The coronavirus pandemic, coming as it did in the heart of the arts season in South Florida, almost literally stopped Palm Beach ArtsPaper critics in their tracks. And it’s not just the arts events themselves that they miss. Here’s a roundup of mini-essays from some of our critics as they take a look at a season that stopped:
Camaraderie vanished, too, as theaters closed
In just a few days, the South Florida landscape, as well as that of the nation and world, has seen its performing arts vanish, attributed to a new, instant cliché, “an abundance of caution” over the highly infectious coronavirus.
With the prospect of no audience, theater companies have postponed or canceled their spring productions, leaving previously contracted actors, designers and crew members without jobs and theatergoers without the emotional sustenance that the arts can provide.
If there is a silver lining to this crisis, some would say, it is that performing arts critics are also now out of work, left to shelter in place at home with no shows to review. Personally, in the more than half a century that I have been encouraging – and more than occasionally admonishing – theater companies in my hometown of Washington, D.C., as well as my adopted home of Palm Beach County, this will mark the longest period of time that I have not viewed live theater and written about my reactions to it.
What will I miss the most? We were heading into an extremely promising part of the local theater season, including Slow Burn’s Ragtime, Zoetic Stage’s A Little Night Music, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Light in the Piazza and FAU Theater Lab’s To Fall in Love. Most, though not all of these, will likely resurface later this year. But even those shows to which I was not looking forward represented the community camaraderie of theatergoing which keeps the area’s arts scene so vital and vibrant.
Meanwhile, troll the internet for its profusion of full-length productions of shows, either for free or minimal cost. True, they are a poor substitute for live theater, but they will suffice until we are back together experiencing the real thing. — Hap Erstein
Concert shutdown also ended my gigs
How do I miss the arts? Let me count the ways.
As a freelance writer specializing in music, I was overjoyed to write a feature about, and interview members of, jazz/fusion veterans Brand X to promote the band’s March 25 show at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton. I’d discovered the 45-year-old act in the late 1970s, and couldn’t wait to see the world’s greatest electric fretless bassist, 72-year-old Brit Percy Jones, and write a review of the concert. The wait will obviously continue for an unforeseen time.
There are countless other shows I was looking forward to, by touring artists like Japanese jazz pianist Yoko Miwa at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach on March 27. And no one can predict what will become of the June 6 concert at the Mizner Ampitheater in Boca Raton by British progressive rock godfathers King Crimson, with openers the Zappa Band — featuring veterans of the late guitarist, vocalist and composer Frank Zappa’s ensembles including vocalist/guitarists Mike Keneally and Ray White and bassist Scott Thunes.
And as a professional musician myself, eight of my 10 performances in March were canceled. I feel lucky to have had two that weren’t. And yes, some were cancellations by myself or other band members seeking to create the social distancing required to get us all out of this artistic drought.
April will be even worse. I’m lucky to have a wonderful girlfriend who is totally on board with live music being my mistress. And thankfully, she’s also OK with the knowledge that I miss that mistress terribly. — Bill Meredith
Missing rituals are part of season’s joy
When I think about what I miss about the arts, the first thing that comes to mind is Ritual.
The standard operating procedure for a classical music concert has been churchlike for a couple centuries now, as people quietly gather at some hospitable venue on an afternoon or evening to take in a couple hours of inspiration. To the outsider, it seems perhaps stiff and pompous, but to those of us who cherish it, it’s a good environment to take in the music and find yourself thinking not just about sonic thrills or beauty, but about the big questions that good art raises, and that we as a species cannot do without asking.
And we get there through these rituals – the program notes, the silence between movements of a large work, the feeling of satisfaction as the concertmaster comes on stage moments before an orchestral work begins. That hits home for me more than just in being a spectator: In addition to my work as a journalist and educator, I am also a promoter, having co-founded a series of concerts featuring contemporary music by living South Florida composers (Zimmermann’s Café Chamber Music).
We have rituals at Zimmermann’s, too, including the food we serve and the way we solicit audience feedback, but I am always struck most of all how receptive those audiences are to a new artistic experience, to hearing something they’ve never heard before, to assess a fresh work of composition.
It’s that interaction I miss the most, as a member and as a producer, that silent engagement as a human being with something aspirational, something created out of dark times and light, something that in its very existence suggests an endless possibility.
But maybe that’s what we need to look to in these perilous days: Artistic creativity is nothing less than the sound of hope. — Greg Stepanich
Opera at home isn’t quite the same
To paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it’s love (of the arts) in the time of coronavirus. Tough love, indeed.
