“A season like no other”: This promising phrase is a longtime fixture of enthusiastic season announcements each fall, from arts groups everywhere.

This time, however, the phrase is literally true. The 2020-21 concert season in Seattle will indeed be unlike any other, because the COVID-19 pandemic makes it, at this point, unsafe for musicians to perform together in close proximity onstage — or for audiences to gather for concerts.

Fall Arts Guide 2020

What does this mean for our region’s orchestras, opera companies, chamber groups and choruses — and the music lovers who want to hear and see them? It means two things: online concerts with smaller forces (at least until the state reopens), and the tremendous exercise of imagination and hard work on the part of presenters.

Seattle Symphony launches streaming service

Seattle Symphony string players during a recent rehearsal. (James Holt / Seattle Symphony)
Seattle Symphony string players during a recent rehearsal. (James Holt / Seattle Symphony)

Those qualities are evident in Seattle Symphony CEO Krishna Thiagarajan, who observes: “We’re very fortunate to be in a position to move forward with our upcoming season. Of course, we’ve had to reexamine and rework everything from programming to operations and logistics. We can’t have in-person audiences until the county safely reaches Phase 4 [of the Safe Start Washington reopening plan; King County is currently in Phase 2], but thanks to the wonderful musicians and staff here, live performances are resuming from Benaroya Hall in September.”

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Seattle Symphony plans to share live weekly concerts from Benaroya Hall — albeit with a smaller number of musicians playing, spaced farther apart than usual — via its new streaming service, Seattle Symphony Live.

The 2020-21 season will open Sept. 19 with a 7:30 p.m. “Season Opening Reimagined” orchestral concert featuring Seattle-based vocalist Whitney Mongé and conductor Lee Mills — free for viewing on Seattle Symphony Live. The program, which includes works of Mozart and Beethoven and will be filmed earlier that week in Benaroya Hall, will also be shown at the Symphony’s first-ever drive-in concert screening, with listeners inside their vehicles at Marymoor Park. (Tickets for the drive-in concert screening are no longer available.) Now that’s thinking outside the box.

Following the opener, each week the Symphony will stream a new performance featuring a shortened program (no intermissions) and a smaller, socially distanced orchestra. Among the guest artists: conductor Xian Zhang with pianist Jon Kimura Parker, in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (Sept. 24); conductor Shiyeon Sung and violinist Simone Porter in the Barber Violin Concerto (Oct. 8); conductor Joseph Young, pianist Tengku Irfan and trumpeter David Gordon (Oct. 15); Rachell Ellen Wong leading Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” (Oct. 22); and Lee Mills conducting Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto” with concertmaster/soloist Noah Geller (Oct. 29). Further programming will be announced in regular updates.

2020-21 season subscribers and donors have access to all the online concerts on Seattle Symphony Live. Others may subscribe to the season for $120/year or $12.99/month. More info: seattlesymphony.org.

“We’re excited to connect with not just our local community but a global one as well,” Thiagarajan says. “While reworking repertoire for this season, we’ve been able to program some of our community compositions that didn’t get to have their premieres last season. So it’ll be wonderful to share these special collaborations, which are at the heart of the symphony’s goals as an organization, with a broader audience than would have been possible previously.”

Seattle Opera’s unusual challenges

Mary Elizabeth Williams is among the singers participating in Seattle Opera’s online recitals this fall. (Courtesy of Seattle Opera)
Mary Elizabeth Williams is among the singers participating in Seattle Opera’s online recitals this fall. (Courtesy of Seattle Opera)

The pandemic presents opera companies with unusual challenges: not only an orchestra in the more confined space of the orchestra pit, but also singers whose art is one of the most efficient known ways of transmitting the coronavirus.

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Seattle Opera’s general director, Christina Scheppelmann, acknowledges that the show can’t go on as usual: “Opera companies offer the thrill of live performance — the desire for which has been a part of humankind for more than 2,000 years and will never go away. We cannot offer live performances right now, so we must think outside the box. … For Seattle Opera, doing nothing was out of the question.”

This fall, the company is presenting free online recitals (on Facebook, YouTube, and the Opera website, seattleopera.org) by singers including Mary Elizabeth Williams, Frederick Ballentine, Marcy Stonikas and Jorell Williams. The recitals will be filmed in locations across North America, including in the singers’ homes or studios.

Paid content for Seattle Opera subscribers (totaling 6,600 currently) will include access to recital versions of the operas “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” and a new “Elixir of Love” production designed for film, plus a joint recital and video talk by award-winning singers Angela Meade and Jamie Barton, with pianist John Keene. It also includes spring season productions, which may be modified depending on the pandemic. Subscriptions for the spring season, which includes access to the fall virtual programs, start at $154. For answers to questions about streaming and subscription purchases: seattleopera.org/on-stage/streaming-faq.

More info: seattleopera.org.

More standouts this fall

Check out your favorite music presenter online, and chances are excellent that you’ll find a way to hear and see the musicians you enjoy — from a safe distance, at least for now. Some are free; some are paid-admission events. Here are some standouts:

Meany Center: Meany On Screen, a free digital platform, offers Australia’s “Circa,” a new circus/dance/theater presentation (Oct. 16-23); acclaimed pianist Jeremy Denk follows Nov. 13-20; and dance troupe Ragamala Dec. 4-11; meanycenter.org

Early Music Seattle presents violinist Rachel Barton Pine online, in repertoire from Bach to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”; 6 p.m. Sept. 13; $20, earlymusicseattle.org

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Music of Remembrance: Season opener is “To Life!” — works about starting new lives in adopted homelands; Nov. 1-8 online; ticket info TBA, at musicofremembrance.org

Pacific MusicWorks: Chamber works by 19th-century harpist Zoë de la Rue, with Whidbey Island Music Festival; Beethoven’s Cello/Fortepiano Sonatas, and a program of “Beethoven’s Scottish Songs”; tickets $10-$20; online through Oct. 30; pacificmusicworks.org

Olympic Music Festival Online: Earlier concerts, including a Sept. 6 show with violinist Stella Chen, winner of the 2019 Queen Elisabeth Competition, in recital with pianist Julio Elizalde, online through Sept. 30; all free; olympicmusicfestival.org

Byron Schenkman and Friends: Six Sunday-evening baroque/classical concerts by keyboardist Schenkman and guests, with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and beyond: starting Oct. 11; streaming online for free (with “pay by donation” option); byronandfriends.org