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The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal: It takes a village… to be resilient

Montréal, QuebecMontréal (Quebec)

Story Seeker: Myriam Benzakour-Durand
Person interviewed: Marianne Perron, Senior Director, Music Programming and Artistic Development
Interview date: July 9, 2021

On March 13, 2020, Quebec Premier François Legault announced the shutdown of schools and daycare centres for two weeks, early measures that marked the beginning of the lockdown. The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) was set to launch its 2020-21 season around March 16, 2020. “A season takes one and a half to two years to plan, to develop. It was a Thursday, our brochures had been printed, and we had begun meeting with journalists that Monday,” explained Marianne Perron, Senior Director of Music Programming and Artistic Development. Although the programming was set and they had put their hearts and souls into the work, the team had to cancel more than 70 concerts because of the pandemic. “And just like that, everything fell apart. I remember being really depressed for 24 to 48 hours,” Marianne explained. After taking a 24-hour break, she gave herself permission to say, “It’s tough, it’s really tough. But all right, let’s get going.” Her team set up continuous programming, which was primarily online, knowing that the concerts could be cancelled at any time depending on the health measures. They developed expertise in a number of areas—in human resources as well as digital—to make sure the orchestra could continue to play. “An orchestra is like a football or hockey team. If they don’t play together on a regular basis, the team won’t be as good.”

The Innovations: Reorganizing work processes and developing digital expertise

The government of Quebec’s health measures authorized musicians to remain on stage as long as the gathering respected physical distancing requirements and was for livestreaming or broadcasting purposes. These measures, combined with financial gymnastics and a great flexibility on the part of the teams and their working methods, allowed the OSM to maintain its activities.

In this situation, adaptability was a priority. The technical team had to quickly become specialized in digital production, and the orchestra had to adjust to different group dynamics. In addition, they had to guide audiences to build new habits — people weren’t accustomed to “attending” concerts on the Internet.

Expertise: Webcasting classical music

Once the health measures were in place, the technical team went from a few webcasts per year to approximately 40 in very little time. The team had to rework the stage designs and choose repertoire based on the smaller number of musicians on stage—with a distance of two metres between players, they could only have one per music stand instead of two. In addition, before the pandemic, the OSM’s webcasts were free. The orchestra had to act quickly to find a way to receive income while offering concerts in this new way. They had to earmark some of the budget for webcasting, as well as make cuts in other activities, for example, in the cost of guest artists. Budgets had to be revisited in collaboration with the members of the board of directors.

From a technical point of view, the orchestra did not have expertise in classical music webcasting. The technical team learned as they went and became specialists in the field. “We dealt with all kinds of problems with placement, harsh lighting, the lighting you use to create ambiance for an audience in a room, etc.,” Marianne recalls. The team invested a lot of time in developing this expertise and preparing highly polished offerings, as well as reflecting on technical aspects like shooting, editing, credits, and so forth. To lend a more human touch to the virtual programming, the team created explanatory video clips in which artists explained the pieces they had directed that would be played in the videos. None of this existed before the pandemic, but it has become a specialized classical music product that can be shared with other orchestras and artists, according to Marianne.

The virtual component was greatly beneficial in reaching new audiences. For example, the first school to register for the Youth Matinees was from Nunavik, in Northern Quebec. And the first concert in Montreal conducted by Rafael Payare, OSM conductor and music director, reached 80 countries with a total of approximately 125,000 views.

Reorganization: Collaboration, support, and flexibility

Creativity and flexibility were the operative words for the 2020–21 program. Concerts, which generally required meetings and thought, were organized more spontaneously. The work structure became more collaborative: “We’re working less in silos. We’re learning to work remotely, to communicate.” This collaboration between the administration, producers, and musicians was great for team building. Team members made themselves available and were creative and ready to listen. They worked together and, in the end, they had a lot of fun. When talking about groups, however, habits don’t change overnight. Marianne noted that:

Some people handle pressure more easily than others, which is something we saw right from the start. People don’t move at the same speed—their reaction might be to shut down completely, to fight, or to adapt. But at some point in a group, when more and more people start to adapt in the calmest way possible, others start to adapt too. And at a certain point, the group becomes flexible.

Everyone’s comfort, health, and psychological well-being were at the heart of the decision-making process. Several initiatives were taken to support the teams, particularly for those members who lived alone and for whom isolation was more difficult—a network of phone calls, walks, morning phone calls, and so forth. Having received this support on a human level, employees invested themselves fully and were available and ready to make sacrifices.

The Challenge: Rethinking working methods while maintaining jobs at all levels and relying on the community

The OSM’s primary concern was to ensure that its staff was doing well. During the pandemic, the music community saw its entire structure and ecosystem collapse. The OSM had to rethink its working methods for a very complex orchestral environment.

