The New Intimacy of Pandemic Performance

By Cristina Schreil

Illustration by Tilda Rose.

As the arts cautiously resurrect in-person experiences, things must be smaller, spread out and distanced. Ironically, they may also be more grounding than ever.

Long ago, in a reality far away, music fans flocked to Davies Symphony Hall, the War Memorial Opera House and SFJAZZ Center. They shuffled through busy lobbies, freshened up in cramped lounges, and plunged into exuberant salmon-migration-like hordes for a moment at the bar, where they rubbed shoulders with strangers, before squeezing past knees to claim seats.

That faraway reality was a normal concert experience in early March — before COVID-19 changed everything. Today, the only crowded realm is cyberspace. Live-stream concerts, Zoom comedy shows and YouTube gallery openings are the norm in the time of coronavirus. Yet, months into the pandemic and with no end in sight, there’s hunger for what once was, among artists and patrons alike. When will we enjoy art alongside others again? For how long will the very nature of cultural experiences best ripped of community?

San Francisco Symphony’s new 1:1 Concerts encapsulate what it means to present art in the time of coronavirus. Performances occur on Davies’ outdoor terraces. There’s one musician. One masked listener, selected via lottery, sits six feet away.

Performing for some is Tim Higgins, the symphony’s principal trombone. It’s starkly different from his usual job. “It’s a very personal connection because there’s one person staring at you, and you’re looking right back at them,” says Higgins. But, instead of a stripped-down experience, he was met with wide potential for connection. “What I found really funny is every time I played one particular piece that ends a little bit softly, a truck drives by, of course. I think it’s kind of a hysterical part of the experience. It’s a little absurd, so I call attention to it, laugh about it,” Higgins says. “And every time, [the audience member] said, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t even notice.’” Higgins adds that he frequently connects with listeners, which surprised him. Often, they chat about the importance of the arts during this time. “I found it really rejuvenating,” he says. “I felt much more optimistic about a lot of different aspects of what’s going on.”

There are other “COVID concerts” emerging. In July, pianist Audrey Vardanega, the artistic director of chamber music organization Musaics of the Bay, seized an opportunity to use a board member’s Berkeley garden for a private concert for seven socially distanced listeners. Vardanega invited cellist Andrew Janss to perform a 45-minute program. Vardanega jumped in with piano accompaniment through an open window of the home. “Just to sit at a piano and play with another musician, that feeling of physical connection to a collection of people who are actively listening, was like no other experience. It cannot be paralleled with the virtual events,” Vardanega says. “I think it speaks to the fact that classical music really needs active listeners.” Vardanega also believes that the private outdoor concert trend could stay, especially in the picturesque Bay Area, though she muses that we’re still far from full piano recitals or sustainable ticketing (the garden concert solicited donations of $50 to $100). Still, performing encouraged her. “This just makes myself and a lot of my performer colleagues more invigorated to go out into the world and play fearlessly for people after this is over.”

The cellist, Janss, is co-director of the nonprofit Project: Music Heals Us, which offers bedside concerts for COVID-19 patients via iPhone or iPad. However, the garden was his first in-person performance since the pandemic struck. “The first thing I was thinking was: Can I even play a recital anymore?” he shares. He sensed his listeners were also out of practice. Upon ending one piece, Janss met awkward silence. Perhaps they didn’t realize it was over, he muses. Or they’ve forgotten how to clap at a concert. “It was just a perfect reaction to a first concert after such a weird time off from live performance,” he adds with a chuckle. “Everybody had a laugh after that.”

Janss points out the drawbacks of the COVID concert model: Health risks demand audiences stay small and vigilant. Solo performances limit repertoire. Large groups must quarantine to rehearse. Economically, most private concert setups are not sustainable. It seems only time will tell how the pandemic kindles unconventional performance. “I could totally see some people setting up a massage-therapy-style practice, where you book a 45-minute concert and then the next person comes in,” Janss says. “That would be excruciating for the player. It would not be artistically fulfilling to play the same concert eight times.”

