While the spread of COVID-19 in South Carolina has been far from ideal, it’s not a bad state to weather this pandemic. As the coronavirus hit, activities were already moving outdoors, where the danger is lessened and social distancing is relatively easy.
In fact, it’s been fun to watch classical and jazz musicians more accustomed to the comforts and acoustics of indoors adapt to outdoor venues.
The South Carolina Philharmonic had, even before the pandemic, been featuring small ensemble performances in places like Historic Columbia gardens and the Hunter-Gatherer Hangar. They continued doing so under socially distanced guidelines throughout the spring and summer and now into the fall.
Jazz artists Mark Rapp, who leads the scene-boosting nonprofit ColaJazz, have done similar things, playing at outdoor venues like Steel Hands Brewing and the new Jazz on the River series hosted each Thursday by The Front Coffee and Tap at the riverside CanalSide development.
“Right now we’re in the golden light, so to speak, right as the weather’s changing, and is perfect for outdoor events right now,” Rapp enthuses. “We’ve got a handful of weeks of just perfect times to be producing outdoor events.”
That all changes as temperatures drop in the later fall months, and with that seasonal change, the full challenge for many music and arts organizations comes into full view.
Rapp says he is approaching the fall and a return to indoor live performances warily, but notes that many venues he frequents, like The Joint, have done their best to continue providing a space for live music in pandemic-adjusted conditions, and he’s already begun playing some club gigs again.
“I do appreciate the clubs are still doing their damnedest, even though they have to operate at half capacity and that they’re not covering their bills,” he contends. “It’s tough. But ultimately it’s gonna come down to having a vaccine. It’s kind of disappointing to think that we really, really have to wait on that before things really return to normal.”
For the Philharmonic, this would normally be the time to launch its season in the 2,200-seat Koger Center, a performance space whose long, Continental-style rows pack patrons around the stage in a manner that is largely unthinkable right now.
The 2020-2021 season, inevitably, will be unlike any other. The group opens on Nov. 20 with a concert, anchored by Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, that will, like its last performance in March, be played to an empty auditorium and live-streamed for free.
In-person performances from the full orchestra will not resume until January, and will still be quite different from normal.
“Most orchestras who have returned to live performances, across the board have performed shorter programs, anywhere between like 60 to 75 minutes,” says Morihiko Nakahara, the Philharmonic’s music director. “It’s just sort of what everybody’s doing, so there’s no intermission.”
Eliminating intermission, where patrons tend to congregate and are often forced into the close confines of restrooms, is just one of the many proactive steps the Philharmonic is taking to make sure patrons are safe. Not long after COVID-19 lockdowns began, the organization formed a task force to think through all of the logistical challenges they would face, both from a musician and patron perspective.
That task force worked with the Koger Center, which overhauled its HVAC system in response to COVID-19 to clean its air more efficiently, on protocols for back-of-house safety, but the big task remained re-imagining the seating chart for social distancing.
“With social distancing measures, that gives us a total of about just under 450 seats,” explains Kristin Morris, the orchestra’s marketing and communications director. “We’re going to be presenting this first to our previous years’ subscribers like we normally do, and, and getting people seated as close to where they would like to sit as possible.
“But just as our musicians have been playing together for many, many years, so many of our loyal patrons who come back year after year, a lot of times they choose where they sit so they can be close to other people. It’s also a social connection, just being around the same people for each concert.”
It’s something that comes up again and again when talking to Morris and Nakahara — the loss of community wrought by the pandemic. The orchestra, Morihiko notes, is a close-knit group, and they’ve hosted town hall web meetups for the musicians in the long interim between performances and rehearsals to socialize and stay abreast of COVID-19 challenges.
“For a lot of them, [the first rehearsal] is going to be the first time that we’ll be seeing each other in six months, some of them probably closer to eight months,” Morihiko notes. “It’s going to be hard for them not to give each other a big hug when we keep social distancing, even during the rehearsal breaks and before and after. I guess that’s sort of the new normal, at least for this year for us.”
Both ColaJazz and the Philharmonic have found some silver linings in the pandemic, including a rise in digital community and increased savvy with web video performances.
“I’m very optimistic about all this online stuff,” says Rapp. “All of us [jazz musicians] really shifted to doing that, and there’s more content and engagement online now than ever before. And my hope is that that’s actually building our audience.”
Nakahara and Morris say the same is true of the Philharmonic, which has also had a chance to think through other issues, like racial equity.
“I think sometimes, we all realize these are important topics, but they probably tended to be put in the back burner, because you’re so busy churning out concerts, performances, selling tickets, and all these things,” the music director admits. “So again, with all that’s going on, I think it gave us sort of an opportunity to really start to look at ourselves that way.”
Jazz on the River
Oct. 1. 6:30 p.m. Free. The Front Coffee and Tap. 622 Canalside St. thefrontcoffeeandtap.com
South Carolina Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble at Saluda Shoals
Oct. 4. 4 p.m. $12.50. Saluda Shoals Park. 5605 Bush River Rd. scphilharmonic.com