The pandemic was a sucker punch to the arts community. It was a particularly vicious blow to music groups. Audiences and ensembles were both at risk when they gathered. Singing itself was a danger because vocalists project aerosolized particles. Performance aside, the national infrastructure of flights, hotels and auditoriums that connected musicians to audiences was compromised. There was no magic solution. But our area’s music community improvised, adapted and adjusted with countless little solutions. Here are some of the ways they’re keeping the music alive.
Richard Russell is Sarasota Opera’s executive director. Opera literally means “the works.” This art form is packed with moving parts—and in pandemic, it’s tough to keep it all going. Somehow, he did. For Russell, silence just wasn’t an option.
“Obviously, doing a full opera production with a full audience is impossible,” he says. “Under pandemic conditions, it would be financially ruinous, and there’d be no way to keep the artists safe. To offer some winter opera productions, we found four shorter, small-cast, one-act pieces that we could do with reasonable health precautions. We housed all of the artists in our complex, to keep them safe in the same bubble. We also split our season in two, so lots of people wouldn’t be rehearsing or performing at the same time. Our theater is socially distanced, seating only 273 people, which is 20% of capacity. We also offer streaming content, for people who don’t feel comfortable coming to the opera house. That’s our way of maintaining a connection with our audience — and providing content to as many people as we could. We couldn’t be silent.” For tickets and streaming content, visit: sarasotaopera.org
Choral Artists of Sarasota
Joseph Holt likes to plan ahead. He’s artistic director of this choral group, and had worked out its 2020-21 season way in advance. Then the pandemic hit. And all his planning went out the window.
“It usually takes me from six to eight months to figure out the season,” he says. “After the pandemic, I had about three months to completely rethink it. For our live concerts, we went outside with strict social distancing. We pared down the size of both audience and performers. Typically, we have ensembles of 40 choral artists. We downsized that to individual vocalists and smaller combinations. For the first two performances, we only did quartets. We also outfitted our vocalists with state-of-the-art masks designed for singers. We combined these performances with free streaming concerts in high quality audio and video. In the end, almost everything changed, except the season’s title—‘Rise up.’ That stayed the same — and we never dreamed how apropos it would be." For tickets to live concerts and free streaming content, visit: choralartistssarasota.org.
Sarasota Concert Association
Sarasota Concert Association’s 2020-2021 Great Performers Series originally featured a range 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, SCA’s newly appointed executive director, worked diligently to create a free virtual series.
“Canceling the season was a hard choice,” Moxley says. “But many of our artists come from overseas, and it was particularly difficult for them to do concerts here. ‘Musically Speaking’ is our creative alternative to live performance. It’s a free virtual concert and conversations series, with performances by great musicians, each followed by a conversation moderated by Charles Turon, a musician and music educator.” According Moxley, upcoming guests include pianists, Garrick Ohlsson and Kirill Gerstein; Samantha Bennett and percussionist George Nickson; and Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. “We’re already planning our 2022 Great Performers Series season and hope to announce that in March,” she adds. “Nothing is certain—but we’ll hope for the best and plan for the worst.” For information and links to free streaming content, visit: scasarasota.org.
New Music New College
New College’s popular concert series stays on the cutting edge. Thanks to the pandemic, Mark Dancigers, the series director, cut the live performances he’d planned for the fall. Virtual concerts took their place. The new music was as edgy as ever. This spring, Dancigers hopes to bring it back to the real world.
“We began our two online series last fall,” he says. “The New Sonic Field focuses on fascinating work by New College alumni. Movement Messages is all about music and dance collaboration in the form of video. Our spring concerts will feature several amazing guest artists: yMusic (a sextet of wonderfully energetic musicians); flautist Claire Chase; pianist Vicky Chow; and The Art of Andriessen. We’re hoping to offer these both in-person and live stream, for audience members who may not want to attend live events. Music and other performing arts are utterly crucial in these times. They create joy, tell stories, and bring people together. We need that more than ever now.”
Joseph McKenna is the orchestra’s president and CEO. He says that the talents of Sarasota Orchestra thrive on imagination. In the time of COVID, they had to reimagine everything.
“We built our reimagined season around health and safety,” he says. “By being smart, disciplined and adaptable, we’ve kept the music alive on different platforms. Last November, we launched a series of small indoor concerts limited to 15 musicians, with strict social distancing both on stage and off. We record each concert weekend, then edit it to a final version available on our first-ever streaming platform. That allows us to make our music available to people who are more comfortable at home until the virus passes.” McKenna adds that, during a pandemic, all musicians aren’t created equal. “We limited our indoor concerts to strings, piano and percussion,” he says. “Obviously, you can’t wear a mask and play a wind instrument. Our wind players and brass players will get to play at a limited number of outdoor performances, subject to weather, at Nathan Benderson Park, Selby Gardens, the Ringling Museum and other venues. Over the next six or seven months, the vaccine should give the performing arts an enormous boost. We’re building the 2021-22 season right now — and hope to continue to offer all the series people love us for.” For tickets and streaming content, visit: sarasotaorchestra.org.
The Hermitage Artist Retreat
The Hermitage Artist Retreat offers residencies to accomplished artists across a range of disciplines. In normal times, people get to glimpse their work-in-progress in presentations around the community. After the pandemic pulled the plug on the residencies, Andy Sandberg, the artistic director, worked hard to get the creativity flowing again. After the artists returned in June, the Hermitage offered virtual presentations. Live performances resumed last October—accompanied by rigorous safety protocols. How rigorous?
“As rigorous as possible,” Sandberg says. “That includes socially distanced, limited audiences, both at the Hermitage, Selby Gardens, and throughout the area. For performances on our campus, we lay out a grid on the beach, with individual sign markers showing people where to go. We also send out advance communications about social distancing and mask-wearing and provide everyone with hand sanitizers. It’s a lot of work. But the result has been an emotional and cathartic experience for artists and audiences alike.” For information, visit: 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 few times, based on Gov. Ron DeSantis' latest orders. It finally reopened in October at 75% capacity and reduced days and hours. Legally, co-owners Ellen and Bill Cornelius could have bounced back to full capacity, but they didn’t feel it was safe. Did their music survive the pandemic blues?
“Yes, we still have live music,” Ellen says proudly. “The blues is alive and well here from Wednesday through Saturday, and we still do Gospel Brunch on the first Sunday of every month.”
The joint is still jumping. But the pandemic still hurts. Ellen describes it as a “double whammy.” Local diners are tougher to lure. And major blues artists are harder to find.
“We pride ourselves on having the best local bands and national bands,” she says. “We still host the top area talent, but national’s tough to get now. COVID’s made travel a nightmare — especially for blues musicians — many are older and more at risk.”
How did the Rooster keep crowing?
“Financially, we’ve survived thanks to government grants and loyal customers,” says Ellen. “Health-wise, taking out 25% of our tables created more social distancing. I’m adamant that all our staff members wear masks at all times. I strongly encourage our customers to do likewise, except when they’re eating of course. We’ve got sanitation stations all over the restaurant, and bottles of hand sanitizers readily available. No more shared condiments, individual packets only. I’m also a fanatic about hand-washing and sanitation. I always was, just more so now. This is a mom-and-pop business. I’ve always treated this place like my second home. Our fans know it. Along with music and great food, it’s why they keep coming back, even in times like this.”