SFJAZZ's Robert N. Miner Auditorium | Credit: Frank Wing

Due to the recent surge of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus nationally and locally, performing arts organizations have been making the difficult decision to postpone or cancel indoor events. Some are pushing their events scheduled this month or next to the spring or fall to avoid the terrible situation the San Francisco Symphony found itself in when they had to cancel a January 13 matinee concert just a half hour before start time when positive cases in the orchestra were reported.

Don Cameron, executive director of American Bach Soloists, says the Baroque orchestra performed The Messiah at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and in Sonoma in December for almost 3,000 audience members. Then, with Omicron tearing through even the vaccinated population, they canceled the New Year’s Eve concert at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater.

They’re also canceling “Sweet Harmony,” which was scheduled for January 21–24. As they have no concerts in February, Carpenter hopes they will be able to go ahead with all shows for the rest of the year. 

He says they decided not performing was the best for everyone’s health, but he regrets how this affects people.

“Unfortunately, it means musicians not being able to work and audiences not being able to get the healing music they need,” he said. “But that’s the reality.”

American Back Soloists in Grace Cathedral
American Bach Soloists in Grace Cathedral

At the SFJAZZ Center, audiences are coming for in-person concerts, but artistic director Randall Kline says they are seeing how worry about Omicron’s wildly infectious nature keeps some people away. Trumpeter Chris Botti, who normally fills the auditorium, just performed to smaller audiences than usual. Funk legend Maceo Parker didn’t play his usual concerts at the end of the year due to his family’s concerns about him traveling, and Columbian band Monsieur Periné performed instead. SFJAZZ also postponed a gala, scheduled for January 26, to June 3, largely because it would have meant having about 160 people eating inside in a relatively small space, Kline says.

When all performances were shut down in March 2020, SFJAZZ started a digital series, Fridays at Five, now Fridays Live.

“It saved our butts,” Kline said. “We had 15,000 people sign up, and we raised $1.2 million dollars, and $600,000 went directly to artists.”

While the venue was closed, Kline says they were able to improve the HVAC air system. Another mitigation for COVID is that the venue no longer allowing people to bring drinks to their seats, so patrons keep their masks on throughout the show rather than lowering them to sip.

Randall Klein
SFJAZZ's ​​​​​Randall Kline

Like most venues, SFJAZZ requires proof of vaccinations and masks. Starting in February, they will require everyone to show they’ve had a booster shot as well. Asked how they made that choice, Kline says it wasn’t up to them.

“We didn’t decide,” he said. “The City told us that’s what we have to do.”

San Francisco’s Department of Public Health updated its guidelines on January 10, and the overview reads in part:

Most significantly, as required under the updated State Beyond the Blueprint guidance, the revised Order reduces the threshold for indoor Mega-Events from 1,000 to 500 people attending the event, beginning on January 15, 2022.  That means that beginning January 15th operators and hosts of events with 500 or more people attending must check patrons over age 12 and staff for proof of vaccination and beginning February 1 (or March 1 for patrons and staff 12 to 17 years old) they must check those patrons and staff for up-to-date vaccination, including boosters for those who are eligible.  Beginning January 15, the Order also reduces the threshold for outdoor Mega-Events consistent State changes, to 5,000 or more people attending.”

The City of San José has said at venues of 500 people or more, patrons and staff need to be boosted, says San José Symphony president Andrew Bales. They’ve moved the American Masters program from January 22 and 23 to April 2 and 3, and Bales said they decided not to perform “Carmina Burana,” (which has three choirs and a massive orchestra) at the end of March. They plan to present it next season.

Andrew Bales
San José Symphony President Andrew Bales

“The number of singers and the children’s choir just sounded like too steep a hill to get over right now,” Bales said. “We’re going to perform smaller choral works.”

These decisions have been wrenching to make, the symphony president says.

“We want to rebuild customer trust on two levels,” he said. “That we will indeed perform and that we’ll do it under safe circumstances.”

Berkely Symphony's René Mandel
Berkely Symphony's René Mandel

That’s the message René Mandel, artistic director of the Berkeley Symphony, wants audience to take away as well. They have just rescheduled a January 16 chamber music concert at the Piedmont Center for the Arts to the end of June. Mandel says this feels different than in March 2020. 

“At this point what’s really hard is the same frustrations that everybody else is having of when is this going to end,” he said. “Music is something that brings people together to be collectively inspired by something greater than the individual. One of the tragedies of this virus is it’s keeping people apart, and we just want to be able to have people gather and enjoy themselves.”

Mandel says they are exploring an online option for their February 6 concert, “Symphonic I: Renew,” at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.

Like others interviewed, Mandel expressed optimism over the speculations that Omicron will fall off as quickly as it spiked.

Ruth Nott
Ruth Nott, managing director of Opera Parallèle | Credit: Cory Weaver

Ruth Nott, managing director of Opera Parallèle, certainly hopes so. The company has rescheduled its benefit celebration, Over the Rainbow, previously announced February 2, to April 14 at Saint Joseph’s Arts Society.

Nott expressed relief that they were able to find a time when both the special guest, countertenor John Holiday, and Opera Parallèle’s Artistic Director Nicole Paiement, who travels often, could attend, and St. Joseph’s, a beautiful space in a former church, was free.

She says they will continue to monitor the situation and do everything possible to take care of staff, artists, and audience members, and she talked about some medical professionals’ predictions that Omicron cases could drop off in February.

“We’re optimistic,” she said. “We know live performances are so important for everyone, and they nourish our souls and our shared humanity. Being able to experience that in mid-November was a reminder of how important that is.”

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