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Madison symphony weathers pandemic with help of donors and 'being prepared'
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Performing Arts | Madison Symphony Orchestra

Madison symphony weathers pandemic with help of donors and 'being prepared'

From the Madison Forward, Part 1: Region's business community pushes ahead series

When Chris Dozoryst worked second shift at a food processing facility during the pandemic, his co-workers came to know him as “the furloughed musician.”

Dozoryst — principal viola player for the Madison Symphony Orchestra and violist for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, among other titles — is one of the premier classical musicians in Wisconsin. And yet he, like so many of his colleagues who are also highly trained experts at their art, have found themselves trying to make a living in unconventional ways during the past year.

Chris Dozoryst, principal viola with the Madison Symphony Orchestra

Chris Dozoryst, principal viola with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

“It was very strange,” he said of the sudden and yet surreal cancellations and lockdowns that marked the start of the COVID-19 pandemic a little over a year ago.

“I think we as performers were the first to get the axe. We play in front of large audiences” that simply vanished overnight.

“Being largely a performer, I saw nearly all of my income wiped out,” said Dozoryst, the father of two young children.

It’s a story shared by countless professional musicians during the pandemic — although Dozoryst and other musicians of the MSO and WCO were fortunate to have the financial backing of those organizations. Both orchestras established musician relief funds to pay their artists for canceled performances; with that income, plus his wages from the food processing plant and some performances at small, socially distanced, outdoor weddings and other events, Dozoryst was able to almost match his pre-pandemic income.

John DeMain, Kyle Ketelsen, Greg Zelek

Madison Symphony Orchestra music director and pianist John DeMain, vocalist Kyle Ketelsen and organist Greg Zelek performed while keeping socially distant on the Overture Hall stage for "A Virtual Madison Symphony Christmas 2020." 

Performing arts organizations took a huge hit during the pandemic — concert halls were emptied, stages kept dark and ticket sales zeroed out — yet there are some surprising success stories.

“This has been a fascinating and remarkable season, and a real test of the mettle of our group,” said MSO executive director Richard Mackie, who calls the orchestra’s 91 contracted musicians “the heart and soul of our organization.” The MSO’s Musician Relief Fund raised more than $1.4 million to pay them for missed concerts in 2020-21.

“Musicians are extremely vulnerable. None of them have a full-time job with the Madison Symphony; it’s a part-time orchestra in a community this size,” Mackie said.

Mt. Zion Gospel Ensemble in virtual performance

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mt. Zion Gospel Ensemble — which usually performs live in Overture Hall for the annual "Madison Symphony Christmas" — had to do a smaller, socially distanced, virtual performance for the December 2020 online production instead.  

“Many of these musicians are working in a number of orchestras. They might play in three or four orchestras, and of course all of these orchestras have suffered setbacks in their ability to pay musicians.”

Donations to the MSO relief fund ranged from “six figures, to a donation of five dollars,” Mackie said. "That $5 was a generous donation from someone we had never even heard from before."

“Our musicians have written personal thank-you notes to over 600 donors, which is fantastic," he said. "It’s helped keep us together as a family, and it’s been our best effort to keep the artists’ body and soul together.”

Dexter Mott in mask auditioning for 'The Final Forte'

Violinist Dexter Mott, left, a 12th-grader from La Follette High School, auditions for the Bolz Young Artist Competition, where he landed among the top four winners known as the "Final Forte." The Madison Symphony Orchestra's youth awards program went forward this year despite the pandemic.

During the pandemic, the MSO experienced no layoffs. Staff members kept busy with fundraising and with producing free online programming, such as streamed organ concerts and the Bolz Young Artist Competition, which showcases four top high school-age musicians from across the area and is expected to be available for the public to view in May.

The orchestra, which usually performs in Overture Hall at Overture Center for the Arts, presented “A Virtual Madison Symphony Christmas” in December, with all its usual performers making music remotely or in taped segments  from vocal soloists and instrumentalists to the Madison Youth Choirs, Madison Symphony Chorus and Mt. Zion Gospel Choir.

The MSO will stream a free organ concert April 27 featuring organist Greg Zelek and Ansel Norris, a 2009 Bolz Young Artist Competition finalist, on trumpet. Registration for that concert, which will be available to view online until May 31, is at madisonsymphony.org.

Twenty years ago, the MSO began planning to set aside 25 percent of its operating fund in a reserve and to establish an endowment  actions that paid off during the COVID-19 crisis, Mackie said.

“The lesson of all lessons here is to be prepared,” said Mackie, who plans to retire from the MSO July 1 after 22 years with the orchestra.

“When we had the Great Recession in 2007-08, we got through that — we actually landed on our feet. Our financial planning was strong. And I thought, ‘Now I’ve seen everything.’

“And then here comes the COVID crisis. You know, there are things that are out of our control and always will be out of control. So the takeaway is to be strong in ways that will sustain you through episodes of want or deprivation of resources.”

The MSO hopes to return to a full season of live performances in the fall, including programming around Beethoven’s 250th birthday that was originally scheduled for 2020-21, Mackie said. The orchestra is currently surveying its customers to gauge their comfort level with going back into the concert hall.

“Our business is presenting a full orchestra on stage with great big music,” Mackie said. “The business model that is essential to a large orchestra is having people come to the hall, sit in the seats and have that incredible, in-person experience that you just can’t duplicate with streaming.”

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