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Now that coronavirus lockdowns have put an end to Baltimore’s live music, we need it more than ever

The Concert Truck, a truck that turns into a stage, in a pre-coronavirus lockdown time.
The Concert Truck, a truck that turns into a stage, in a pre-coronavirus lockdown time.

Scott and Alisha Patterson, the husband-and-wife duo behind the performance company Afro House, are used to putting everything on the line for their art.

Both quit their day jobs in 2014 to realize their vision for Afro House, a multimedia laboratory for projects driven by Scott’s work as a composer and pianist, and knit together by his Afrofuturist aesthetic. At first, it didn’t go well. They struggled to earn enough to keep up with mortgage payments and to keep the refrigerator full for their two young sons.

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Gradually, the tide turned. Last year, selections from their space-based opera-ballet “Cloud Nebula” were staged at Artscape and Light City. Scott received a Saul Zaentz fellowship through Johns Hopkins to learn how to adapt “Cloud Nebula” for film. And their house concerts, which turned the Pattersons’ living room into a concert venue complete with locally catered food, were a big hit.

Just weeks ago, they were preparing for the next Afro House concert in March, which had sold out well in advance.

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Then the coronavirus hit.

By now, we all know the story. Afro House lost multiple streams of income. With the closure of non-essential businesses, creative plans for live shows were indefinitely arrested. And when schools shuttered, the daily rhythm of Afro House’s operations were sidelined by the Pattersons’ need to care for their sons, who are six and nine-years-old.

But as the dust of the lockdowns settles and Baltimore prepares for what might be months of mass quarantine, many musicians have found a small silver lining in their disrupted schedules. Now, finally, there is time to focus and reconnect with those impulses that drove them to artistic careers in the first place — even as the financial prospects for their work remain grim.

The Pattersons have chosen to view the quarantine, which Governor Hogan elevated to a stay-at-home order as of March 30, as an opportunity to re-imagine the role that art plays in their lives and to nurture their family.

“This doesn’t have to be all tragedy,” said Scott during a phone interview. “When [our boys] look back on this time, they’re not going to remember the schoolwork they missed. They’re going to remember what it was to be home with mom and dad.”

“Being home with mom and dad” has required some creative thinking of its own. The Pattersons quickly realized that recreating their son’s school schedules while balancing time for Afro House — let alone for themselves — was “unsustainable.” Instead, they’ve tried to imagine how their sons’ educations could overlap with their work.

Scott noted that their nine-year-old is “really into making and building things” — so he recruited the boys to help remodel a room into a makeshift film studio for the opera, simultaneously realizing a “dream of them working with [him] on these things.”

Alisha acknowledged the uncertainty of the moment. “We know that things have forever changed. But we’re really good at improvisation. We have gone through enough challenges with Afro House to know that we can continue to move forward.”

Pianist Susan Zhang is similarly committed to her musical mission, even if that means indefinitely postponing it. She runs the mobile piano duo The Concert Truck with her partner Nick Luby. The Concert Truck is just that: a truck that turns into a stage, meant to “bring people together in outdoor spaces for live music — which is the exact opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing right now,” said Zhang.

For her, the quarantine is “a mixed bag of emotions. There is more time to practice, which is always welcome in my life,” she said. But the pandemic put off a 20-state tour planned for the summer that was meant to “connect personal stories of people across the country to classical music.”

“I put in so much work over the past five or so months. Now it’s all up in the air,” said Zhang. “That was really hard for me to say we have to put this on hold.”

Ironically, at a time when live music may be at its least supported by our daily culture and economy, it is that music that is most helping to support and sustain its makers.

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“Having routines has been really important for me,” said Zhang. After an initial bout of anxiety, she developed a daily routine of practicing in the morning, teaching piano students remotely in the afternoon, and doing “something social” in the evenings, “even if that's just working out through an iPad with a friend.”

