A conversation with Michael Beattie on pandemic's effect on MSO

President and Executive Director Michael Beattie recently spoke with Northside Sun staff writer Nikki Rowell about the effects the Symphony is feeling from the coronavirus pandemic and what lies ahead for the organization.

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What all goes into planning for the Symphony season? How many performances are done each year?

“It tends to be somewhat static from year to year. We have developed a pattern. We have our subscription series in the metro area. The Bravo Series is our mainstage classical and there are usually five concerts there. Then, we have a smaller Chamber Series that’s classical, and that’s four concerts around the metro area. So, we’re at Tougaloo College or Millsaps College or Belhaven University or St. Andrew's Cathedral and places like that. Then, we do the Pops Series, which is three concerts and closes with Pepsi Pops. Then, there are communities that hire us to perform in various cities around the state. So, that’s kind of the grid that usually happens. And on top of that comes our education concerts for school systems. We take scheduling into account, then we look at a lot of different things in thinking about what to perform. We are constantly wanting to reach new people. We want to perform a wide variety of material, because we have a wide variety of tastes and people in our community and we want to be able to reach them. We have to think about what it costs to be able to perform a certain piece. You know, John Williams is much more expensive than Mozart because there are a lot more instruments involved, so we have to think about those balances. We have to think about what works for the orchestra. We also look to collaborate with local artists, whether it is a local choir or musicians on college faculties or with international artists. So, we have to work with that scheduling and that into the grid also, as we plan. We do our planning a good year or two in advance.”

How has coronavirus interrupted this season?

“In terms of the season we are just finishing, we, of course, had to cancel some concerts. We had to cancel our big season closing concert, which was to be performed to the Beethoven Ninth Symphony with five local choirs. We had to cancel a concert we were going to do in McComb. We had to cancel the fourth chamber concert we were going to do. We have two concerts still on hold that we are saying are postponed, but we’re struggling to see when we will be able to do them. Those include Pepsi Pops and the concert we were going to do at the Vicksburg National Military Park. In terms of the future, really the shorter answer is: we don’t know. We don’t know what government mandates there will be on social distancing. We have to take into consideration the safety, not only of our audience, but of our musicians. We’re just beginning to try to plot a path without actually knowing enough to do it.”

When does the Symphony’s season typically begin and end?

“We always run right after Labor Day to right before Memorial Day. So, it’s basically September to May.”

How many people are a part of the orchestra?

“You know, it depends on what piece we are playing. In 2019, it was 150, but we don’t play with that many on stage. But, if you’re playing a big piece by John Williams, then you’re easily talking 50, 60, 70 players. If you’re doing Mozart, you would be looking at closer to 40. So, it just depends on what the demands of the music itself are.”

What is the Symphony’s annual budget?

“Right now, it’s $1.7 million. About $1 million of that is payroll. So, one of our concerns right now is that COVID-19 is kind of a double whammy because not only is there the vital health concern that we all share, but there is also what looks to be an unknown about funding, because we rely so much on corporate gifts and donations. I suspect that that funding will be reduced in the coming year, and yet there is no way to know how much. Our musicians rely on us, so we are trying to figure out a way to move forward through that because while we’re able to pay them right now, they’ve also lost all the work they do that allows them to live in our community. Whether it’s church engagements or weddings or things like that.”

What about the Symphony’s gala fundraiser? How will canceling that event affect you guys financially?

“We did make the decision to not do the Symphony Gala this fall. It was scheduled for September. Because so much lead time is required to make sure that works and initial sponsorship funding. People are just not ready to have those conversations right now. So, we put that off a year, and we will figure out some other creative way to do fundraising.”

How much does the gala bring in each year? How much of the budget does that make up?

“It’s probably about eight percent of our budget, so it’s a chunk.”

How will the organization make up for that?

“You know, I laugh when I talk about the future as defined by COVID-19 because the answer to all of the questions seems to be: I don’t know. Obviously, there will be constraints on what we can do. When you think of fundraisers, you think of large groups and that may well be a problem. So, we may have to think of ways to do fundraising with small groups or no groups. We may also have to adjust our budget or look for substitute forms of income or make cuts down the road. These are all very real possibilities.”

I’ve noticed a lot of musicians are hosting virtual concerts via Microsoft Teams or Zoom or live on social media. Would any of these options be something the Symphony would consider?

“There are a lot of organizations doing things like that right now, especially on social media. We are actually in the middle of preparing one as we speak. The real drama that sets up for us is that our very mission is live symphonic music. So, we have some questions to answer of how we can fulfill our mission and keep this vital organization alive through this period.”

What about licensing fees? Will the Symphony still be able to perform this music the following season since performances were canceled?

“Well, there are two different issues with music. One is who owns the actual music. A lot of what we play is in our library. There’s also a good chunk of what we play that we rent from agencies. That’s all separate from royalties, and performing orchestras work with the licensing agencies. We have a blanket annual license based on our ticket sales. It’s largely disconnected from what we actually play. I think they do it that way, because it would be too difficult to do it otherwise.”

Since this was the Symphony’s 75th anniversary season, what were the plans for that?

“We’re just closing out the end of what’s been an absolutely spectacular 75th anniversary season, until COVID-19 lopped off the end. We have had some amazing guest artists who have done some magnificent school engagements and masterclasses at colleges. We have had really great audiences. We had a sold out Star Wars concert. We had a fabulous Gala last fall. It’s just been a wonderful year. It’s really disappointing not to be able to have finished that the way it was planned, but we are looking now to the future and seeing what we can create from this that will keep this vital organization alive and well.”