Everything was on track for the inaugural season of Boston Festival Orchestra, the new summer ensemble helmed by Alyssa Wang (artistic director/conductor) and Nicholas Brown (executive director/clarinetist). The organization was officially incorporated in the fall of 2019, the same year Wang and Brown earned their masters from New England Conservatory. Programs for the summer 2020 season were planned, soloists contracted. The air-conditioned Calderwood Pavilion at Boston Center for the Arts was reserved for three weekends in late July and early August.
Then the pandemic hit, and you can probably guess what happened. With the planned summer shows out of the question, Wang and Brown were faced with two options: scrap the idea until they had a better sense of when concerts would be possible, or defer their deposit to reserve the same range of dates in 2021, and plan as if the show would go on.
“We thought the worst thing that could happen is that we suddenly could have live concerts, but we’re not prepared to put them on,” Wang said in a Zoom interview. “So we planned as if we could put them on ... We were very optimistic and hopeful.”
Their gamble paid off. With this weekend’s debut performance, featuring the music of Mozart, Ginastera, and Carlos Simon, the fledgling Boston Festival Orchestra is all set to be one of the first orchestras to play for a live audience in the city since the start of the pandemic.
But the group hasn’t been idle for the past few months either, as Wang and Brown laid the groundwork for the live launch with plenty of digital concerts. We kept the cofounders on Zoom to learn more.
Q. What was it like to get the ball rolling again [after your plans were derailed]?
AW: In December 2020, Nick and I were thinking — how do we get audiences to know about us? We had announced our organization [in 2019] and had not had any activity since, because of the pandemic. So an online chamber series is what we ended up doing, and that pulled in over 1,700 viewers. We had people watching all over the country and not just in Boston.
The fact that the first things we ever did were online was a bit strange, but every month we would have a new show — like “Hey, remember us? We’re still here, we still want to be involved in your community.” Then as we got closer to July, it started turning into “Welcome back, we want to let you know that we’re going to have live concerts in just a few months.”
NB: We’re really hoping this grows our roots as an organization‚ and really establishes us as — we hope — a cornerstone of summers in Boston. When we found that the name [Boston Festival Orchestra] had not been claimed and that we could actually take it, that was a huge first victory. It’s such a traditionalist city and rooted in hometown pride, being able to be “Boston anything” was really important to us.
Q. What about with your musicians?
AW: We started employing the future BFO musicians to record as part of our chamber series, then eventually we reached out to contract them for the summer orchestra. A lot of people had either been not playing with anybody or had only been recording with a camera and a microphone, not for real human beings. So for a lot of people, it was really exciting for us to be like “We’re gonna give you a chance to play live music with your friends, for a live audience, in just a couple of months.”
NB: On my end, as the person who was doing the contracting, we got the ball rolling very slowly. Like we mentioned, our first virtual concert was in January, and that was actually just Alyssa doing solo violin. And from there, we just added string players.
AW: Because we are a new organization and we don’t have the infrastructure to hire marketing people and set designers and whatever, Nick and I are doing a lot of the work. With the chamber shows, we were the tech people. We’re handling our own website design, contracts, personnel managing. Nick is the principal clarinetist and he’s playing a concert in the third week. I’m the conductor and I’m playing a concerto on violin in the second week. This is all born from trying to be smart with our resources. We don’t have the funds — if we can’t pay other people to do it, we have to do it ourselves. And that has been really rewarding for me personally, having to learn all the different facets of how to create an organization from scratch.
Q. How has the audience response been to the live shows? Are people buying tickets?
NB: Every day we creep closer to it, we’re getting our daily ticket reports, and we’re seeing the numbers go up and up every week.
AW: At Calderwood, we can’t have a full-capacity audience. But people are still really craving this sort of thing. So we are really hoping to get as many people in the door as possible, safely.
BOSTON FESTIVAL ORCHESTRA
Concerts July 17, 24, and 31. Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St. www.bostonfestivalorchestra.org
Interview was condensed and edited. A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.