December and the upcoming holiday season is usually filled with live music at every junction. Children’s youth choirs serenade shoppers during Annapolis’ Midnight Madness shopping sale. Ballet studios honor The Nutcracker. Resident companies at Maryland Hall perform classics nightly.
But holiday bells and songs central to the winter season will look, and sound, quite different during the coronavirus pandemic.
“For us, we are really thinking about — what do the performing arts look like in this pandemic? How do we respond to where things are now and how do we do things that position us for the next chapter when this eventually ends?” said J Ernest Green, artistic director at Live Arts Maryland, home to Annapolis Chamber Chorus, Annapolis Chorale and Annapolis Chamber Orchestra.
The year’s end is typically the busiest time of year for arts programming.
People often decide to spend time with visiting family by catching a winter show. The charitable time of year is also the main revenue driver for arts organizations that rely on donations and ticket sales. Many performing arts companies and studios want to continue to present an entertaining outlet for the community while adapting shows to livestream online.
“Holiday concerts, holiday music, is less about the musical details. The pieces that are important … is the idea of making music with other people. Having a chorus come together, an orchestra come together is an incredibly human thing we do,” Green said. “It’s a way for the community to come together and be apart of it.”
Live Arts Maryland has featured two orchestral and choral holiday shows for decades: A Celebration of Christmas and Messiah at St. Anne’s Church.
The traditional shows will continue but with a twist. Individual performers in A Celebration of Christmas will sing carols from their homes and will be joined, online, by an orchestra ensemble in a YouTube livestream.
In preparation for the show, small choir groups have been rehearsing outside St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in 30-minute intervals. Around 25 singers are individually suited with a microphone and stand at a distance when the rehearsal is recorded. The separate audio recordings are then layered together to capture the choir group’s harmonious sound.
The orchestra and choir groups are having fun with the online platform by approaching popular pieces like Messiah a new way, Green said. Messiah, an orchestra piece composed by George Handel in 1741 that tells the story of the birth of Jesus, will mix in some Johann Bach scores, such as his Christmas Oratorio, to continue the narrative where Handel leaves it.
At Edna Lee Dance Studio in Glen Burnie, student ballerinas are preparing for the studio’s 16th year performing The Nutcracker. Rather than a live show at Chesapeake High School, small groups of performers will have their parts filmed at separate times and later edited into a movie.
“It’s different but it’s 2020,” artistic coordinator Sally Canterna said while sewing 170 face masks for the ballerinas’ performance.
This year’s departure from a live show presents new opportunities for the children dancers, Canterna said. Instead of inviting guest dancers to play parts in The Nutcracker, the studio’s dancers will take on bigger roles.
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The dancers get their temperature checked at the door and won’t be able to dance in pairs, but the finished movie will give them a happy memory from an otherwise fraught year, Canterna said.
Performing arts centers, especially nonprofits, often bank on holiday shows to raise enough money to sustain their operations for the next few months or year. Without this critical funding source, studios and companies are relying on government grants and individual donations.
“Year-end giving is crucial. There’s a lot of organizations including Maryland Hall that are going to be in need of support and asking for support,” spokesperson Katie Redmiles saud.
Maryland Hall decided not to schedule any expensive holiday productions this year while it was unclear whether gatherings restrictions would be lifted. The center held several live concerts on its front steps while the weather was warm. Those shows are now on hiatus through the winter.
The center is in the process of renovating its office space to make more room for people to safely visit its rotating indoor art exhibits starting in January.
“There are many places getting really innovative with virtual programming and I think we’re going to see more of that, and then we’re going to see a greater appreciation when we’re able to be together again,” Redmiles said.