Subject To Change

by Catherine Bigelow

Organizers attempt to stay calm, mask up and carry on.

A mid the tragic wreckage of our COVID-19 health crisis, the communal arts world was dealt a brutal blow as stages shuttered and performing artists were furloughed. Connection was maintained, albeit isolated, online. But the uncertainty of a full community return, as Bay Area infection rates and breakthrough cases continue to rise, has muffled anticipation for our cultural klatch. Yet all arts lovers maintain a cautious buzz — and hope — that soon they will erupt into a semifull chorus this month as the 2021 Fall Arts season unfurls.

Three arts leaders, appointed in a prepandemic era but denied their inaugural seasons, are finally ready to take a bow: San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen; Eun Sun Kim, music director of the San Francisco Opera; and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Artistic Director Tim Bond.

Yet there are two things about this season of which I am certain: At press time, any plans laid out herein may implode. And face masks, again, reign as our most prized accessory of fashion — and public health.

Last month as delta surged, Bay Area civic leaders reinstated indoor mask mandates coupled with proof of full vaccination (for ages 12 and older) — or a 72-hour negative PCR test — to attend indoor mega-events seating 5,000 or more and 1,000-plus-capacity entertainment venues. After September 15, negative tests are no longer valid at City-owned venues.

Buffeted by a whirlwind of oscillating health bulletins, struggling cultural organizations still surf a shape-shifting sea of uncertainty as they plan fundraisers. Cautious opening-night scenarios are quickly amended, then nimbly rejiggered. Strategically plotted seating charts — for canceled gala dinners — are tossed out the window.

As my arts industry comrades communicate updates in a flurry of emails, calls and texts, I imagine them huddled beneath their desks hyperventilating into brown paper bags — praying a poobah won’t request yet another pivot.

For 18 months, rock concert impresario Gregg Perloff, founder and CEO of Another Planet Entertainment, could not produce a single live show. Thankfully, the virtual 2020 Outside Lands livestream was a success. But this year, Perloff moved his acclaimed three-day Golden Gate Park summer music festival to October 29. VIP passes and daily tickets quickly sold out. Yet he remains cautious in his optimism.

“The headline for this story,” he suggests wryly, “should read: ‘Subject to Change.’” (Note taken.)

San Francisco Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim and San Francisco Giants Manager Gabe Kapler are gearing up for September 10, when their organizations host “The Homecoming,” a free on-field community celebration and live simulcast concert for the opera’s 99th season.

Retiring The Word “Gala”

For traditionalists, the biggest change this year is the bust-up of Hell Week. For decades, this opening bacchanal heralded the San Francisco Symphony opening night gala, followed two days later by the San Francisco Opera Ball — a peacocks parade of arts patrons promenading to the Opera House or Davies Symphony Hall, decked out in voluminous designer tulle trains and bespoke tuxedos.

Anti-gala trolls have long dismissed Hell Week as a “Let them eat cake” spectacle. Yet these gala nights raise crucial funds for arts organizations and bolster their free public school arts education and community programs, as well as affordable tickets — for us hoi polloi. But this year, linchpin openers are being vastly reimagined. And frazzled organizers have mostly deleted the word “gala.”

The opera season, which technically opened last month with Tosca, is hosting a patron and community celebration on September 10, dubbed “The Homecoming.” It’s a radical departure — actually, a first in the opera’s 99-year history — from the white-tie-and-tails ball long produced by the SF Opera Guild.

A performance of operatic faves is accessible at two locations: a ticketed “cocktail attire” concert at the Opera House (where each of its 3,128-seats was recently replaced as part of a $4 million ergonomic upgrade), and a simultaneous livestream on the ginormous LED scoreboard at Oracle Park (42,000 capacity), home of the world championship Giants, which — at press time — is the winningest team in the MLB.

“After a year of separation for the audience, performers and musicians, we’ve created an event to engage a larger, more diverse community,” explains SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock. “Celebrating on field is born of our successful 15-year partnership with the Giants producing the free Opera at the Ballpark series.”

Patron ticket holders have upgrade options: post-performance McCalls dinners in the Veterans Building Green Room ($30K tables of 10; $3K per ticket) or the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Education ($15K tables of 10; $1,500 per ticket). At the ballpark, pre-concert cookout dinners are served in luxury box suites ($5K each) for pods of 10. “As far as I’m aware, nowhere else in the world has a sports franchise joined forces with an opera to co-present a major arts event,” notes Giants Enterprises President Stephen Revetria. “The opera and the Giants, both decades-old institutions, are part of the fabric of our city. It’s a really beautiful partnership.”

Free stadium spots must be reserved online. And face masks are currently only required indoors (concessions, restrooms, suite hallways). But the Giants’ brass do, gently, suggest masking up outdoors.

Currently, the San Francisco Public Health Department only advises that masks be worn at outdoor events. However, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass has again postponed its free threeday hootenanny in Golden Gate Park. But this treasured event — founded by the late Warren Hellman, a beneficent, banjo-playing billionaire — will stream (October 1–3) “Come What May,” a program of 27 live and prerecorded sets on its website.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, the San Francisco Symphony music director who was appointed director-designate in December 2018, finally enters his first full season as conductor when the symphony relaunches this month at Davies Symphony Hall.

Let There Be Music

The San Francisco Symphony rebranded its blacktie gala “Opening Week.” This 110th season kicks off on September 30 with the “All San Francisco Concert” (funded by symphony trustee Ellen Magnin Newman). And tickets are only $12. On October 1, sans any pre-performance dinners, revelers will gather at Davies Hall for a Salonenled concert with star turns by Esperanza Spalding and Alonzo King LINES Ballet. And an alfresco post-concert party is planned on Grove Street — with DJs and bountiful buffets — for every ticket holder.

