Fall Arts 2020 - Classical Music
The Atlanta classical music scene adapts to performing during the global pandemic
“At the time of the lockdown in mid-March, we had only one concert left for the season — in May,” says Julie Andrijeski, artistic director of the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra (ABO). “We kept it on the books until we were sure it couldn’t happen — in mid-April.”
The ABO continued to plan on the upcoming 2020-21 series until the expanding risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic quashed any hope of regular season performances. Many ABO members including Andrijeski do not live in Atlanta, which presents a scheduling challenge even under normal circumstances. The orchestra only comes together five or six times a year and does not have an office or bespoke rehearsal space. Rehearsals and performances are usually held at the Cathedral of St. Philip in Buckhead or the Roswell Presbyterian Church.
“We are currently rearranging our season with online activities, concerts, and postings in the fall and a backup plan for our spring concerts in March and May of next year, if they can’t happen in person,” Andrijeski says, adding that the ABO is planning a prerecorded virtual concert in the fall with short video interviews of the musicians and fans.
The Atlanta Chamber Players (ACP) were scheduled to perform on March 15 and 16 when concern about the coronavirus compelled the respective venues to cancel the concerts. A couple of weeks later, the ACP board made the decision to cancel all remaining events of the season.
In June, as part of the Concerts@First series, the ACP participated in a Chamber Music Extravaganza, which was livestreamed from the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. The success of that program led to the scheduling of a Chamber Music Celebration, which will be livestreamed from First Presbyterian on Sunday, August 9, at 2 p.m.
In May, the ACP produced a “mini-concert,” a 30-minute program in which musicians performed movements, rather than a full-length chamber work, and provided commentary. The ensemble plans on producing a second mini-concert, which will be available on the ACP YouTube channel, in August.
“This fall will have more reduced activity than in previous years, but it was important that we return in some capacity and celebrate our 45th anniversary,” says ACP executive director Vanya Foote.
The first event of the ACP’s 2020-21 season is scheduled for October 23 at First Presbyterian Church. The concert, which is designated as of press time as being livestreamed with no audience, will feature a world premiere commissioned by the ACP from local composer David Garner. Also scheduled for October is a subscriber concert staged outside to allow for increased health safety.
“We are in a new era,” says Foote. “Although audiences will eventually be eager to return when it is safe, virtual programming is here to stay. It may not replace the live experience, but it will enhance the live performance experience for many, while also increasing its accessibility and reach.”
General and Artistic Director
In March, following the third of five scheduled performances of Porgy and Bess, the famed American opera with music by George Gershwin, The Atlanta Opera canceled the remaining two productions. Patrons who attended the Tuesday, March 10, performance received a notice saying that an audience member had tested positive for COVID-19. “Though this patient stated she was without symptoms at the time she attended, the diagnosis was verified six days later,” the message said.
“Recognizing its responsibility to the community at large — as well as to its patrons, artists, staff, and collaborators — to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, The Atlanta Opera made this decision [to cancel the remaining two productions],” noted a press release.
The cast, chorus, crew, and orchestra responsible for preparing and performing Porgy and Bess — more than 200 people who worked on stage, in the orchestra pit, and behind the scenes — were paid for the entire five-day run. Ticket holders for the canceled operas were given three options: donate their ticket and receive a tax deduction, exchange their ticket for a gift certificate, or receive a full refund.
On April 3, The Atlanta Opera announced the postponement of productions of Madama Butterfly and Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, which were scheduled for May.
At the end of July came the announcement from The Atlanta Opera of a “completely reimagined 2020-21 season of operatic performances in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021.” The reimagining takes the form of an ensemble of 12 company players led by Jamie Barton, Morris Robinson, Kevin Burdette, and Michael Mayes, who will deliver performances in a form or format not yet confirmed.
“While the goal is to perform live, The Atlanta Opera has also created a digital media department to speed up development and distribution of artistic content,” reads a press release. “The Company Players are instrumental to this effort.”
The idea of forming The Atlanta Opera Company Players was inspired by William Shakespeare’s theater troupe, The King’s Men, which operated at a time when plague regularly shuttered London’s theaters, as well as by the contemporary Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble in Chicago.
“We have been dreaming of creating a European style ‘fest model,’ and this is the right time for it,” notes Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun.
