5 Questions to Krishna Thiagarajan (President & CEO, Seattle Symphony)

It’s a feel-good situation: Krishna Thiagarajan, President and CEO of the Seattle Symphony, has found a way to keep the lights on during a concert season that has seen so many classical music organizations forced to either abandon their pre-conceived programming in favor of pieces that call for smaller instrumentations and fewer wind instruments, or throw in the 2020/21 season towel altogether, as we’ve seen with the Metropolitan Opera. The solution? Seattle Symphony Live, a series of weekly live-streamed concerts. The concerts won’t be as long as usual, the orchestra members will all be wearing PPE, there will be fewer orchestra members on stage, and because of travel restrictions, you won’t see Music Director Thomas Dausgaard for the first several concerts. Hopes are high, however, that through this new way of bringing music to audiences, the Seattle Symphony will be able to share its in-real-time artistry with a much wider circle of people than before. Seattle Symphony’s original 2020-2021 season lineup had been inspired by musically traveling beyond borders, so it’s a lovely bit of continuity that—thanks to a pandemic and some intense problem solving—this inspiration gets to stay in play, after all. 

Let’s start with the big one: many arts organizations aren’t able to pay their employees right now, but you are. How is that happening?

The Seattle Symphony is fortunate to be moving forward with this season, and it’s thanks to a confluence of helpful measures. Before the pandemic, we were in the middle of a successful year. In addition to having expense management under control, successful fundraising and ticket sales allowed us to create a financial cushion that has helped get us through these difficult times. We managed to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding while also working with our musicians to renegotiate contracts to help sustain the Symphony. Our entire organization came together to find a way forward–there’s been collective sacrifice, as we’ve all taken reduced salaries, with some colleagues going on standby. More than anything, it is the creativity of the people in the Seattle Symphony that has allowed us to find solutions together and make it through this.

Krishna Thiagarajan--Photo by Brandon Patoc

Krishna Thiagarajan–Photo by Brandon Patoc

In the past seven months, we’ve seen orchestras attempt to solve this problem of sharing music with audiences in a way that is safe, meaningful, and fiscally responsible. Would you talk us through the thought process that ultimately led to the creation of Seattle Symphony Live?

We’d been interested in venturing into the digital realm for some time already–the COVID-19 crisis pushed us to take the uncertainty as a catalyst for investing in a new way of doing things. Supporting our community through music is a core commitment of the Seattle Symphony. With King County (where Seattle is) in a phase of reopening that does not yet allow live entertainment with an in-person audience, streaming is our only avenue for reaching audiences right now.

Once the goal of creating a new streaming service came into focus, we jumped to work out the logistics of bringing Seattle Symphony Live to fruition in time for the season launch. To make it possible for musicians and staff to safely share live performances, our team effectively had to turn Benaroya Hall into a production studio with hospital-grade air filtration. We sought input from medical professionals and our musicians in developing a comprehensive reopening plan. From implementing a regular COVID-testing policy and retrofitting our hall’s HVAC system, to creating a new media team and installing just-acquired cameras and production equipment–our team had barely six weeks to make everything happen!

After these foundations were laid, there were added complications to navigate. Musicians performing had to stay in sync while seated farther apart from each other than they’re accustomed to. We had to rework programming around an ensemble reduced in numbers to accommodate the need for distancing on stage. There was a real sense of camaraderie as the Seattle Symphony family came together to find solutions to problems we never dreamed we’d have to solve when we embarked on careers in music. We were determined to find a way forward not just for ourselves but for the entire profession. I am happy to say that we are sharing our lessons learned with the larger performing arts community in the Pacific Northwest and farther afield.

As a follow up question—were there any wild hoops you had to jump through to make this new concert series platform happen that were a headache originally, but make a good story now?

We’ve watched the science of COVID-19 develop in real time this year. Trying to keep up with the latest discoveries has imparted us with a healthy dose of caution. One of the challenges we grappled with while planning for reopening was some controversy around virus spread via droplets versus aerosols. Health experts we consulted advised that research indicated our primary concern should be droplets; but we have an obligation to protect our employees and respect their comfort with pandemic protocols. We ultimately decided to mitigate for both forms of contagion.

At the time, we were recording the season opening concert with singer-songwriter Whitney Mongé. Amidst all this, an urgent question arose: was it safe for violinists to be sandwiched between a singer in front and brass instruments in back? After lengthy discussion, we realized that one of the most effective ways to mitigate against virus transmission is physical distance, and we had a 2,500 seat hall with almost nobody in it. We moved Whitney onto her own stage a good 30 feet away from where the rest of the musicians were, and Whitney was spectacular and owned the stage. We ended up with a multi-stage setup reminiscent of what you might see at the Grammy’s, which upped the “cool” factor of the concert.

You were previously Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Can you talk to our readers about how government funding for orchestras in the U.K. differs from government funding (or lack thereof) for orchestras in the U.S.?

There are some structural differences to note when comparing orchestral funding systems. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) is a hybrid organization where about 50% of funding comes from the Scottish government; the rest comes from earned and contributed revenue. This is different from English orchestras, as Scotland is its own country with its own devolved taxation and arts funding system. The stability of government funding that the RSNO received allowed us to offer tickets at lower average price points to the public than we can in the U.S. Doing so fostered a strong community connection, increasing accessibility and enabling greater representation across the socioeconomic spectrum within our audience.

The Scottish government also provides some subsidization for concert hall operation, which further reduces financial burden on orchestras. In the USA, we do not have significant taxpayer subsidies supporting the performing arts (some exceptions include Minnesota, New Jersey, and a handful of other states with significant government line items for the arts). The Seattle Symphony enjoys great support from the city, county, and state in spirit and philosophy, as well as some capital support. However, our system overwhelmingly relies on fundraising and ticket sales. We get greater flexibility to quickly engage in exciting new projects, but it also creates greater risk in a downturn or crisis, as we are facing now.

There are pros and cons to each system. Having worked in both, I often wonder if performing arts here in the U.S. would have a stronger presence if people felt they had some ownership through a small portion of their tax dollars. In the way that paying taxes translates to owning a piece of the road, school, or library, is it not a powerful message that these concert halls are your homes, too? Wherever funding comes from, we at the Seattle Symphony and Benaroya Hall want to create that atmosphere–that you have a home here and a place in our music-making, and that your culture and life will be reflected through our music.

The Seattle Symphony is known for programming contemporary pieces with just as much gusto as the classical canon. September and October concerts alone included pieces by Carlos Simon, Jessie Montgomery, William Grant Still, Mary D. Watkins, and Whitney Mongé. Can you speak to us—and perhaps inspire other orchestra administrations—about the positive effects you see coming as a result of giving stage time to these newer works?

We are programming new music with great performers and composers, and we do it because our hearts and our minds demand us to do what is right. Society is ever changing–to expect that the cultural canon of a hundred years ago speaks with the same power to the current generation is not realistic. The Seattle Symphony values boldly moving into the future with new works and ideas. Seattle is a city bursting with innovation, and we want to reflect that innovation through music.

The orchestral music landscape has not developed into one of equity and inclusion as quickly as the artform deserves, and we must catch up. We should remember that composers who happened to be persons of color have been creating wonderful music for hundreds of years, but our industry has not been doing enough to perform their works. I believe that when someone hears William Grant Still’s Mother and Child, they will never forget it, in the same way Barber’s Adagio for Strings grabs you by the heart and doesn’t let go. Hearing our orchestra perform Mother and Child was my moment of deepest gratitude–that we are back in Benaroya Hall making music together again, expressing profound emotion that reminds us we can be better than anything we could ever imagine, that we as a society can be better even in times of crisis.


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