Savannah Philharmonic conductor Keitaro Harada didn’t think the coronavirus would affect his trip when in March he flew to Tokyo to give a concert and appear on a televison show.
But Harada, who is music and artistic director of the Savannah Philharmonic, got an unwelcome surprise when he tried to return home.
"On the day I was going to fly back to the U.S. was the day Trump decided to reduce flights coming to the U.S. It was chaos. The last thing I wanted to be was in a huge line. So I didn’t fly back and I’m just quarantining in Japan," Harada said in a long distance phone call.
Even while social distancing, Harada has managed to visit relatives in Tokyo (He was born and raised there and maintains a home there as well as in Savannah.) He’s practicing his conducting several hours day in a quiet room surrounded by scores of music, he said. He’s talking to symphony board chair Reghan White-Clemm about four times a week and attending staff meetings using Zoom. "I’m working remotely…It’s a positive challenge when everything is closed," he said.
And since April, Harada has been the host of a virtual interview show that he creates, edits and produces.
Using Zoom software, he interviews a Philharmonic musician every week. After every interview, Harada offers a musical selection, sometimes classical music, sometimes playful music. For his Mother’s Day interview, he offered a song, "I could have danced all night," from the musical My Fair Lady. On May 18, he gave a tribute to graduating seniors, featuring the Pomp and Circumstance military march by Edward Elgar.
The show is called #SavPhilMusicMonday." It can be accessed through the Philharmonic website (savannahphilharmonic.org). And it’s available on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
Because of the pandemic, the Philharmonic on March 26 canceled the last three concerts of its 2019-2020 season. But, said Harada, "I would highly encourage everyone to follow us on social media. We may not be able to provide live concerts but I invite everyone to enjoy the fun."
He added, "I look forward to spending more time in Savannah. It’s my home. I’ll return in the summer. July or August."
Harada and a couple of symphony officials say the nonprofit is not only surviving but doing well despite uncertainty about how the pandemic will affect it in the future.
"I think we’re weathering it very well. We’re all keeping a positive outlook. And ‘K’ (Harada’s nickname) has been a fantastic leader in this" with his positive attitude, Marsha Krantz, Philharmonic librarian and a viola and violin player, said.
She praised his MusicMonday show "that keeps the name of the Philharmonic out there." The Philharmonic’s musicians have had a hard time because of the pandemic, she noted. They have not been laid off because they work under contract based on the number of concerts in which they perform. But with the lockdown, they have lost the gigs they usually play like weddings, Krantz said.
Board of directors chair Rhegan White-Clemm said the symphony’s close-knit family of patrons, musicians and the board have all been upset by the pandemic but are committed to the orchestra performing again soon. Whether it performs live or remotely in the 2020-2021 season is not clear, Harada said.
Whatever happens, the Philharmonic leaders’ goal is the same, White-Clemm said. "It’s all about keeping music playing this community," she said. She added, "We’re focused on keeping the lights on and the music playing." White-Clemm compared the orchestra’s situation in the pandemic to Sleeping Beauty "in a trance" and not yet able to wake up,
The Philharmonic’s patrons remain "passionate" about the orchestra, White-Clemm said.
In the Philharmonic’s press release announcing the closure, White-Clemm said "We would be truly grateful if our loyal patrons converted their unused tickets into a tax-deductible donation to the Philharmonic." As of Monday, June 8, 80 percent of their patrons have decided to donate their ticket money to the Philharmonic, she said. That was more than $20,000, she said.
The pandemic "was a real shock for us. I don’t think we were prepared for this," White-Clemm said. Fortunately, she said her board members and Harada "are very nimble, forward thinking" as they toss around ideas about the Philharmonic’s future.
"At this point, we do not have music to do," she said. Around the country and in Savannah, "no orchestras are gathering because they’re not allowed to," White-Clemm said.
And White-Clemm said, they don’t know if some of the venues they play in — including the 1,150-seat Lucas Theatre and the 2,500-seat Johnny Mercer Theater – will be open. And she added, "You have a lot of people in one space. It’s not possible" to have a concert there now.
White-Clemm declined to discuss details of the Philharmonic’s options because "we need to be careful about making promises."
Harada, too, was careful about how he described the Philharmonic’s future plans.
This spring, he orchestrated a remote performance of the Philharmonic musicians playing the song "Georgia on My Mind" for the orchestra’s YouTube page. About 60 musicians, working from their homes and using their smart phones, recorded themselves, he said. "And they made a file (that they sent) to a video content creator that I hired and he put it all together." So the sound on YouTube is that of all the musicians playing together and the composite image shows each of them playing and Harada conducting.
Asked if the Philharmonic would be doing remote performances like this for its fall season, Harada said, "I don’t think so. Maybe. Maybe not."
He spoke of Savannah re-opening restaurants and other businesses. "If the rules relax, I think we’ll be able to gather together," he said. He gave the example of Germany, which is ahead of Savannah in easing its coronavirus rules. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony did a "social distancing" concert, he said. There "everyone (in the orchestra) takes the test to see if they’re infected. Everyone has quarantined. And everyone is gathered together and made a recording…In the world of orchestra, you have to (use social distancing)," he said.
Harada said he hoped he would know soon what Savannah’s rules will be for the orchestra. He said he expected the Philharmonic’s 2020-2021 season would start as planned with a first concert on Sept. 17. "I don’t see why not," Harada said. "We hope to keep those dates. The rules keep changing every day."
Meanwhile, Harada is keeping busy with making online content for the Philharmonic as well as a private project, a daily Livestream music interview show called Music Today.
For the Philharmonic’s Facebook Fanpage, he interviewed Terri O’Neil, the orchestra’s longtime executive director who recently resigned. He also turned the tables in the May 25 episode MusicMonday, featuring himself as the interviewed artist discussing the role of music director. The video Harada posted was an Instagram Live video from the show "Check the Gate." His interviewer was a friend, celebrated Viennese conductor Sascha Goetzel.
That interview featured what has become a hallmark of MusicMonday interviews — revealing personal as well as professional information about the musician. For instance, in Harada’s May 18 interview with principal trombonist Carl Polk, Polk recounted that not only does he love the "lyrical" and "majestic" quality of the trombone but also he is an avid bicyclist who rides more than 150 miles a week. And in Harada’s June 1 interview with viola player Maggie Seay, he asked what she was doing while quarantining. Seay replied, "I allowed myself to take a little break…I took out my gigantic KitchenAid mixer. And I’m making a lot of cookies."
So in his interview with Goetzel, Harada described his love of food—and his affection for his Pomeranian dog who sat in his lap during the interview. But Harada spent most of the interview describing his responsibility to Savannah. "My focus primarily is trying to make each concert Savannah specific—highlighting something that is really only able to do with this city," he related. In the season premiere concert, Savannah composer Robin Beauchamp is writing two compositions to be performed by Savannah Philharmonic. Two world premiere pieces," he wrote in an e-mail.