Also reimagined is an arrangement, possibly unprecedented in opera, by which the singers will receive salary and benefits from The Atlanta Opera in exchange for committing to performing the season and serving as mentors and coaches to the six members of the company’s Studio Artists program.
“The list of world-class talent residing in Atlanta and the Southeast goes well beyond these magnificent twelve, and we only wish we could have included them all,” says Zvulun. “Together we plan to present a season full of fantastic collaborations, a sense of community pride, and the potential for artistic fireworks.”
In another innovative move, The Atlanta Opera convened a Health & Safety Task Force of epidemiologists, public health specialists, doctors, and attorneys to advise the company on protecting the health of cast, musicians, and crew members, as well as audiences, as an essential component of building a new season of programming during a pandemic.
“Upon learning of the 2019 novel coronavirus, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra closely followed the information and guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Fulton County Board of Health, the City of Atlanta, and state leadership,” says Jennifer Barlament, executive director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
On March 12, 2020, the ASO announced postponements and cancellations of upcoming performances. The next day, Atlanta’s signature symphony orchestra officially closed its doors to the public.
“With upcoming performances on the shelf for the foreseeable future, we launched the ASO’s ‘Virtual Stage,’ our online platform dedicated to bringing the music of the ASO plus additional exclusive content into the homes of current and new patrons worldwide,” Barlament says.
Virtual Stage includes weekly videos introducing a new ASO musician along with streams of previous concerts, archival video premieres, interactive live streams of “watch parties,” and discussions hosted by an ASO musician or representative. Five months and counting after its launch, the Virtual Stage has received hundreds of thousands of views from around the globe.
At the end of March, the ASO announced its 2020-21 season, which celebrates two major milestones: the 50th anniversary of the famed ASO Chorus and the final season of Robert Spano’s 20-year run as the orchestra’s music director. The season begins with a gala concert on September 12 featuring Spano conducting Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and guest pianist Daniil Trifonov performing Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
For the official season opener on September 24, Spano steps to the podium to lead renowned violinist Gil Shaham in a program of Theofanidis (Rainbow Body), Korngold (Violin Concerto), and Sibelius (Symphony No. 2). For the next nine months, the ASO calendar is replete with world premieres, guest musicians, and an eclectic array of symphonic and choral works worthy of the group legacy and individual achievement it honors.
In the downloadable ASO brochure, Spano highlights a few his favorite events, including celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ASO Chorus with Mendelssohn’s Elijah and a new oratorio by Jonathan Leshnoff; an evening of music by Franz Liszt with French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet; showcasing internationally renowned artists, such as Yo-Yo Ma, Yefim Bronfman, Pedja Mužijević, and Garrick Ohlsson; and spotlighting Atlanta composers Jennifer Higdon, Michael Gandolfi, Krists Auznieks, and ASO bassist Michael Kurth. The ASO season concludes June 10-12, 2021 with Spano conducting Mahler’s Third Symphony.
Of course, everything hinges on the evolving state of the coronavirus and the issuance of state and local guidelines. Whether or how the contagion will impact the ASO’s plans for ’20-21 remains to be seen.
“We are still working on the safest path forward and continue to be committed to the health and safety of our patrons, musicians, and staff,” Barlament says. “Given these unprecedented times and ever-changing conditions, each day we take new steps in our journey to return to the stage with guidance from the CDC, federal, state, and local authorities, as well as a team of independent experts, who are helping the ASO work through our specific needs and challenges. We plan to have something set in stone in early August.”
Coro Vocati was lucky, in one sense. The choral ensemble concluded its 2019-2020 concert series before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Atlanta arts community in March. While there were no concerts on tap, the choir was forced to postpone its annual fundraiser, the Coro Vocati Soiree & Wine Auction, which was scheduled for April 3.
“Although we do not anticipate performing in person during the coming months, we hope to engage audiences this fall via an online event, which will feature recordings from Coro Vocati’s past performances, as well as narration detailing what makes these pieces so special,” says artistic director John Dickson.
“COVID-19 has highlighted the need for arts organizations to think of new ways to engage audiences,” Dickson continued. “Moving forward, our planning discussions will focus more on how to present performances to online audiences, which will enable us to expand our base and provide people with an opportunity to attend in person due to illness, infirmity, or for any other reason.”