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COVID-19: Concert halls, classical music silenced in Bay Area

Chamber Music San Francisco, which presents artists at venues in Walnut Creek and Palo Alto as well, has lost a trio of performances by renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan, who were to collaborate on all five of Beethoven’s sonatas. (Photo courtesy of Paul Stuart)

They may call it the week the music died. All throughout the Bay Area, presenters of classical music are reeling from the impact of the coronavirus. Postponements and cancellations of events that began with a trickle at the beginning of March have cascaded into a flood that has silenced our concert halls.

Even the mighty have fallen.

The San Francisco Symphony, responding to the public health order prohibiting gatherings of 100 people or more, has canceled 11 events from now through April 30, including a screening of the Buster Keaton movie “The General” with organist Cameron Carpenter in live accompaniment. They are scrambling to reschedule eight more.

The San Francisco Opera, in between its fall/winter and summer offerings, has had to jettison two prestigious Schwabacher Debut Recitals for its Adler Fellow singers and a whole host of workshop, community and classroom events. They are still bravely selling tickets to the three June-July offerings, Verdi’s “Ernani,” Handel’s “Partenope” and Mason Bates’ “The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs.”

UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances is wiping out 17 events, the rest of its entire season, which was to have included a highly anticipated production of the rarely performed Scott Joplin opera “Treemonisha” in early May. (Co-presenter Stanford Live in Palo Alto has also pulled the plug on that and on all other performances through May 13.) On March 17, San Francisco Performances also announced the cancellation of the rest of the season, its 40th.

Chamber Music San Francisco, which presents artists at venues in Walnut Creek and Palo Alto as well, has lost a trio of performances by renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan, who were to collaborate on all five of Beethoven’s sonatas.

Even tougher times for smaller organizations 

The blow is hard for all to absorb, but the suffering is especially acute for the smaller organizations. Many of them have been hit with a double whammy this year — the virus and the passage of the AB 5 bill, which has severely curtailed how they are able to hire and pay gig performers.

Pamela Freund-Striplen, as artistic director of Lafayette’s small but lively Gold Coast Chamber Players, has canceled three upcoming events. She sums up the predicament of organizations like hers. “Small nonprofits like ours don’t have the cushion of an endowment,” she notes. “If we have to refund ticket holder money and pay musicians for concerts we can’t perform, this could eat up all our rainy day fund. We could never have imagined that the rainy day would be a tsunami.”

Tod Martin, executive director of San Rafael’s Marin Symphony, had to cancel seven performances and raises a deeper concern about individual performers. “Our musicians, most of whom are part of the population known fondly as the Freeway Philharmonic, freelancers who play with multiple orchestras, are really hurting right now,” he says. “Their income has dried up virtually overnight.”

The current massive market meltdown, meanwhile, is conjuring up another spectre. Though Edward Sweeney, executive director of the Atherton-based Music@Menlo summer chamber music festival, is hoping not to cancel any events, he does observe, “The turmoil in the markets is likely to affect our fundraising, if not in the current year, certainly in the next several years.”

‘We are in a war for survival’

There is indeed much to fret over. Lee Kopp, who handles public relations for Symphony Silicon Valley and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, voices profound unease. “We are in a war for survival, I fear — on many levels,” he says, adding that he thinks it is “inevitable” some organizations will go under. “This does not look like a short-term threat,” he notes. “Also, the coronavirus preys on the elderly, the very heart of the audience population that makes up the bulk of the box office for so many of our treasured arts groups.”

But are there some bright spots on the horizon? Mark Streshinsky, artistic director of Berkeley’s West Edge Opera, is in between seasons and nursing no wounds so far. He has faith in the charity of his donors and is also clinging to that all important third virtue. “Our next performance begins July 25, so in the spirit of hope, we are going forward with our plans,” he says. “If we don’t plan, we won’t be able to present much needed art when all this is over. The hope that we will be able to provide opera … has become a driving passion for us.”

Many organizations are inviting ticket holders to canceled events to donate the cost back for tax deductions. And some are making streamed versions of music available online, sometimes free and sometimes through paid apps such as iTunes. The San Francisco Symphony is expanding its online archive of music to stream, and the Livermore Valley Opera is considering the idea of streaming its recent rave-reviewed double bill, halted in mid-run by the coronavirus, for patrons who were shut out.

And over at the Walnut Creek-based California Symphony, artistic director and conductor Donato Cabrera has gone a step farther, pledging on his blog to share his thoughts and links to his favorite performances, as often as possible through readily accessible sites such as YouTube and the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, “every day and until my next rehearsal begins.” He launched the effort with a link to the prestigious German group’s performance of the same Tchaikovsy symphony his orchestra has just canceled. Here’s a link to his blog: https://medium.com/@donatocabrera/the-music-plays-on-ff88bd95552f.