More specifically, in 2020, it’s the unique thrill of the live musical experience that will be missed the most. I can still listen at home to a CD of a Schubert song cycle; or watch Don Giovanni on DVD. I recently purchased a boxed DVD set of the 10 major Wagner operas, which, I’m expecting, may last me through the COVID-19 shutdown. But it’s not the same as being right there in the theater.
I was particularly looking forward to Florida Grand Opera’s now-canceled production of Rigoletto. The title part had been assigned to Todd Thomas, one of today’s real “Verdi baritones” – a special vocal type denoting a voluminous sound that can sustain extended passages in the highest part of the range. And soprano Jessica E. Jones, a recent alumna of the company’s Young Artist program who has already become a polished, subtle artist, was to have taken on her largest assignment to date as the opera’s hapless heroine, Gilda.
Speaking of high-powered baritones, the formidable Michael Chioldi, a regular at Palm Beach Opera, was scheduled to perform the title role of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in the Kravis Center at the end of March. Another loss for serious opera fans.
Seraphic Fire’s February Enlightenment Festival, which culminated with a splendid revival of Handel’s exquisite Acis and Galatea, was so rewarding that I could hardly wait for this accomplished ensemble to produce a complete Messiah, mid-April. That too, sadly, is unlikely to take place – at least, not this season.
So, it’s back to our own devices. Met Opera on Demand is streaming free encore presentations, culled from its invaluable Live in HD transmissions, while the company is closed. Look out for your favorite operas there. — Robert Croan
Performing arts were in trouble before pandemic
Where do we go from here? Has technology made us fat, dumb and not-so-happy? We have become addicted to a stream of incessant information. Consequentially, and methodically, we overdose on it, caring less and less whether the accounts are true or false.
Tethered to our devices, we overindulge, oblivious of wasting the most valuable gift of all — time. We even admit this endless gorging does little for us and often makes us feel numb, inconsequential and even depressed. Yet we still do it. We can’t help it. We are addicts.
I’ve been concerned about the future of the performing arts for quite some time, so whenever I go to the theater, I always look around to see exactly who still makes the effort nowadays to attend a performance. With too few exceptions, it’s always the same: A sea of gray- and white-haired heads whose numerous eyeglasses reflect the lights of the stage.
But one thing has changed. As soon as the house lights come on, all those heads are now bowed as if in prayer, illuminated by the screens of their handheld devices. No longer do they take a moment to savor or reflect on what they’ve seen live onstage. There’s no shared conversation with their companions; instead they allow themselves to be sucked back into the black hole of cyberspace. If seniors are this addicted, what hope exists that young people will ever start attending performances?
Just before everything was shut down by the pandemic, I happened to ask my students after class exactly how many performances they attend a year. Keep in mind these are very talented ballet dancers on a full-time professional track. Some looked away. Some shrugged and smiled. “Maybe one,” was the answer as they edged towards their dance bags to check their iPhones.
With what is happening now with social distancing, will human interaction in the future happen mostly on devices rather than in person? If so, that will be a death sentence for the performing arts, making it yet another victim of COVID-19. – Tara Mitton Catao
Art World may be in crisis, but Art will go on
“Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects,” says the Dalai Lama.
Leave it to the Lama to know this. Someone ate something exotic in China and shut down the world. You wouldn’t think this was possible in this overpopulated, hyper techno-advanced culture, yet it has happened.
It used to be more difficult to equate global trends with the local art scene, but the ease of travel and money has made this happen here in ways now both exhilarating and terrifying. While the places to see art are closed – the places where art is being made are ramping up. The Art World may be closed but Art is not.
As the wave of closure and cancellation notices flooded into my inbox over the last weeks, I was still reeling from the searing introspective artist self-portrait show Eye to I I had just seen at the Boca Museum. The stares of the artists into their own abyss is fascinating and haunting. Their great work and legacy was born from solitude, from the endless hours and years and decades in the studio facing a blank canvas.
While I miss openings and seeing new work, I know there will be greater work down the line, just as diamonds are made from coal under pressure.
My Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic friend Jerry Saltz says, “Art will go on. It always has. All we know is that everything is different; we don’t know how, only that it is. The unimaginable is now reality.”
Hard? Yes. Life-changing? Possibly. End of the world? Nah.
Hey artists, get back to work. We’ll see you soon. — Sandra Schulman