Concerts also arise near outdoor restaurant seating. Jennifer Cho, concertmaster of the California Symphony and first violinist in the San Francisco Opera orchestra, has performed in the Mill Valley Depot Plaza with her husband, bassist Mark Wallace, as part of a series of distanced public outdoor performances independently organized by some opera orchestra players. While less exclusive than other COVID concerts, the pandemic is sculpting programming. “People can’t travel anymore. This experience, this feeling of being taken out of the world, is something that we’re all missing,” Cho says. So they select transporting repertoire: tango-inflected Piazzolla, uplifting Bach and Old World Kreisler. Listeners stop to chat or thank them. Kids often interact. “Musicians may not be playing for our audiences in concert halls, but music can still transport and connect us as a community,” Cho says. “It is important for us to be playing for the public and show that as musicians, we are here for you. Musicians are the first responders to the soul.”

Months ago, Cho and California Symphony principal violist Marcel Gemperli performed early in the morning, as health-care workers began their shift at John Muir Health in Walnut Creek. Cho predicts that in looking back on this era, she’ll remember a magnified appreciation for the arts, despite their appearing smaller and scarcer.

SFJAZZ CEO Greg Stern agrees. In August, SFJAZZ conducted test performances, to be broadcast online, with a soloist in an empty hall. Now, audiences are larger than ever, albeit virtually. “We’re averaging over 2,000,” Stern says of the views of SFJAZZ’s weekly Fridays at Five concert series, which lures a new international viewership. “We have a 700-person hall — we’re just increasing the capacity.” The nature of performing is still stifled. For the new solo concerts, musicians maintain distance; even sound and lighting engineers are in remote rooms. It’s a reminder of how we’re far from engaging face to face with the performing arts in thrillingly close quarters.

In the visual arts world, things are more intimate — but not necessarily lacking. Last month, Gagosian San Francisco opened its retrospective on Jay DeFeo to visitors by appointment. They’ve upgraded their HVAC filtration systems and installed plexi shields at the front desk. They’ve stocked up on masks, gloves and sanitizer. They’re also going paperless. While signs of caution abound, one advantage of galleries is that solitude is often treasured anyway. “Walking into a quiet gallery space alone or with one or two other people is a beautiful experience,” says co-director Kelly Huang “Our hope is that people will walk in and feel like they have the time and space to really take in the artwork and develop a deeper understanding of DeFeo as an artist.”

However, jam-packed exhibition openings are still far away. That’s been a dramatic shift for Arc Studios & Gallery in SoMa. Typically, their annual Four Squared exhibition uniting 16 Bay Area artists draws 400 people to its opening. This year, it was online, including artist talks. In lieu of a reception, partner and curator Michael Yochum led Zoom participants around the gallery, virtually.

In the physical realm, Arc is offering in-person viewings by appointment, with a limit of 10 people in the large multifloor space. It is unusual, Yochum says. However, it’s not the worst way to make do. “You can really see the work. You can take your time. It’s a beautiful space,” says Yochum. “I much prefer just hanging out in the gallery all by myself. So I think other people do, too.”

All the World’s Stage

There’s plenty to stream, but some artists are finding ways to keep in-person performance afloat, such as it is during the pandemic. With most performing arts spaces closed, folks around the Bay Area are serenading safely in unique places.

Illustration by Tilda Rose.

Carports: In May, keyboardist Tony MacaroniLufrano and saxophonist Nancy Wright began giving private, invite-only concerts in an open-air carport outside Lufrano’s Berkeley Hills home. Since, more musicians have joined in. The audience is about a dozen of Lufrano’s neighbors and friends, who sit socially distanced on the other side of the driveway.

Illustration by Tilda Rose.

Porches: Weekly Alameda Porch Concerts see performing artists jamming on porches, driveways, lawns and balconies each Friday evening. Artists sharing their talent include opera singers, folk guitarists and family bands.

Illustration by Tilda Rose.

Buildings: The Bay Area is no stranger to street art. A new public exhibition from the San Francisco Art Institute is taking this a step further. Through October 23, From the Tower: Transmission projects a series of video works onto SFAI’s Chestnut Street tower. Watch from many vantage points around North Beach or head to 800 Chestnut Street and gaze upward.

Illustration by Tilda Rose.

Truck Beds: After beloved bar and music venue the Riptide in the Outer Sunset had to pause indoor performances, concerts shifted outside — and got an elevated touch: Some musicians hopped inside the bed of a pale-blue pickup truck, playing for masked patrons from the back of the vehicle.

Illustration by Tilda Rose.

The Zoo: You might have to be a parrot to catch a show like this: In May, Bay Area bluegrass band Dirty Cello performed for animals at the Oakland Zoo, changing up repertoire based on different creature crowds.

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