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Back in the building: Austin Symphony ready to play inside the Long Center again

Michael Barnes
Austin 360

At 8 p.m. Friday, something momentous will happen inside the Michael and Susan Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

Members of the Austin Symphony will be the first artists since March 2020 to perform in the large house with a full audience under recently announced pandemic protocols. Those guidelines include either proof of a negative test for COVID-19, or a voluntary affidavit of vaccination, along with recommended masking.

"It's been a frantic week getting the season started," new symphony CEO and executive director David Pratt said on Sept. 3. "Dealing with the COVID surge has added a whole other level of complexity."

A native Australian who has run music festivals and symphonies in his home country and North America, Pratt interviewed for the job long held by Anthony J. Corroa — the first concert of this season honors Corroa — from September 2020 through January 2021. He accepted the job in February.

Knowing in advance the facts on the ground, Pratt established or reinforced pandemic protocols for the frequently tested musicians, who had presented a season of well-crafted, streamed videos, then returned to in-person, physically distanced performance at Riverbend Church in May.

"It didn't happen right away," I wrote about that extraordinary experience in May. "Not during the booming, brassy Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, No. 1 by Joan Tower. Nor during the opening passages of the saucy, sassy 'Huapango' by José Pablo Moncayo, as arranged by Ernesto Enriquez.

The Long Center is the home for the Austin Symphony, which will play its first in-person show there in more than a year on Sept. 17.

"The shock of hearing an orchestra play in person for the first time in 15 months came later during 'Huapango' with the unexpected rattle of maracas. Like a rattlesnake's warning, this tingling sound ricocheted through my nervous system, reminding me that certain responses to orchestral music cannot be duplicated by listening to recorded or streaming versions of it."

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Pratt is equally — if not more — thrilled about the return of live symphonic performances.

"Honestly, I’m exited about the music," he said. "We have to keep people safe. But I focus on the music. That's what gets me going."

Pratt's most recent managerial post was at the Savannah Music Festival. Immediately before that, he served as CEO of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in Australia, where he worked with conductor Alondra de la Parra, who grew up in Mexico City.

"We performed a lot of music from Mexico," Pratt said, "along with Central and South America. That's one reason I'm little biased in favor of the program for our first concert this season."

That Latin-themed program includes works by Blas Galindo, Astor Piazzólla, Carlos Chávez and Éduard Lalo. The evening culminates with Maurice Ravel's "Boléro," which was popularized for at least one generation — or poisoned, depending on your point of view — by Blake Edwards' voyeuristic 1979 movie "10."

It reportedly poured $1 million into Ravel's estate.

"'Boléro' was written by a Frenchman," Pratt said. "But it captures some of the dance rhythms of Latin cultures."

David Pratt, new CEO and executive director of the Austin Symphony, looks forward to being part of the first concert inside the Long Center during the pandemic.

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Pratt was born in the state of Victoria two hours north of Melbourne into a family passionate about music.

"We listened to orchestras and opera a lot," he said. "I played clarinet and I came from a family of teachers. But I had no interest in teaching. So I studied recreation management, then business management, with an eye to overseeing things that I'm passionate about."

Around the time Pratt arrived, the Austin Symphony moved from its offices in a modernist building above Waller Creek that was demolished for a residential tower to a historic mansion in the Judge’s Hill neighborhood, formerly home to T3 marketing firm. When I visited him there this spring, work spaces still appeared haphazard, improvised.

The Austin Symphony's performance at Riverbend in May lifted his spirits.

"It was an overwhelming joy," Pratt said. "We had a feeling of coming together again. And Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is such a beloved piece. We were fortunate to be able to do that before the summer."

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He agrees that listening to streamed or recorded symphonic music cannot compare to live performance in a lively hall.

"You have to consider the physicality, what it does to your body," Pratt said. "That's what we saw in May. The connection to other people makes an impact. They leave the concert really fulfilled."

The musicians were not idle during the hot months. Groups of them played the Hartman Concert Series outdoors on the Long Center Terrace.

"The first concert was met by teems of rain," Pratt said. "What struck me most, however, was how many people showed up, usually about 1,000 on a Sunday. You'd look out over a range of people, a cross-section of the community from all walks of life. That's a really good thing."

Like so many other folks from either Australia or Texas, Pratt has been struck by the similarities between the two cultures. The people in both big, often hot places seem laid-back, open, friendly.

That's one reason Pratt is looking closely at the revived idea of casual matinees, a custom that the Austin Symphony was poised to adopt just when the pandemic hit.

"Every single orchestra that I've been involved with had matinees built into the programs," Pratt said. "First, there are the people who age out of evening performances and don't like to drive at night. Then there are the young people in their thirties and forties who like to keep their evenings free. We know it's a time commitment. It's not just about the concert, you have to consider the driving, parking, walking, getting something to eat or drink."

Pratt reports that, during the pandemic, the Austin Symphony retained a majority of its subscribers. That leaves open the question of how single tickets will sell.

"Ticket buyers in this city have a reputation for waiting until the last minute," Pratt said. "They like to keep their options open. Some are waiting to see what will happen next with the delta variant. We are hoping that people will come out for great evening of music."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com. 

Austin Symphony

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 17-18

Where: Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W Riverside Drive

Information: 512-476-6064 ext. 3, austinsymphony.org