One of Gene Wilder’s most iconic roles was playing the titular character in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” After a psychedelically horrifying trip through space and time, the five ticket holders wind up in the factory, where Wilder performs the song “Pure Imagination.” In it, he invites the golden ticket holders to follow him into the world of his creation and promises them a paradise that defies explanation if they open their eyes and minds to it.
The Abilene Philharmonic is asking its own ticket holders to do the same in their 2020-2021 concert season. After the original concert season was derailed by the psychedelically horrifying trip that has been COVID-19, the orchestra has announced its “Reimagined Season,” a series of four concerts at First Baptist Church.
After its successful outdoor Interlude series at the Abilene Zoo, the Philharmonic sought more programming alternatives to avoid shutting down completely. The orchestra was facing many challenges – how to keep the audience and musicians safe, how to satisfy their commitments to patrons who had already subscribed, and how to satisfy patrons who didn’t feel comfortable going out in public.
Difficult decisions were made. First, they decided to reprogram their season to have fewer musicians.
“We are all disappointed that the original season couldn’t go on,” said Executive Director Kevin Smith. “There were just too many uncertainties and risks surrounding a full, 70–piece orchestra.”
The solution was four new concerts involving 15-34 musicians.
“The convention center is fantastic for a full orchestra,” said Operations Manager Richard Riedl. “But without half of those musicians, there’s suddenly a lot more space to fill with sound.”
This led the Philharmonic to move performances to First Baptist Church, which graciously donated the space for the rest of the season. The space is better suited for the smaller ensembles. Additionally, the space is livestream-ready, which helped the orchestra in its pursuit of accommodating patrons who didn’t feel safe going out in public.
The remaining issue was musician and audience safety. Every other pew at the church has been blocked off, and the Philharmonic has made sure to keep six feet between each party at the performances. The audience and musicians both have been instructed to wear masks throughout the performances, which have been shortened to eliminate the need for intermission.
“As a musician, you have to be ready for anything,” said Maestro David Itkin. “But I never thought I would be wearing a mask on stage for anything other than Halloween!”
With one performance down, the orchestra will resume its Reimagined Season on Jan. 30 with a string orchestra performing the works of Schöenberg and Tchaikovsky. It wasn’t what anybody had in mind when this season began, but if you open your eyes and look closely, you can see the explanation-defying world the orchestra has created in their season of pure reimagination.