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'Each concert feels like a blessing': Maestro Peter Bay on conducting the Austin Symphony for a live audience again

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Duncan Copp & NASA/JPL
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Austin Symphony
One of the NASA images that will accompany the Austin Symphony's performance of Holst's 'The Planets'

After an unusual, pandemic-dictated season of virtual concerts filmed without a live audience, Maestro Peter Bay and the members of the Austin Symphony are enjoying the start of a new and (hopefully) more traditional musical season.

“It is thrilling to be back in the hall, in the Long Center, and to have audiences present,” says Bay. “We had our first pair of concerts September 17 and 18, and I know the orchestra was incredibly excited to be onstage together again. When I say that, [I mean] literally together, because all of last season we were doing virtual concerts and all the players were separated by six feet… and the winds and brass were separated from the strings by ten feet. And we had plexiglass separators. So this was the first time in a long time that we didn’t have any of that, and it was a thrill to hear one another [and] to make music together.”

Things are getting back to normal at the symphony and elsewhere, but Bay say that Covid protocols aren’t completely in the past just yet. “We still have some protocols that the Long Center has established,” he says. “We have to have negative Covid tests, the audience has to be masked and so forth, but I think things are going to get better and better and I think the audiences are going to get larger and larger.”

The symphony has several programs planned for this month, and they’re definitely taking advantage of their newfound freedom to have large orchestras onstage again. “[The] fifteenth and sixteenth of October is our second set of Masterworks Concerts, and the main work on the program is The Planets by Gustav Holst,” Bay says. “It’s an incredible showpiece for orchestra, and there’s even an offstage women’s choir for the last movement – there are otherworldly sounds that they make – and the piece calls for an incredibly large orchestra including organ and additional brass instruments. And the performance will be accompanied by footage that’s been borrowed from NASA of the planets. So there’ll be music and visuals together.

“The following weekend we have two performances. One is the first installment in the Butler Pops Series, which is our playing the live soundtrack to the movie Back to the Future,” Bay says. “So the movie will be screened above the orchestra, and whenever the soundtrack music is supposed to come on – at least the orchestral parts – we will play that live. What we will not play live are the rock and roll tunes. The very next day is our annual Halloween concert. It’s an afternoon program… and the kids come dressed in their costume. Their parents as well, and I think it probably would make the most sense if everyone wore their Halloween masks to the concert. So lots going on in October.”

Bay is obviously happy to be conducting for a live audience again, and he doesn’t want to take that feeling for granted. “You know, each concert feels like a blessing,” he says. “It was incredible to be onstage again in September. I think I’m looking forward to having more and more people come and enjoy the programs and feel safer being in the hall, and returning back to normal, whatever normal is.”

The Austin Symphony will perform Holst's 'The Planets' this weekend, with many more concerts planned for the rest of the 2021-2022 season.

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