For Central Virginia’s music venues, March usually brings a flurry of schedule additions and fan-pleasing announcements.
As tours gear back up after a brief post-holiday slowdown, national acts snap up indoor dates at the Jefferson Theater, the Southern Café and Music Hall and John Paul Jones Arena and outdoor slots at Sprint Pavilion. Summer and autumn festivals start unveiling their roots, rock and bluegrass lineups. Charlottesville residents count down to beginning warm-weather weekends with Fridays After Five concerts at the east end of the Downtown Mall.
But in March 2020, that annual flurry was replaced by a blizzard of cancellations. The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to be aimed directly at everything live performances represent, recasting dance floors of shoulder-to-shoulder fans as superspreader petri dishes and reducing singing and cheering to droplet delivery systems.
The first wave of cascading changes involved setting later dates, but most of those optimistic postponements slid from fall into into winter before disappearing in silence. Like their fans, famous faces soon began hunkering down at home, helping their children navigate virtual classes. Musicians with high hopes of touring in support of new albums moved back to their hometowns instead to spend lockdowns with their families.
As national and regional tours shut down, local venues closed their doors, obeying capacity limits on in-person gatherings and wondering how long they’d have to wait to get back to business.
“We just got absolutely shut down in March of last year and haven’t been able to do a single event since,” said Kirby Hutto, general manager of Sprint Pavilion. “Last year was so frustrating because there was no light at the end of the tunnel at all. We were creating all these various scenarios; then the capacity [limits] would change, and all those plans would go out the window.
“Once they dropped us to [a maximum capacity of] 10 [people], nothing was feasible any longer,” he said. “We said, ‘We’re done. We’re just not going to play this game anymore.’”
At the time, his team was preparing to announce the first half of the Fridays After Five season of free concerts.
“Last year, we had the season halfway booked by February, and it all got wiped out,” Hutto said. “Anyone whose business model has been based on large volumes of people having fun has been wiped out.”
Hutto said that the abrupt halting of live performances in close quarters eliminated between 125 and 150 part-time jobs, putting everyone from box-office ticket sellers to staqehands to security personnel out of work.
“Those are not full-time positions. Those are the people doing gig work for us,” Hutto said.
For the interactive shows Hutto’s audience expects, online events usually aren’t satisfactory substitutes. “Nothing can replace that feeling with a live crowd,” he said. But for some other local venues, recorded concerts and livestreamed shows have kept fans engaged during the pandemic.
The Front Porch replaced its intimate concerts with a beefed-up online slate of Save the Music livestream performances — including upcoming shows by Richelle Claiborne & Friends at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saw Black at 8 p.m. March 31 — and a major transition for its music instruction program.
Fans who’d flocked to learn guitar, ukulele, violin and other instruments followed their teachers online to frontporchcville.org; the same video conferencing apps that kept employees and employers connected during lockdown gave students the chance to keep working on their music at a time they needed it most. Music lessons, workshops and group classes also became a financial lifeline for faculty members whose own performance schedules were evaporating.
According to The Front Porch’s newly released annual report for 2020, 30 teaching artists presented 23,015 total student lessons and 4,648 group classes to 648 active students, which represented a 14% increase in students. The concert venue offered 85 livestreamed concerts featuring 202 paid performers that drew more than 240,000 views on social media.
The Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival replaced its customary September swirl of concerts with a succession of warmly received Mini-Festivals on its website.
During the most recent Mini-Festival, from March 4 to 7, fans went online to cvillechambermusic.org for fresh daily video performances by festival co-founders Raphael Bell and Timothy Summers and favorite festival guests, who performed masterworks safely from venues near home in Germany, Belgium, New York and other locations. An emailed newsletter is available to keep listeners aware of new events; look for three more offerings over the next nine months.
Karen Pellón, executive director of the Tuesday Evening Concert Series, spent March 10, 2020, canceling the season’s final two concerts. But thanks to a program of video performances and artist conversations made available by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, she soon was able to offer free access at tecs.org to performances by pianists, clarinetists, string quartets and other musicians — many of whom have performed in Cabell Hall Auditorium for Tuesday Evening Concert Series events.
Fourteen of 17 initial Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center events have been presented, and Pellón just added six more to the schedule — including repeats of two fan favorites, “The Complete Brandenburg Concertos” and “Vivaldi Explosion” with mandolinist Avi Avital and colleagues
“You can watch it 24 hours a day for five days,” Pellón said. Fans can sign up for an event newsletter at tecs.org.
Series subscribers embraced the change, she said. When offered a choice of receiving refunds, rolling over their subscriptions to pay for the next season’s tickets or turning in their tickets as donations to the series, “practically everybody responded for donations or rollovers to next season,” Pellón said. “They’ve been so generous and so loyal that I feel very accompanied.”
Bouncing back to the pre-pandemic live model will take time. When she’s not embedding videos on the website, Pellón is piecing the 2022-2023 concert season together. European musicians usually come to Old Cabell Hall as part of North American tours, as traveling overseas for single events can be prohibitively expensive and time consuming.
“We customarily plan seasons for at least two years in advance,” she said. “What I’m trying to do now is to reschedule all the artists we’ve had to cancel [to appear] over the next few seasons.”
Achieving educational milestones can take extra persistence during the pandemic, too. Four graduating student members of the Charlottesville Symphony at the University of Virginia will present their Distinguished Major Recitals with livestreams on UVa Music YouTube — cellist Brent Davis at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, violinist Amelia Bailey at 3:30 p.m. March 27, cellist Isabella Tucker at 8 p.m. April 3 and violinist Sophia Park at 1 p.m. April 10. Get details at music.virginia.edu/student-recitals.
Fast forward a year to March 2021, and pandemic responses continue to differ by venue. The Graves’ Mountain Music Festival, which already had shifted its 2020 event to this summer, recently rescheduled again to June 2-5, 2022.
Fans who’ve kept weary eyes on venues’ websites have seen national tour dates postponed repeatedly, but as COVID-19 vaccination rates continue to rise and illness rates begin to drop, safely distanced outdoor gatherings may resume before much longer.
Hutto welcomes “a glimmer of hope” in which some safety-conscious outdoor events could return in 60 days.
“Everybody’s raring to go. We’re just waiting for that right model,” Hutto said. “I think the earliest would be mid-May” for what Hutto called “small-scale, very limited-capacity shows. Let’s see who’s willing to come out. Let’s see what’s possible.”
Indoor shows will have to wait a while longer — likely until late in the year.
“The challenges are bigger with indoor events,” said Hutto, because venues have to decide how to eliminate “pinch points” where lines form and crowds accumulate, such as entrances and restroom areas. “If you’re an indoor venue, you’re going to be the last to reopen. You’ve got to avoid lines, to avoid people bunching up where they’re not supposed to.”
“We want to give people hope that it shouldn’t be too much longer,” Hutto said.