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Several months ago, I wrote a series of articles about how Greensboro arts organizations were dealing with the outbreak of the Corona pandemic. I checked back with those organizations recently to get an update. This article focuses on: the Bel Canto Company and Music for a Great Space. Concerts had to be cancelled, rearranged, rethought; plans for the future had to be put on hold and questions about budgets loom large.
I asked BCC executive director Jeffrey Carlson where they are today. "We're taking our cue from New York and other places that have a lot more people on staff to make those big decisions and kind of follow those. We're not doing anything live, at least through the end of 2020. Through this fall we're going to do some more small chamber things like the 365 Dance Project and the Virtual Choir. That is the plan. Possibly some more collaborations with other artists – dancers or visual artists. That will help our singers stay engaged, and we'll be able to do those safely and create meaningful and different kinds of art than we can do in a season, and that's exciting."
I asked if those events would be broadcast at a special time on a special day and would BCC ask for donations? "We're still playing with the idea of doing a live premiere so that we could be online and interact with the audience. We're going to try to not charge for admission. We’re going to keep everything free and certainly encourage people to make donations in lieu of tickets."
MGS has cancelled their original fall concert schedule, substituting three virtual events. Executive director Rebecca Willie: "This fall we decided to focus on local people who were at least driving distance from Greensboro.... Sept. 18 will feature the Charlestones [from Charleston, SC], which is an acapella men's vocal group. They sing things from the Renaissance to today. [The four-voiced ensemble] will record in South Carolina and then we will offer a live Q&A with them after the concert to try to replicate our concert reception feeling."
October 9 we are featuring the Mile-End Piano Trio in partnership with Eastern Music Festival (EMF). The Trio consists of EMF musicians Jeffrey Multer (violin), Julian Schwarz (cello), and Marika Bournaki (piano). (The name comes from the name of "the colorful and charming Mile-End neighborhood in Montreal, Canada," where Bournaki grew up.) "They will actually come to Greensboro to do their recording in Christ United Methodist Church ... which will be super fun for MGS audiences to see the space!"
"Then on November 6, we will be featuring Andrew Willis (UNC-G piano professor) in his home on his Bösendorfer piano. He has prepared a lovely program that is appropriate for that instrument. He will also do a live Q&A afterwards."
"These will all be free concerts, and we will have an available [on-line] donation box, and we will ask people to donate the cost of the ticket. Obviously, that will just be up to everyone's comfort level – if people want to donate two tickets because two people are watching, that's great. If they want to do just one, we would much rather they watch than not."
BCC: "And we're also going to do a virtual holiday concert – not just a short video. That will probably be around 40 to 45 minutes. Maybe we'll do a couple of things open to the entire community singing something like [Handel's] Messiah – something many singers would know and feel comfortable with. BCC would join in that, adding 30-40 voices. And we're looking at doing Bel Canto alone in a virtual setting. And hopefully doing some small chamber things, where we feel comfortable going into a large space where we can sing far enough apart and still get an acoustic sound that works. They would wear masks and sing a minimum of 12 feel apart, for no more than half an hour. And then in between rehearsals, we'd clear the room and air it out for an hour or so. And maybe include some things from previous years that haven't been released or have been big crowd pleasers."
How are finances in general? Willie: "We are OK. We did qualify for PPP funds. We are super grateful to First Bank for all of their help because they were really instrumental in helping make sure that that went through."
Carlson: "We're still ok. We have a budget in place. If everything goes according to budget, I think we'll be able to do the season at close to break even. That includes some more virtual choir projects that will hopefully engage the whole community. I hope by the end of the season and we've done a couple of those, we have more than 100 people participating in each one. We had about 60 in the last one, so that's a good start."
Spring 2021? Willie: "If it looks like we're going back in person in January, we may do the Flex-Pass, but we just have to see. We do have our line-up for January through April, and I very much hope that we will be able to present all four of those concerts one way or another."
The BCC's big fund raiser, Amore. "We're planning two paths. One is digital because we have to plan that now if we're going to make it happen. And for the solos and duets, we have some people in the choir [capable of videoing]. We haven't figured out how we're going to film the bigger things. If we can get together in person in February, we'll already have rehearsed everything, and we'll just do it live. Same thing for the Spring – a digital output, but if we get to March and are able to rehearse, we might have a live concert, or a hybrid where we perform live and have it available on-line."
Both MGS and BCC have creative plans for their educational outreach. Willie: "Mile-End is going to do one [an educational concert]. One of the Guilford County School teachers [Brent Davis at Mendenhall Middle School] suggested this and I think it's a cool idea. We're going to take our artists to the school and record in the school because the students aren't there so they [the Trio] can just be in a big room, and it will be just me and maybe the teacher in the room with them. I think it will give the kids an extra sense of engagement to see their room and the artists in their space. We will also have a woodwind group and a brass group maybe from A&T or UNCG or UNCSA. Each group would go to a different school and we're going to try to do it with the teachers where we have a live-stream set up so the kids can actually listen and then ask questions so it will be engaging in a way that just watching videos isn't."
Carlson: " And we're working on some collaborations with some schools. Because they have the same challenge: 'How do I teach choir? I can't get my kids in the same room.' So, we're going to try to offer some of our resources to them to help them figure out how to do their own virtual choirs. Maybe do some collaborative virtual projects with Bel Canto."
Finally, are you still meeting with other arts organizations? Carlson: "We've had weekly meetings with all the arts groups. It's really been great to bounce ideas off other people and realize everyone is in the same boat. Build some relationships."
Willie: "Laura [Way, President and CEO of ArtsGreensboro] is the host and we meet every Monday. She's doing a fantastic job. She's also made sure that some of the CARES money that was given to Guilford County to be distributed to local businesses has been specifically set aside for the arts organizations. It's $500,000 and we're all able to apply for COVID-specific expenses."
It seems clear that COVID-19 has not stopped the creative juices from flowing from the arts folks. Next articles will take a look at some of the other groups that are wending their way through this time of pandemic.