The marathon pandemic has completely upended West Michigan arts groups, musicians and dancers, but videos and other innovations are keeping them alive and keeping them connected to fans.
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For the first time in history, concert halls in West Michigan won’t be filled this fall and winter with avid devotees of classical music and ballet.
All across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic and its social-distancing restrictions have robbed highly trained musicians and dancers of opportunities to showcase their professional artistry on stage in front of a live audience.
In spite of the monumental challenges, regional arts organizations haven’t been silenced.
Instead, Grand Rapids Symphony, West Michigan Symphony Orchestra, Holland Symphony Orchestra, Grand Rapids Ballet, Opera Grand Rapids, St. Cecilia Music Center and other groups have launched innovative ways to stay connected to audiences, while bringing music and dance to subscribers and fans – often in virtual fashion via videos, live-streams and other means.
“Our management has had to reinvent the whole series in concerts and have done a wonderful job of keeping us safe. Most of us are staying home practicing doing projects and trying to stay positive for our return to the stage,” said Bill Vits, principal percussionist for Grand Rapids Symphony.
“After 42 years with the orchestra I could retire. But I’m determined to survive this attack on our country and the arts.”
From New York to California, the upcoming classical music and ballet seasons have been canceled due to COVID-spread concerns and severe capacity restrictions that make it financially impossible to stage in-person performances.
For many arts groups, that’s led to budget cuts, layoffs and a complete revamping of performances and procedures, not to mention pleas to loyal concertgoers to donate or purchase season subscriptions during this unprecedented time period.
To ensure continued operation without live audiences, Grand Rapids Symphony staffers, orchestra musicians and artistic leaders took a 5 percent pay cut for the current fiscal year, while one full-time and two part-time administrative positions were eliminated.
“It became clear to us after the first stage of the pandemic that it would be a marathon, and not a sprint,” said Mary Tuuk, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Symphony.
“The biggest challenge has been reimagining how we can deliver on our mission using innovative formats for music-making that are safe for our musicians, staff and audiences alike. This challenge has required immediate pivots in digital delivery that we have embraced.”
That pivot produced “a reimagined season” dubbed “Pathwaves.” The Symphony has contracted with a third-party production company to produce several concerts that are being live-streamed from Van Andel Arena and St. Cecilia Music Center. The next live-stream concert takes place at 7:30 p.m. Friday (Nov. 20): “A New World: Intimate Music from Final Fantasy.” Tickets to view the concert are $20 and available online here.
“The name Pathwaves symbolizes waves of hope for our community as it heals during a time of significant public health, economic and societal challenge,” said Tuuk, noting the symphony is committed to delivering an alternative season without furloughing musicians or shutting down operations.
But the COVID concerns have drastically changed the way the symphony operates.
“We have small 20-piece ensembles with distancing and masks for all, except winds and brass, who take them down to play and put them back on,” Vits said.
“I just did my solo school show at the arena…that will be streamed to third-graders instead of playing in person for 3,000 kids this year.”
In April, the Grand Rapids Symphony even produced an impressive, quarantined video of the Hallelujah Chorus from “Messiah” with musicians and singers performing their parts from home — a video that’s attracted more than 111,000 views on YouTube. (Scroll down to watch the video.)
The Detroit Symphony Orchestra also has refashioned its approach, offering viewers a webcast archive of more than 200 performances, producing “watch parties,” staging socially distanced outdoor concerts and working with Interlochen and others for online instruction.
BALLET ADAPTING QUICKLY TO ‘UNIMAGINABLE’ CIRCUMSTANCES
Turning to virtual performances and rehearsals has its challenges, hurdles that the Grand Rapids Ballet has overcome with innovative new ways to bring dancers together for practices and deliver productions to audiences.
It’s now presenting a restructured season online titled “Moving Beyond,” with single tickets for each virtual performance costing $15.
“The biggest challenge has been trying to figure out how we operate and perform choreography that naturally brings dancers within close proximity of each other,” artistic director James Sofranko said.
“Thankfully, we have our own Meijer-Royce Center for Dance with four studios, including the Peter Martin Wege theater, so we have multiple spaces in which to spread out. We have organized the dancers into small pods of no more than six, so that the dancers feel safer only interacting within their pods, all the while wearing masks.”
That means the daily ballet class is taught from the theater and Zoomed to other studios simultaneously. Choreographers who would normally fly to Grand Rapids to work with dancers now conduct rehearsals online via Zoom.
“We have adapted quickly, and it is amazing what you can still accomplish under circumstances we would have thought unimaginable months ago,” Sofranko added.
On the plus side, Sofranko said partnering with SALT Creative Production Studios to film performance videos has “opened a whole new world of creativity,” with subscribers and ticket buyers getting to view the videos via a private online link.
To conserve funds, the ballet’s 18 full company members took “a longer than usual layoff period” last summer with some staffers placed on temporary layoff.
“Certainly, without in-person performances, our revenue will be very reduced this season. We normally sell over 12,000 tickets to ‘Nutcracker’ alone,” Sofranko said.
“The entire organization is making concessions. We are depending more than ever on the generosity of our donors and benefactors to see us through this period. The show must go on, and if we want to exist in a meaningful way on the other side of this, we must do all that we can to continue to fulfill our mission of uplifting the human spirit through the art of dance.”
