There is no music at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium.

To comply with public health rules, Symphony Nova Scotia (SNS) hasn’t performed since March. The pandemic has rocked performing arts groups worldwide. Globally, some groups suspended operations for 12–18 months so they can save their resources to bounce back after the pandemic. Others have adapted to digitally performing.

Music director Holly Mathieson says SNS is still finding its path. She recently spoke with Halifax Magazine from New Zealand, where she is currently touring after spending the COVID lockdown in her native U.K. with her husband.

“I feel we’re in the process of finding a good happy medium between the two, making sure there’ll be some live music-making in Nova Scotia in the coming months, but also…being patient about restarting normal concerts,” she says. “It helps to know pretty much every orchestra on the planet is going through the same thing or coming out the other side of it… There’s so much to observe and learn from the way other countries are restarting.”

At SNS, employees who played a small role in creating digital content for marketing have become the centre of the planning process in shifting to online platforms. SNS has been rethinking about performance repertoire to adapt to smaller audiences, distancing, and new venues.

“Even on our usual stage…that number would be all but impossible with the current rules around distanced seating,” Mathieson says. “In the U.K., we’ve been working on starting just a few recording sessions and experimental concerts around the country. But with distancing, listening to each other, watching each other, breathing with each other, are almost impossible. It becomes a really different process. It’s been good to go through it in the U.K., to think about how it can inform what we might do when we’re ready in Nova Scotia.”

Holly Mathieson

Mathieson explains that since musicians have played almost every day of their lives, the pandemic has forced them to manage their time differently.

“Some people have kept up their daily practice, put their energy into their homes and families, been teaching instrumental lessons online, and many of them have been producing fantastic education content for our website,” she says.

Mathieson is savouring the downtime. The lockdown gave her quality time to spend with her husband as they both travel extensively for their jobs. Additionally, Mathieson had time to reflect on what she is passionate about and the changes she wants to make in her life.

“It’s given me a chance to think about what I enjoy about my role as a musician, where I feel I can bring value to an organization or community, and the sort of work I’m not so fussed about resuming,” she says. “If I can find a better balance… that’d be great.”

Mathieson appreciates how donors continue to support SNS, keeping musicians’ jobs secure. “They are our lifeblood, and that sort of support is so essential,” she says. “Arts organizations can’t just reconvene and resume work after a year or two off. It takes decades to build our working culture and form an orchestra’s distinctive sound. The specific players, sitting in their specific seats, are the core of that process. You can’t just hire a new orchestra when the world is ready. It would undo literally decades of development.”

The return to live shows will depend on how COVID unfolds. Mathieson believes likely options include starting with a smaller group of players, discovering larger open spaces, and shorter performances for multiple, smaller audiences. “What’s important to me is…we use this time of change and overhaul to our advantage…doing everything we can to represent and engage with as broad a range of Nova Scotians as possible,” she says.

And she looks forward to any way SNS can help people rediscover the power of music.

“I hope…we will find meaningful ways to keep giving everyone access to wonderful music and creativity,” she says. “Art matters to people. It’s an essential ingredient in building the quality of our lives, helping us through tough times, and uniting us in good ones. It’s how we tell our stories and learn about other people’s stories. It’s how we process this crazy old thing called life. The sooner we can get back to our work, the sooner we can play our part in helping people reflect, recover, and rebuild their lives.”

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