The pandemic was a sucker for the art scene. It was a particularly hard blow for musical groups. Audiences and ensembles were both at risk when they gathered. Singing itself was a hazard as singers project aerosolized particles. Performance aside, the national infrastructure was marred by flights, hotels, and auditoriums that connected musicians to audiences. There was no magic solution. But the music community in our region improvised, adapted and adapted with countless little solutions. Here are some ways you can keep the music alive.
Sarasota Opera took opera to the streets during the pandemic.
Richard Russell is the managing director of Sarasota Opera. Opera literally means “the works”. This art form is full of moving parts – and in a pandemic, it’s difficult to keep everything going. Somehow he did. For Russell, silence was simply not an option.
“Obviously, it’s impossible to do a full opera production with a full audience,” he says. “Under pandemic conditions it would be financially ruinous and there would be no way to protect the artists. In order to be able to offer some winter opera productions, we have found four shorter, small-scale one-act plays that we can do with appropriate health precautions. We put all the artists in our complex to keep them safe in the same bubble. We also split our season into two parts so that not many people rehearse or perform at the same time. Our theater is socially distant and offers space for only 273 people, which is 20% of the capacity. We also offer streaming content for people who are uncomfortable coming to the opera house. This is how we keep the connection with our audience – and make content available to as many people as possible. We couldn’t be silent. “Tickets and streaming content can be found at: sarasotaopera.org
Choral Performers from Sarasota
Joseph Holt likes to plan ahead. He is the artistic director of this choir group and had worked out the 2020-21 season well in advance. Then the pandemic hit. And all of his plans went out the window.
“It usually takes me six to eight months to figure out the season,” he says. “After the pandemic, I had about three months to completely reconsider it. For our live concerts, we went outside with strict social distance. We have reduced the size of the audience and the performers. Typically we have ensembles of 40 choir artists. We have reduced it to individual singers and smaller combinations. In the first two performances we only played quartets. We have also provided our singers with state-of-the-art masks for singers. We have combined these performances with free streaming concerts in high audio and video quality. In the end, almost everything changed, except for the season’s title: “Rise up.” It stayed the same – and we never dreamed of how good it would be. “Tickets to live concerts and free streaming content can be found at: choralartistssarasota.org.
Sarasota Concert Association
The Sarasota Concert Association’s Great Performers Series 2020-2021 originally featured a number of international artists, including the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra. After the scope of the pandemic was clear, all six concerts were canceled. Linda Moxley, the newly appointed General Manager of SCA, worked diligently to create a free virtual series.
“Canceling the season was a tough choice,” said Moxley. “But a lot of our artists come from overseas and it was particularly difficult for them to give concerts here. “Musically speaking” is our creative alternative to live performances. It’s a free virtual series of concerts and talks with performances by great musicians, followed by a talk hosted by Charles Turon, a musician and music educator. “According to Moxley, the upcoming guests include pianists Garrick Ohlsson and Kirill Gerstein; Samantha Bennett and drummer George Nickson; and St. Martin’s Academy in the Fields. “We are already planning our 2022 Great Performers Series season and hope to announce this in March,” she adds. “Nothing is certain – but we hope for the best and plan for the worst.” Information and links to free streaming content can be found at: scasarasota.org.
yMusic is one of the performances in the cast of New Music New College. (Photo by Graham Tolbert)
New Music New College
The popular New College concert series remains up to date. Thanks to the pandemic, Mark Dancigers, the series director, cut the live performances scheduled for the fall. Virtual concerts took their place. The new music was as nervous as ever. This spring, Dancigers hopes to bring it back to the real world.
“We started our two online series last fall,” he says. “New Sonic Field focuses on the fascinating work of New College alumni. Movement Messages is all about the collaboration of music and dance in the form of videos. Our spring concerts will feature some amazing guest artists: yMusic (a sextet of wonderfully energetic musicians); Flautist Claire Chase; Pianist Vicky Chow; and the art of Andriessen. We hope to be able to offer these both in person and live to viewers who may not want to attend live events. Music and other performing arts are extremely important during these times. They create joy, tell stories and bring people together. We need that now more than ever. “
For live concert tickets and free streaming content, visit: newmusicnewcollege.org.
