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Three Greensboro Performing Arts Groups – Bel Canto, MGS, & ÀlC – Discuss Plans for Upcoming Seasons

June 4, 2020 - Greensboro, NC:


Coping with crisisIn my last two articles I explored the effects of the pandemic on several arts/music organizations in Greensboro. This piece looks at three more entities: the Bel Canto Company, Music for a Great Space, and À la Carte. Concerts had to be cancelled, rearranged, and rethought; plans for the future had to be put on hold, and questions about budgets loom large.

Bel Canto Company was two-thirds through its 37th season when the pandemic struck. Executive director Jeffrey Carlson explains their first steps. "We had to postpone indefinitely our spring concert. Bill (BCC artistic director Welborn Young) has still got it on the back burner, waiting to see how soon it would be feasible, when we'd be allowed to do a concert, and when venues feel comfortable starting to schedule again, and when we feel like our audience and our musicians feel safe to come back together again. So that may be sometime over the summer, more likely sometime next season...; we'll just fit it in when we can."

Music for a Great Space, now in its 29th year, also had to cut their season short. Executive director Rebecca Willie: "We had to cancel our last two concerts of the season, obviously very sad. We have elected to try to re-schedule both of the artists in future seasons. We're hoping to schedule ZOFO (shorthand for 20-finger orchestra – Zo=20 and FO=finger orchestra, comprised of pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi) for next year and then Edie (organist Edie Johnson, a Greensboro native) for the following year."

ÀlC – according to the website, "a buffet of music from every genre, style, epoch and culture" – is relatively new to the Greensboro music scene, having been founded by performing music professors Clara OBrien and Lance Hulme in 2016. OBrien: "The sequester started just days before our last concert of the season. We were shocked and had fingers crossed, hoping we could slip it in before the deadline. That was really disappointing – we had a great program. We're hoping to use that material again in the next season...; its already pretty much rehearsed."

Budget issues: Willie (MGS): "We took a hit on projected ticket sales for those two events, and we had several fundraising events planned...; sad to lose. I also have had more time, so I've found some new  grants to apply for. One of the big conversations that a lot of the organizations are having on the ArtsGreensboro conference calls is the PPP (Paycheck Protection Plan, a federal government small business loan). We've applied for that."

"For us, it's been relatively neutral, fortunately," Carlson (BCC) explained. "Our bigger money-makers are the holiday concerts and our gala. The other concerts we do are generally a break-even proposition. So, the cancellation of this concert will not be too hard on us. I'm more concerned about what it will do to donations for the next six to eighteen months."

Hulme (ÀlC): "It put us back a little... but, on the other hand, we got some very generous gifts before the sequester that put us in the position that were able to start next year OK. We've always lived sort of hand-to-mouth. Our motto has been our ambition is as large as our budget."

Plans for the future? Willie: "We're waiting to see what other arts organizations are doing and seeing what kind of success they're having, especially since a large portion of our audience is in the target age-range for really being careful. We don't want to be encouraging our audiences to do something that isn't wise for them.  So, for me it's a little bit of a wait-and-see game. We do have our October artist scheduled and contracted, and we're just going to have to see how that all plays out."

Carlson: "We can't really go forward with planning next season until we know more about when things are going to open.... We have about ten different contingency plans."

Hulme: "We want to put a concert on as soon as possible – as soon as it's clear we can go back, we'll put that concert on in August or September."

Anything positive come out of all this? Willie: "I'd have to think really hard about that, how it could be positive for the arts industry. There are definitely new things happening because of it, but in my opinion – are they better? I think live music is impactful because there is a relationship between the performers and the audience...: the performers feel that energy and the audience feels that, too. There's just no way to create that over a computer. It's pretty scary to a lot of people I'm talking to when we look at next year and what that will look like for our industry...; it's a little overwhelming to think about right now. A lot of us were using EMF (Eastern Music Festival) as an industry standard, like if it happens, then maybe other things can happen, too." But shortly after my interview with Willie, EMF cancelled their summer festival, taking a lot of hope out from many music-lovers for any live music in the near future.

Carlson: "Organizationally, I can't say there is a lot positive that has come out of it. Maybe the silver lining is were able to do some planning that we don't always feel like we have time to do. We're able to think about strategic planning. I'm really grateful that this (virus) is happening now and not even six or seven years ago because the prevalence of the technology of video conferencing and bandwidth...; even a short time ago, this would have been a very different experience."

Willie picked up where she left off. "I feel a responsibility to Edie, ZOFO, and our UNCG student jazz quartet, which was scheduled to do a whole bunch of school visits. So, we talked about creating some kind of on-line content and being able to actually pay our musicians to do that.... We have solo videos of all the members of the jazz quartet, talking about their instruments and just playing a little bit, kind of in the vein of what they would have done at the school visits."

"We also have a video from Edie and from ZOFO. We're releasing the videos on Fridays and putting them up on our website the next week, so our MGS people get first crack at them, then we make them available to the general public. I'm also sending them out to all of the Guilford County Schools teachers. I'm proud of the fact that we are still offering something out there, and I'm hoping that the GCS teachers will actually take advantage of these videos and post them on Canvas so that we can continue to serve the students somehow. One of the other things were talking about for next year is whether well be allowed back in the schools. If we're not, we're trying to talk about some virtual system where we could have an iPad at the school and an iPad where the musicians are and try to make it live so the students could still ask questions and interact with the artists."

Willie reflects, "What I'm seeing is how quickly everybody has moved in, trying to offer something, to still be contributing, giving their artists a chance to speak. To me, that's the thing that is most inspiring and exciting."

The next article will take a look at how the pandemic has impacted the Eastern Music Festival and Greensboro Opera.