MARK BENNETT: Finding a way for live music: THSO pulls it off at Fairbanks

Tribune-Star/Mark BennettHelp … for the musical soul: Members of the Classical Mystery Tour band perform with the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra last Saturday at the Fairbanks Park amphitheater. Symphony staff and volunteers tackled multiple public-health requirements, from guiding concertgoers on social distancing and masking to providing sanitation. The concert was rescheduled from April because of COVID-19 precautions.

Replicating the orchestral accompaniments to legendary Beatles songs is a tall order for any symphony.

Delivering those classical music sounds — as precisely as they're etched in the minds of Fab Four fans — in an outdoor setting is even trickier. The lads from Liverpool themselves never attempted such a thing in their 1960s live shows.

Achieving that musical feat in a concert setting that meets state and county public-health requirements amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is, well, herculean.

The Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra, a nationally renowned touring tribute band and a compliant audience carefully navigated that 2020 tightrope walk last Saturday evening at the Fairbanks Park amphitheater. A crowd — face-masked and physically distanced in separated sections across the bowl-shaped facility's hill — sat in lawn chairs or on the grass and listened to Beatles gems from the gentle melancholy of "Yesterday" to the searing rock virtuosity of "The End."

By the encore, many fans were dancing to "Twist and Shout" and crooning along to the famous chorus of "Hey Jude" performed onstage by the popular Classical Mystery Tour foursome and a necessarily scaled-down version of the symphony.

"It was a huge effort and one that, in the end, was obviously well worth it," said David Bowden, THSO's artistic director and conductor.

The concert was originally scheduled for April 4, but postponed as the state shut down nonessential businesses and activities to prevent spread of the pandemic. The symphony's traditional home, Tilson Auditorium, stopped hosting live performances and remains on pause for such events. So, Bowden, THSO executive director Samantha Johnson-Helms and the staff began looking at outdoor options for the Beatles tribute show, where the musicians and the crowd could be properly socially distanced. THSO reserved Fairbanks Park's amphitheater on the riverfront in late July for the Aug. 29 concert.

Public health issues were a primary concern, Bowden acknowledged, given that no gathering in the pandemic can be risk-free, even with guidelines meticulously followed.

"We had a lot of dialogue among the board [of directors]," Bowden said, "and we decided we would take the risk and do it outside."

So, the symphony team took myriad steps to offer the outdoor concert according to Gov. Eric Holcomb's requirements for August at Stage 4.5 of his state reopening outline, including a plan to mitigate COVID-19 spread.

The steps also included the THSO training volunteers from local high schools and colleges, and others under age 40, to serve as ushers at the concert. Those ushers and other THSO staff wore face masks at Saturday's show.

A plan for such outdoor events must include capacity limits, providing guest information on COVID-19 precautions, screening staff and volunteers for coronavirus symptoms, social distancing, face coverings, increased sanitation supplies and ensuring people comply with those measures.

"There's so many levels that people don't think about," said Roni Elder, educator for the Vigo County Health Department.

The limitations for the Classical Mystery Tour concert included condensing the orchestra onstage from its normal roster of 80 to 85 musicians to just 21. That allowed cellists, violinists, trumpeters and others to be six feet or more apart as they accompanied the rock quartet out front. The move outdoors was a significant departure, too. The THSO played a city-backed concert at Fairbanks Park once a year from the 1990s to the late 2000s, but hadn't played outside since.

And, the Classical Mystery Tour band hadn't performed together since February. Pandemic concerns forced cancellations of most of the group's spring and summer shows, Jim Owen — who portrays John Lennon onstage — said by telephone Wednesday. The Terre Haute show reunited Owen, Tony Kishman (playing Paul McCartney), Tom Teeley (George Harrison) and Chris Camilleri (Ringo Starr).

Despite all those twists, the music was as refreshing as Saturday's mild summer breeze.

"I thought [the band] pulled it off fabulously, and I thought our orchestra pulled it off fabulously," Bowden said. "And, the thing that made it all possible was the audience."

Indeed, it appeared that all but a few people among the widely scattered crowd of 1,200 masked up and spaced out. They seemed grateful for the serene setting, songs and rare opportunity.

"Even with a mask on, you could still see people smiling," said Owen. "That was great."

Band members and the orchestra players quickly shook off any rustiness from being idled for months. Lennon's joyous "All You Need Is Love" opened the concert, and the THSO instrumentalists nailed the song's closing snippets of layered melodies from "Greensleeves" and "In the Mood."

"At first, it felt like being a fish out of water," Owen said, referring to the return after the band's long absence from live performances. "But once we got together, it felt like we were put back in our water. It felt really good."

The symphony musicians behind them felt the same, Bowden said. One tearfully told him afterward, "We have been longing to make music somewhere, somehow."

Bowden and the THSO are searching for ways to play its scheduled fall and winter season concerts on Sept. 26, Nov. 7 and Dec. 5. With Tilson paused for now, they'll need a willing venue large enough to safely space apart musicians and their listeners. Bowden hopes the virus will be contained by the time the symphony's spring shows arrive on April 10 and May 1.

"I'm always optimistic," he said, "until I can't be."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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