Eckart Preu may feel a little uncertain when the Portland Symphony Orchestra returns to live performance in front of a live audience Sunday evening for the first of three outdoor summer concerts in Old Orchard Beach.

“I have done one event with real people in the same room, and I played the piano, but this will be the first concert with an audience since March 2020, and I don’t even know what that is like anymore,” said Preu, the orchestra’s music director, who will conduct Sunday’s concert. “In many ways, it will be a rediscovering of physical things, of mental things and interpersonal things, and of musical things. We have been shut down for one-and-a-half years, and we need to get out of that protective shell.”

Eckart Preu will conduct the Portland Symphony Orchestra on Sunday evening in the first of three outdoor summer concerts in Old Orchard Beach.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The orchestra will perform at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Seaside Pavilion in Old Orchard Beach, a covered open-air pavilion. It has 1,400 seats, with 900 available for this summer’s concerts to encourage social distancing. Masks are recommended for those who attend the concerts, and required in restrooms and some other spaces.

The orchestra will return to the Seaside Pavilion for concerts July 10 and July 17. The series includes a classical, family and pops concert. Sunday’s concert, titled “Eckart Conducts Beethoven,” will feature Symphony No. 3, the “Eroica” symphony, which Beethoven wrote in memory of “a great man.” Preu is dedicating Sunday’s performance to the heroes of the pandemic. The family Discovery series concert, “Musical Tales,” with guest conductor Tara Simoncic, will begin at 2:30 p.m. July 10. The pops concert, at 7:30 p.m. July 17, showcases the music of John Williams from the films “Jaws,” the “Star Wars” series and others, with guest conductor Morihiko Nakahara.

The PSO has recorded several concerts inside Merrill Auditorium, without an audience, since the pandemic and made them available for streaming. The summer concerts at Old Orchard Beach will not be streamed. Preu described the orchestra’s transition to digital programming as “an organizational feat, but nothing replaces live performances for people. We can feel the energy of the audience, and sharing that energy is crucial for the experience. We wanted to bring that back, with care. The main thing is being back in the community, getting out of our hall, and playing for the people.”

Performing in an open-air pavilion will add to the drama. “When you take the walls away, something happens to your psyche,” he said. “Your mind opens up and the experience feels different. That is why summer festivals are so popular. Nature and the experience of being outdoors is such an integral part of who we are.”

Preu said he planned to discuss the orchestra’s upcoming season from the podium on Sunday, and could not share details in advance. The orchestra will formally announce its plans on Monday.

Out of caution, non-wind performers will wear masks, but no longer sit apart from each other. The wind performers, who cannot wear masks, will sit 6 feet apart, but without the see-though plastic dividers they performed behind for the streaming concerts at Merrill. “It was hard to hear each other in those cubicles,” Preu said, “so this will be a big step forward toward being able to communicate again. Communication is key in music. If you take that away because of distance, we can make it work. It still sounds good, but now it will be – ‘Whoa! This is what we can do!’ It will be a fun experience.”

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