The Sarasota Orchestra has limited performances at Holley Hall to allow social distancing.
Joseph McKenna is the orchestra’s president and CEO. He says the Sarasota Orchestra’s talents thrive on the imagination. In the time of COVID, they had to rethink everything.
“We’ve geared our revamped season around health and safety,” he says. “By being intelligent, disciplined and adaptable, we have kept the music alive on different platforms. Last November we started a series of small indoor concerts limited to 15 musicians, with strict social distance both on and off the stage. We record every concert weekend and then edit it into a final version that is available on our very first streaming platform. This way we can make our music available to people who are more comfortable at home until the virus is over. “McKenna adds that not all musicians are created equal during a pandemic. “We have limited our indoor concerts to strings, piano and drums,” he says. “Of course you can’t wear a mask or play a wind instrument. Our wind and brass players can perform a limited number of outdoor performances at Nathan Benderson Park, Selby Gardens, the Ringling Museum, and other locations depending on weather conditions. In the next six or seven months, the vaccine should give the performing arts a huge boost. We are currently building the 2021-22 season – and hope to continue to offer all the series that people love us for. “Tickets and streaming content can be found at: sarasotaorchestra.org.
Jen Shyu is a former Hermitage Artist Retreat performer. (Photo by Steven Schreiber)
The Hermitage Artist Retreat
The Hermitage Artist Retreat offers residencies for experienced artists from various disciplines. In normal times, employees can take a look at their work in progress in presentations across the community. After the pandemic pulled the plug on the residences, Andy Sandberg, the artistic director, worked hard to get creativity going again. After the artists returned in June, the Hermitage offered virtual presentations. The live performances were resumed last October – accompanied by strict security protocols. How strict?
“As strict as possible,” says Sandberg. “This includes a socially distant, limited audience, both in the Hermitage, in Selby Gardens and in the entire region. For performances on our campus, we create a grid with individual signs on the beach that show people where to go. We also send advance notices of social distancing and mask wearing, and provide hand sanitizer for everyone. It is much work. The result, however, was an emotional and cathartic experience for both the artist and the audience. “More information is available at: hermitageartistretreat.org.
The “rooster” occupies a funky, bluesy place in Sarasota’s musical ecosystem. After the pandemic hit the scene, it closed and reopened a number of times based on recent orders from Governor Ron DeSantis. It finally reopened in October with 75% capacity and reduced days and hours. Legally, co-owners Ellen and Bill Cornelius could have returned to full capacity, but they didn’t think it was safe. Did their music survive the pandemic blues?
“Yeah, we still have live music,” says Ellen proudly. “The blues is alive and well here Wednesday through Saturday, and we still have a gospel brunch every first Sunday of the month.”
The joint is still jumping. But the pandemic still hurts. Ellen describes it as a “double blow”. Local guests are more difficult to attract. And great blues artists are harder to find.
“We pride ourselves on having the best local and national bands,” she says. “We still have the best talent in the region, but the national team is hard to come by now. COVID has made traveling a nightmare – especially for blues musicians – many are older and more at risk. “
How did the rooster continue to crow?
“We survived financially thanks to government grants and loyal customers,” says Ellen. “In terms of health, taking out 25% of our tables resulted in more social distancing. I firmly believe that all of our employees wear masks at all times. I strongly encourage our customers to do the same, except when they eat naturally. We have sanitary stations and bottles of hand sanitizer available everywhere in the restaurant. No more common spices, just individual packages. I am also a fan of hand washing and hygiene. I always was, now only more so. This is a mom and pop shop. I’ve always treated this place like my second home. Our fans know. Together with music and great food, they keep coming back in times like these. “
For more information, please call (941) 388-7539 or BlueRoosterSRQ.com.