And plans for The Concert Truck continue, as Zhang and Luby work to adapt some of their tour repertoire for video. “Now that I have more projects going on, I feel more settled,” said Zhang. “I can have more structure in my day.”

That structure can help dim a deeper worry about the long-term recovery of the performing arts once normal life resumes.

“The uncertainty about what things will look like and how things will change is certainly bringing me a lot of anxiety,” said Zhang. She noted that a declining economy “affects how non-profits function and whether people give to the arts … even once things supposedly get better.”

If there’s anyone familiar with the vicissitudes of a music career, it’s Todd Barkan, who opened up the jazz club Keystone Korner in Harbor East almost exactly one year ago.

Barkan has been operating jazz clubs for decades, including opening the first Keystone Korner in San Francisco in 1972 and working as a programming director for Wynton Marsalis at New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.

After receiving an NEA Jazz Master Fellowship in 2018, Barkan went “all in” for the club in Baltimore. It’s the only Keystone Korner currently in operation, and Barkan lives in the apartment above the venue. He reported that before the coronavirus lockdowns, Keystone Korner was “just starting to really take off. January and February were the best months we ever had.”

The indefinite quarantine might pose the most difficult obstacle Barkan has faced in his career. “It’s doubly challenging because you have the everyday task of putting bodies in seats compounded by health and safety concerns,” he said. In other words, when venues are allowed to reopen, how many potential audience members will still be wary of large crowds?

Which Baltimore music organizations survive the coronavirus — and the extent to which they survive — may largely be a function of their financial situation before the quarantines took place. Organizations large enough to have an endowment, for example, face much better prospects. Anthony Blake Clark, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, is confident the 53-year-old ensemble will persist, despite losing an estimated $100,000 in revenue over the coming months.

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, weathering its 2019 lockout of musicians over budget concerns, reported happier news in the earlier months of the year when it announced plans toward long-term fiscal health that included securing millions in operating gifts and restoring its 52-week concert season. In recent weeks, the orchestra has offered multiple opportunities for audiences to engage with its music online; and, significantly, it has continued to pay its musicians and staff, unlike other massive classical music organizations like the Metropolitan Opera and National Symphony Orchestra.

Smaller, independent projects will likely survive because they do not constitute their creators’ sole source of income. Sam Bessen, who founded the concert series In The Stacks (which had previously enjoyed packing its venue “to fire code”) reports feeling “relatively lucky during this pandemic. We don’t own or pay rent to our venue [at the George Peabody Library] and we don’t have any salaried staff.” Bessen is the series’ only administrative employee, and he enjoys a separate full-time job at Johns Hopkins.

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Without a doubt, the musicians hardest hit by the coronavirus quarantine are full-time freelance performers. In an emailed survey, many Baltimore-based classical performers reported a near-total loss of income. While state unemployment benefits have recently been extended to include freelancers due to the recent passage of the CARES Act, immediate financial relief does not assuage fears about the long-term impact of COVID-19.

Seth Kibel, a full-time woodwind specialist, wrote in emailed comments that he worries that “it will take a lot longer for the arts to recover than many other sectors of the economy.” This worry spurred him to create a petition to congress to include arts funding in any future stimulus plans; but that worry has also decimated his ability to find “any iota of creativity. The daily drumbeat of bad news and bad vibes is so overwhelming that I just find myself lacking any kind of creative spirit.”

It’s a sentiment that Todd Barkan of Keystone Korner could relate to. He recalled an afternoon a few days ago when he was feeling “immersed in bad news.”

Then, he said, he “happened to click on a Billie Holiday song called ‘When You’re Smiling.’ I immediately turned off everything in the apartment and concentrated on Billie Holiday for the next half hour. And that made a world of difference in my life.”

Despite everything, Barkan insists that “it’s more vitally important than ever to find time to get lost, and found, in music. [It’s] essential food for the heart and soul.”

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at nonemakerwrites@gmail.com.

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