‘LIKE TRYING TO WALK A STRAIGHT LINE DURING AN EARTHQUAKE’
For the Muskegon-based West Michigan Symphony Orchestra, the upheaval and changing COVID rules have forced a new, ever-shifting normal.
“It was like trying to walk a straight line during an earthquake,” said Andy Buelow, president and CEO. “The challenge now is the longevity of the situation. We are a resilient organization, and we are blessed with a loyal donor and subscriber base. We’re staying in close contact with them and doing everything we can to keep the entire WMS community hopeful and connected.”
Unlike some major orchestras which were shutting down and “falling like dominoes” earlier this year, the West Michigan Symphony is smaller with a shorter season. Buelow said this makes WMS “more nimble” and able to adjust on the fly.
The orchestra is working with videographer Arvin Candelaria and Blue Lake Public Radio to create “near-PBS quality virtual concerts” featuring a stripped-down ensemble of fewer than 30 musicians to ensure six-foot social distancing.
“All players were required to wear masks, of course, so that eliminated woodwinds and brass,” he said. “We converted all the concerts to strings and percussion only.”
The orchestra contracts with about 70 freelance players but can currently only accommodate – and pay – less than half of that number right now.
The performance videos are offered online to audiences on Friday nights, with post-concert Zoom “talk-back” sessions with music director Scott Speck and a guest artist. Next up is “Home for the Holidays” on Dec. 11, with guest vocalist Diane Penning.
“The feedback we’re getting from the audiences is uniformly enthusiastic,” Buelow added. “Of course, they miss the ritual and feel of being together at the Frauenthal Center, and nothing can replace the sound of the orchestra live.
“But the virtual concerts have their definite compensations. Thanks to Blue Lake, the sound is great, especially if you run it through your home theater or a Bluetooth speaker. You feel like you’re right up there on stage with the musicians; you can see things you wouldn’t normally see.”
MAINTAINING THAT CONNECTION TO THE AUDIENCE
Similarly, Grand Rapids’ St. Cecilia Music Center has offered a series of live-stream concerts to keep its audiences occupied – including one starring Anne-Marie McDermott on Dec. 3 and jazz piano great Bob James on Dec. 17 – but the next scheduled set of in-person concerts (jazz, folk and chamber music) likely won’t take place until sometime in 2021.
The Holland Symphony Orchestra, meanwhile, isn’t doing live-stream concerts, but filmed a video of an October performance which it sent to donors and season ticket holders as a gift, said Kay Walvoord, president and CEO.
The orchestra also developed a program dubbed “HSO Intermissions,” posting short weekly videos featuring musical snippets, staff interviews and program information on Facebook, YouTube and the HSO website.
It’s about “maintaining the connection with our audience and our musicians,” Walvoord said. “We say this break is only an intermission. We will be back together live and as a full orchestra as soon as safely possible.”
When might that be? As of now, HSO hopes to resume live concerts next June, with a pops concert “featuring Byron Stripling in a boat shed on Lake Macatawa.”
As for the orchestra staff and its 80 musicians, Walvoord said no one has been laid off; musicians are paid per concert. She credited the “loyal audience and supporter base” for sustaining the HSO financially.
Indeed, the secret to survival for arts organizations rests squarely on longtime donors and ticket buyers who are willing to contribute to the cause and buy season subscriptions for virtual performances and videos without any opportunity for an in-person experience.
“If you enjoy the ballet, and you want to see Michigan’s only professional ballet company survive this pandemic, then please continue to support us by either by purchasing a subscription to the virtual season, donating to the organization, or both,” Sofranko said.
“Every amount really does help and gives us that much more breathing room to ramp up back to normal speed when this is all over. We know you probably miss coming to the theater and seeing dance in-person, but purchasing a virtual subscription really will help us weather the storm.”
‘PREMATURE’ TO BRING AUDIENCES BACK THIS FALL
How long that storm lasts is anyone’s guess.
Sofranko said he has “no idea” when the theater can welcome audiences again, though he’s hopeful things might open up again in the spring, with outdoor performances also a possibility.
There have been some attempts at limited-capacity, socially distanced productions locally, with Opera Grand Rapids presenting Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” at the East Grand Rapids Performing Arts Center in late October. But the next scheduled production won’t take place until a rescheduled “Turandot” in March 2021.
Buelow cautioned that he believes it’s “premature” for any performing arts organization to start permitting physically distanced audiences this fall.
“We don’t know exactly when (reopening) will be, but when it happens, it won’t be a quick flip of the switch but a gradual raising of the dimmer,” he speculated, noting virtual concerts will continue online for those patrons who prefer to stay at home.
Tuuk called negotiating the ups and downs of the pandemic a protracted marathon that requires patience and creative solutions.
“We have learned that planning during a pandemic has its limitations. But we will continue to find innovative ways to deliver great music to the West Michigan community, no matter how the pandemic unfolds,” the Grand Rapids Symphony CEO said.
“We are thrilled to bring musical waves of hope at a time when it is most needed.”
VIDEO: “Hallelujah for Hope,” Grand Rapids Symphony
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Click on the links for these West Michigan arts organizations to see the upcoming performance schedule, alternative programs and how you can purchase subscriptions or make donations.
Copyright 2020, Spins on Music LLC