D’Astolfo | A Long Intermission At Concert Halls

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — A symphony concert with the brass section in the balcony? It could be coming to Powers Auditorium.

The Youngstown Symphony Orchestra is weighing every option for concerts when the time finally comes – and it probably will be later rather than sooner – that it can perform at Powers before an audience.

Social distancing requirements to thwart the spread of the coronavirus also affect the musicians. So only a cut-down contingent of 15 string players, plus the conductor – all wearing masks – would fit on stage.

The brass players could be placed in the balcony, spread out and with sound monitors so they can play in sync with the strings.

The brass and woodwind players, of course, cannot wear a mask.

Plus, an indelicate reality is that those instruments also blast out spittle. So that’s another reason to keep them in the balcony.

At this point, any seating arrangement for a YSO concert is just speculation. Patricia Syak, president of the Youngstown Symphony Society, is just now weighing her options for the day when the state gives the green light to reopen. “I have done symphony management with many stages and many different sizes of orchestras. But I never thought I’d have to deal with this,” Syak says of the coronavirus shutdown and social distancing rules.

The YSO announced its 2020-2021 season in February, before all this craziness happened. Within weeks, Powers Auditorium was closed and the final two concerts of the 2019-2020 season were canceled.

Going forward, the biggest question is how many tickets can be sold? Powers Auditorium has a capacity of 2,300; but it will likely be required to keep every other row empty, and put two empty seats between every occupied one, according to Syak.

Assuming the horn players are not in the balcony, that’s only about 380 available seats, or about 16% of capacity. The break-even point for a YSO concert at Powers is around 65% of capacity. So, even with the reduced expense of fewer musicians, the numbers – barring a drastic increase in ticket price, which will not happen – aren’t even close to acceptable. It would be a guaranteed money-loser.

And this formula, by the way, also holds true – to a large extent – for every concert hall.

For the YSO, the answer would be to raise funds through concert underwriters. But it’s also coming up short there, Syak says, at least at this time. 

Syak is already paring down the 2020-2021 YSO season to three classical concerts and three pops.

The classical concerts, which are not as well-attended as the pops, have been taking place in the 600-seat Ford hall; but they’ll be moved to Powers. The social distancing capacity of Ford Hall would just be way too low, about 100.

The first concert would actually be a little bit of classical and pops. Titled “Heroes Among Us,” it would be an October salute to first responders. And front line workers in the pandemic would be admitted free.

Syak doesn’t think all of the planned concerts and events for next season will happen. A YSO fundraiser slated for Aug. 1 at Stambaugh Auditorium and Gardens is in jeopardy of cancelation. A December fundraiser concert at Powers with Mannheim Steamroller is already on hold.

The DeYor Performing Arts Center, home of Powers and Ford Hall, also earns revenue on rentals for touring acts. And the beautiful lobby is a popular spot for wedding receptions and other gatherings. All of that is gone.

But the Youngstown Symphony Society is looking at other ways to use Powers Auditorium, including showing movies. That would be interesting, because the grand venue was originally built as one of the first Warner Brothers theaters.

Syak is weighing the costs and the price points. “We’re still wrestling with that,” she says. “I’m spending more time thinking about budgeting and number crunching than I do presenting programming.”

Another local concert hall that is tossing around ideas, including showing movies, is the Robins Theatre in Warren.

The beautiful 1,350-seat theater, built in 1923, was recently renovated to the tune of more than $5 million. After its grand opening in January, the Robins was an instant hit, drawing packed houses until the shutdown brought its momentum to a dead stop.

A nearly sold-out concert by Blue Oyster Cult on March 8 was the last show at the theater.

The possibility of showing movies is just an idea at this point, says Ken Haidaris, who handles booking for the Robins. He floated the idea in a recent Facebook post, and the response was about 60:40 in favor.

Even with the somewhat reduced expense of movies, it still might not make sense on the balance sheet because of reduced capacity.

When concert halls are permitted to reopen, the Robins will be ready. The venue has been deep cleaned and disinfected from head to toe. Its carpeting has been steam cleaned.

Haidaris is thinking theaters could open in late fall, or the Christmas season. It might take longer than that before all folks are comfortable with returning, even if they wear masks.

The Robins bathrooms have touchless soap dispensers, faucets and hand dryers, and the theater is adding eight touchless hand-sanitizer stations at strategic locations as an extra measure of reassurance to patrons.

In the meantime, Haidaris is rescheduling every show on the schedule.

He also noted that the Kenny Players Lounge, which will be the Robins’ newest feature, is nearly complete. The 50-seat lounge will be accessible to those who buy season memberships. It will offer food and drink before shows, and might also be open on nights when the theater is dark, Haidaris says.

Pictured: Should Powers Auditorium reopen under social-distancing mandates, it would be very difficult to break even on concerts.