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L.A. Arts Organizations Are Looking for a Way Forward

April 13, 2020

As we find ourselves hunkered down trying to ride out the storm of COVID-19, performing arts organizations and music festivals are struggling to make plans for an uncertain future. 

Cancellations continued last week with the extension of Los Angeles’s stay-at-home order, through at least May 15 now. LA Opera had to scratch its productions of Pelléas and Mélisande (scheduled to open May 2) and Rodelinda (May 8), with The Marriage of Figaro (beginning June 6) in jeopardy. The LA Phil formally announced the cancellation of the remainder of its season at Walt Disney Concert Hall, ending on June 6. But the biggest decision facing the LA Phil is the very real possibility it may be forced to cancel at least a portion, if not its entire summer season at the Hollywood Bowl. Were that to happen, it would represent an enormous economic hit to the organization.

The Industry, LA Master Chorale, Piano Spheres, and wild Up (among others) have canceled spring performances; LA Chamber Orchestra, Long Beach Opera, Jacaranda Music, Boston Court Pasadena, and Monday Evening Concerts have canceled performances through the end of the season — all with hopes of rescheduling in the future. This year’s Ojai Music Festival has been canceled, while a scaled down version of the Mainly Mozart Festival in San Diego (which traditionally takes place during the month of June) has been postponed until late August or, if necessary, mid-October.

“Everyone wants to know when we are going to be able to leave our homes and reopen the United States,” observed Aaron Carroll in the April 6 edition of The New York Times. “Any date that is currently being thrown around is just a guess. It’s pulled out of the air.”

It’s this uncertainty that is forcing presenters to make hard choices, look for alternative strategies, and band together to share ideas and, at this point, explore mostly online alternatives.

The Last Concert Standing

It was March 13, 2020, the day before Jacaranda’s concert — titled, ironically, Agony & Ecstasy — at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica. The twin Steinway grands were onstage and tuned, the final rehearsal had gone well. Inna Faliks, who had been preparing for months to perform the world premieres of Timo Andres’s Old Ground (Le Gibet) and Billy Childs’s Pursuit (Scarbo), was ready, as were her co-performers Mark Robson and Steven Vanhauwaert.

At the same time the specter of the coronavirus was rising, causing every live concert in Los Angeles to be canceled.

“Even though the Philharmonic and the Opera had announced cancellations, we thought we had the ideal situation with the church,” recalls Jacaranda’s Artistic/Executive Director Patrick Scott. “Our audience would be able to sit six feet apart, and all the railings and doorknobs were being sanitized four times a day. We knew it was the last weekend when any concerts could possibly happen.”

Scott and his staff had also begun a poll of board members and subscribers to ascertain whether they were planning to attend. Some, Scott says, were totally positive, praising Jacaranda for “fighting the good fight.” But as the concert grew closer the mood shifted dramatically.

“People were literally begging us to cancel,” Scott recalls. “Ultimately, when a medical doctor on our board told us we had to cancel, we knew we couldn’t go forward.”

Since March 13, Jacaranda, along with almost every other presenter, has been looking for alternatives and initiatives to maintain the support of subscribers. For Jacaranda, Scott says, that means mining its archive of live recordings.

As proposed, this customer/audience engagement strategy would offer an online sampler of as many as 15 works from the archive “suitable for release, represented by brief clips, and vetted with the performers.” Customers could vote for their preferences. Albums would be prepared based on feedback and offered for crowdfunding support. The donated revenue would be supplemented by underwriting.

In its efforts to carry on, Scott points out that Jacaranda is part of a local consortium of presenters created three years ago called Chamber Music LA. Its members include Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Salistina, Pittance Chamber Music (affiliated with LA Opera), Musica Angelica, and Camerata Pacifica.

“There’s going to be an unprecedented level of creativity,” Scott observes. “But,” he adds, “at this point, none of it will pay the bills.”

Festivals Face Unique Challenges

It’s one thing to cancel a concert if you have an entire season planned. But for festivals like San Diego’s Mainly Mozart, the performance timeframe is greatly compressed.

“The situation is, we live or die based on a few weeks,” Nancy Laturno, the CEO of Mainly Mozart, emphasizes. “Our musicians and soloists come from many different orchestras. We are not part of their regular schedule. They have airfares arranged. They may require visas. Orchestras of this type are governed by collective bargaining agreements with the appropriate union.”

On April 3, Mainly Mozart officially announced the postponement of this year’s festival including its symposium Mozart and the Mind.

“We had to determine whether it was safe to schedule an intensive event for the month of June. Back in early March, that seemed very possible. We thought if it was necessary, we could cancel some of the chamber music events and reschedule them. But everything changed so fast. We have now postponed until Aug. 28 for a 10-day festival,” says Laturno. “But we may be looking at mid-October. It will be a scaled-back festival that will have to be reprogrammed. Our goal is to make it as uplifting as possible.”

In the performing arts, Laturno emphasizes, you have to be nimble, able to act quickly in the face of adversity, whether it’s a soloist that falls ill, a commission that’s not ready, a flooded concert hall, or anything else unexpected. But no organization could have been prepared for the uncertainty and rapidly changing conditions of the moment.

Ironically, Laturno says, “the fact that this is global in some ways makes it easier to deal with. Musicians and collaborators understand what we’re going through because they’re going through it too.”

On a local level, Laturno says hotels are accepting the festival’s need to cancel blocks of time, as well as theater rentals, even though it means absorbing the income loss. “We’re also in discussion with our musicians’ union, Local 325, and they have told us we have their total support. Their only request is that when we are able to present concerts again, we make an effort to consider hiring more local musicians.”

A Consortium of Festivals

Mainly Mozart, Laturno says, is part of a consortium called Classical Music Festivals of the West. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have been conducting weekly Zoom meetings to discuss issues and strategies.

“At first we called it our ‘unhappy hour.’ Now,” she says with a laugh, “it’s our ‘happy hour.’”

The membership includes festivals in Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, and New Mexico.

“Initially the mood was more about consolation — ‘What’s going on with you?’ But as the situation has become more dire, our meetings have become more structured and agenda driven. A topic that we are discussing extensively is the government’s relief programs: who is eligible and how they will be implemented. To this end, the Association of California Symphony Orchestras has been making available a synopsis of the various packages and their qualifications.

“When we get to that point when we can come together, we know the power art has to heal us. We are going to need that more than ever when this terrible thing is over.”

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).