At the OSM, there are three types of contracts: the administration, composed of employees with long-term contracts; the OSM musicians, who are officially contract employees with annual conditions; and the guest artists, such as orchestra conductors, soloists, pianists, and violinists, who are hired as contract workers and come from all over the world.

When I say that we cancelled, it means that we cancelled on all our guest conductors and all our guest soloists, who also had their contracts cancelled by other music organizations throughout the world. With agents paid on commission, and who were working like mad for more than 14 hours a day, cancelling and rescheduling. But no concerts meant no performance fees. No performance fees, no money. So we had to rethink our working methods.

Two elements allowed the OSM to maintain jobs and activities: a strong board of directors, whose priority was saving the in-house jobs, and support from the community through donations.

The board of directors’ involvement and sheer hard work to get through the crisis encouraged the employees to be committed and to participate, regardless of the difficulties. Despite some instances of slight decreases in salaries, the entire OSM staff—administrators, producers, and musicians—kept their jobs. The members of the board of directors, several of whom are management specialists, met on a regular basis with the executive management and the human resources department to ensure that the employees were doing well. “Once we realized that this was an absolute priority, despite the tough times, I think this also contributed to the gratitude that the team and everyone else had for senior management.” Marianne also expressed much gratitude for the love and financial support from the public who had been attending concerts for years. “We cancelled so many concerts, and people could choose to be reimbursed for the cost of the tickets, receive a credit to use when we resumed our activities, or make a donation. The percentage of people who made a donation was enormous.” For Marianne, it is clear that this community support is necessary to be resilient.

The Financials: Government funding and focus from the board of directors

At the financial level, not only did the community provide support, but the Quebec government showed considerable support for culture during the health crisis. This governmental presence, combined with the board of directors’ investment and support, proved to be indispensable in creating a winning formula during this difficult time.

The Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications helped the orchestra maintain its activities and gave it the financial assistance necessary to continue to hire Canadian guest artists. Marianne indicated that:

We cancelled nearly half of the artists for the 2020–21 season, but we hired others who weren’t initially scheduled. We hired many Canadian artists who were already in Canada, Canadian artists who agreed to quarantine and who used the opportunity to come here and play with us and to play elsewhere in Canada.

This allowed for a beautiful collaboration between cultural and artistic organizations across Canada. “I could call my colleagues in the West and say, ‘Is your music director planning to come to Canada, and when? If so, do you think I could hire him or her to come direct the OSM afterwards?’” Marianne recalled.

In addition, the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications offered financial compensation for ticket losses when organizations either couldn’t hold in-person audiences or were able to have in-person audiences but with drastically reduced numbers in order to comply with health measures.

The OSM board of directors set up a finance committee consisting of members with specializations or experience in the field who closely scrutinized the finances. They developed plans based on different scenarios and took the time to look at all the files. “But not in a patronizing way, they were right there with us,” Marianne recalled. In addition, they also recognized the commitment and all the hard work that the staff had put in.

The Takeaways: Agility and community strength

Business agility is currently a popular concept. This method prioritizes individuals and their interactions, cultivates collaboration, and focuses on adapting to change. Marianne familiarized herself with the theory before the pandemic, and she wanted to hold a forum within the organization to consider ways they could make the OSM’s organizational structure more agile. The health crisis helped ingrain the concept of agility in the organization’s culture and activities. It is really beneficial to use this method when project teams, managers, and staff change their ways of being and thinking, which is exactly what happened with the OSM. As Marianne noted:

Agility is not just one person on their own, it’s an organization. And it doesn’t mean that everyone does whatever they want, whenever they want. With agility, yes, there is a structure, an organizational structure that exists, but the organizational structure gives us enough flexibility to address problems in an agile manner.

The involvement of the human resources department, the support from the board of directors, and the project staff’s willingness to listen all contributed to resilience, according to Marianne. On a human level, a large orchestra is like a village. With about 100 musicians plus other team members, there are almost 200 people in the organization. Each person’s level of comfort and psychological well-being had to be taken into consideration. Marianne is convinced that, in these difficult situations, “one person can’t be resilient on their own. It has to be the group that becomes resilient, and when it does, there must be immense respect and excellent communication so people feel that it’s worth it to be resilient.”

Thanks to some financial and programming gymnastics, considerable governmental involvement, donations, and the organization’s agility, the OSM continued to do what it does best—playing classical music—despite the crisis and health measures. They put energy, heart, and humanity into their work so they could continue to present concerts, communicate with audiences, offer programs and notes on the works, and provide highly polished products. Although many cultural organizations disappeared from the stage, the OSM made every effort to give concerts and fill the artistic void. Because, as Marianne said, quoting Daniel Bélanger, “Art, culture… it’s not useful, but it’s indispensable.”

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