WASHINGTON - At the start of 2020, the National Symphony Orchestra was planning its first international tour with conductor Gianandrea Noseda, and an epic Beethoven cycle to mark the 250th anniversary of the legendary composer’s birth. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic forced the ensemble out of the Kennedy Center in the US capital for 18 months, and the Beethoven symphonic series has been rescheduled, starting this month and wrapping up in... 2023.

The NSO and other professional orchestras in the United States have resumed live performances in recent months while navigating a maelstrom of Covid-19 rules, trying to keep everyone healthy, and convincing wary listeners to buy tickets again. “It has been a big challenge,” Noseda told AFP after an afternoon rehearsal for January’s concerts, which include some of the Beethoven symphonies -- but not the Ninth, as the chorus required would put too many unmasked people on stage. Noseda, who was not able to travel to Washington for a year as the crisis unfolded, detailed the NSO’s pandemic evolution from virtual concerts, small groups on stage and plexiglass between musicians to the more or less normal 2021-22 season.

“The alternative would have been no performance at all,” the 57-year-old Italian maestro said, explaining that he managed to keep in touch with his players during the long hiatus through Zoom calls and emails. 

  Now, Noseda says there is a “really perceivable” sense of musicians and audiences appreciating the moment, and not looking too far ahead.

  “I fully enjoy that moment,” he said. “It’s a gift to you.” So how do you go about making sure that dozens of musicians can be on stage together safely for rehearsals and concerts, especially when some of them -- brass and woodwind players -- cannot be masked? 

The plexiglass partitions seen earlier in the pandemic are gone, but all NSO members who can play while masked do so, and protocols are rigid.

                  “It’s a new world for all of us,” said NSO executive director Gary Ginstling, explaining that general manager Genevieve Twomey and her team have basically become “an in-house medical team” conducting weekly testing and monitoring.

Twomey said “very few” positive results had been detected so far within the orchestra. But in Texas, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra was forced to cancel two concerts and cut planned works from two others this month because they could not replace key musicians who had tested positive.

“Omicron has been particularly challenging because it’s so contagious and prevalent,” DSO president and CEO Kim Noltemy told AFP in a statement.

For Jamie Roberts, the NSO’s assistant principal oboe player who clearly performs without a mask, “once there was a vaccine, and people could get a vaccine, I felt really safe.”

Colin Williams, the associate principal trombone player at the New York Philharmonic, agreed that protocols in place had been “worth it,” ensuring the musicians’ safety and that of their loved ones at home.

“There are a lot more questions than answers right now,” he said.

But Roberts, the oboe player, said she is simply reveling in the moment, being reunited with her colleagues.

“We missed each other, it’s a family,” she said. “It’s a really cool job.”