Priscilla Geeslin, in her first full year as SF Symphony president, is a skilled chairwoman of numerous galas, including those for the American Conservatory Theater, where she’s a trustee.

“I asked myself: Should we even use the term ‘gala’ this year?” shares Geeslin, whose husband, Keith Geeslin serves as the SF Opera Board president. “Or is this more about celebrating a return to Davies and connecting with a larger community through music?”

Gone is the deep-pocketed symphony patrons’ dinner set in an elaborate tent erected atop a parking lot — dubbed “Lake Louise” — in honor of the late Davies Hall patron Louise M. Davies. Also gone: Symphony Choral Director Ragnar Bohlin, a vocal critic of the current vaccine regimen. The Grammy-winning artist resigned last month in protest of the City’s requirement (going into effect October 15) that all staff and volunteers of venues the size of Davies be fully vaccinated.

“For the last year, Keith and I reflected on traditional formats and how COVID has changed so many things in our daily lives,” says Priscilla Geeslin. “Our hope is symphony patrons will, preconcert, support hard-hit Hayes Valley restaurants — Absinthe, Hayes Street Grill, Monsieur Benjamin — instead of a tented dinner for a few.” Geeslin’s computer screen is smothered with Post-its filled with notes she jots during symphony Zoom meetings. One of her most treasured stickies is a quote by Harvard University music professor Claire Chase, who collaborates with Salonen: “How can an orchestra belong to a city? How can it be of service to a city as it evolves as an art form, that, for far too long, has been stagnating in its own echo chamber of greatness? What kind of communities could it engender and sustain?”

In between putting out daily fires, Geeslin relishes the challenge of reimagining what the symphony can become following our COVID reset. “Now is the opportunity to move forward,” she notes. “Arts organizations definitely depend on our major fundraisers. But the gala of the past and the future isn’t just about dressing up. It’s a ‘friendraiser,’ attracting every level of music lover.”

Down in Palo Alto, similar questions are pondered by Bond, the longtime theater professor, award-winning director and producer, who is TheatreWorks’ second artistic director in its 51-year history. TheatreWorks opens on October 6 with the regional premiere of a groundbreaking, comic-book-inspired work, Lizard Boy: A New Musical, by Seattle playwright composer Justin Huertas. Following a year of online programming, Bond is thrilled about a return to the boards.

“Digital outreach creates access for people who can’t otherwise get to the theater. But it doesn’t substitute for a live experience, in full relationship to a work,” says Bond. “Being in the same space — audience and performers — is magic that video can’t capture.”

Bond likes solving artistic challenges. But he never imagined the emotional toll wrought by COVID. “The most difficult thing, truly, is how many people we lost during the pandemic. As we return, that’s a perspective I’m keeping in my creative process,” he shares. “It’s made me double down even deeper on just how much I love what I do. And how live theater inspires and provides human connection.”

Bond notes that, following the 1918 flu pandemic, there was an attendance boom as people poured back into theaters. “In the absence of not seeing our family, friends or colleagues, this return to an in-person relationship with the arts will uplift everyone,” he enthuses. “That’s why we do it: It’s not for the money or fame. We do this and love this because the dynamic of actor-audience engagement is electric.”

Tim Bond, artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, will launch live productions on October 6 with the regional premiere of Lizard Boy: A New Musical at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Safety (And Masks) First

For every return, public safety remains paramount. Perloff, a protégé of the storied late music promoter Bill Graham, has been in the business for more than 40 years. During the pandemic, he was also instrumental in the national #SaveOurStages initiative. “Public assemblage, especially since 9/11, is much more difficult: security issues, terrorism issues, metal detectors,” he explains. “But with COVID, we need a sea change. The only way for us as a nation to get beyond these tragic deaths is full vaccination.”

This year, Outside Lands requires that full proof or a 72-hour negative PCR test. And encourages outdoor masking. Perloff also employs Health Pass by Clear — a free app that quickly verifies vaccination status — at all his venues, including the Greek Theatre in Berkeley and the new Oxbow RiverStage in Napa.

“I’m grateful to work in the Bay Area: So many are already vaccinated and we have wonderful, creative events to enjoy. But we must protect each other. I believe people of good will can convince others that, to participate in society, they must vaccinate,” says Perloff. “The City of San Francisco and Mayor London Breed should be commended, in a major way, for shutting down early and being vaccination proponents.” For any fall event or fundraiser, the outdoors is currently king of all venues.

“That’s why we do it: It’s not for the money or fame. We do this and love this because the dynamic of actoraudience engagement is electric.” — Tim Bond

Lucas Schoemaker, a catering industry veteran and president of McCalls, recently met with 25 other international business leaders at an Elite Catering & Event Professionals meeting. “Our clients are maximizing parks, golf courses or beachside properties,” he says. “The immediate future is a smaller footprint with an arts-theme dinner for, say, 200 patrons.”

During the pandemic, Schoemaker developed an online service for gourmet box-dinner deliveries. But that program recently stopped. “Our fall calendar was bursting with events and weddings,” he notes. “But as the variant rose, now our phones are ringing with cancellations.”

Aside from its deadly wrath, COVID exposed what was already a deep national divide, especially in San Fran cisco: economic disparity and social inequity. One can’t help but wonder: Is the 500-person black-tie gala fundraiser outmoded? “Arts organizations remain cautious, for health reasons or a perception of elitism. In the next two years, we’ll see new models to engage major donors and a wider community,” says Schoemaker, “As more employees return and rebuild their office culture, I’m confident by March, we’ll begin a healthy return.”

Achieving all that is tricky calculus. So while savoring a soaring aria, those so blessed might consider adding an extra zero to their donation check. And please, do mask up.

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