown Wichita Falls, a “Jazz on the Lawn” concert in collaboration with Sheppard Air Force Base, and a small socially-distanced concert hosted by WFSO musician Barbara Kavanaugh titled “Candlelight Sonatas” in December 2020.
At this point, the plan is to return to normal programming next season, which kicks off with the “Texas Country Reporter” tour in November. This live concert celebrating the longest-running television show in history features Texas tunes, culture and history, as well as live narration by Bob and Kelli Phillips. While the season returns patrons back to both Memorial and Akin auditoriums, the concerts will continue to be recorded for those who aren’t quite ready to return to the live concert experience.
Next season’s Young People’s Concert will return to an in-person event, but will likewise be recorded to broaden the concert’s educational reach to more area school children. With the WFSO’s 75th anniversary coming up in the 2022-23 season, Maestro Fakhouri has decided to focus next season on some of the incredible talent within our local orchestral community, including flutist Pam Youngblood and harpist Jaymee Haefner playing the music of Mozart. The WFSO will also bring back previously scheduled pianist Alessio Bax, as well as perform an original work by Fouad Fakhouri himself.
As fun as researching and writing the 2021-2022 season’s program notes is going to be for me this summer, I approach the task with a renewed appreciation for everything the folks at the WFSO do for our community—not just the concerts, but also the day-to-day things they do to keep the organization viable, pertinent, and exciting. Believe me, it’s no easy task. Alicia, Jenny and the dedicated and tireless board of directors (and the Youth Symphony and the Symphony League) all deserve our support and thanks in whatever ways we can best give it. Thanks, guys; you’re all appreciated!