Lonely room: interior of Spivey Hall. (courtesy of Spivey Hall)

Spivey Hall and other presenters re-imagine 2020-21 season

Jon Ross | 09 JUN 2020

In late May, one of the Atlanta area’s premier university performing arts presenters, Spivey Hall, officially announced the inevitable: its fall concert season would not proceed as planned.

“We announced Spivey Hall’s 2020-21 season – our 30th – in March, just prior to evidence of pandemic conditions in metro Atlanta. Since then, many of you have had questions about what Spivey Hall’s plans are for the coming season,” the executive and artistic director of Spivey Hall, Sam Dixon, wrote in an email to patrons. “Unfortunately, it is now clear that Season 30 cannot take place entirely as planned, owing to the ongoing uncertainties surrounding Covid-19, the consequences of which we cannot reliably predict or control.”

Announcements are coming soon regarding other Atlanta university venues. As of right now, the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts at Emory University has canceled performances through July. According to its website, organizers are “looking forward to the 2020–2021 Candler Concert Series.” At Georgia State University, presenters at the Rialto Center for the Arts are gearing up for an announcement about the new season. In the meantime, the organization has presented a range of free livestream concerts under the banner of “Rialto: Feed Your Senses.”

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But one-off pop performances, in unique spaces, are starting to emerge on the Atlanta music calendar. An Atlanta organization called The Parking Lot Concert plans to echo a trend seen around the world by putting on outdoor concerts for listeners seated in their cars. Translating this experience to classical music, or even jazz, might be difficult.

Pivoting from carefully planned arts seasons and creating inventive concert solutions has become a necessity for presenters all over the world, not just at university recital halls. But the university performance spaces that dot metro Atlanta are the most reliable venues in the vicinity to see world-renowned jazz, classical and world music acts.

Sam Dixon, executive & artistic director of Spivey Hall. (couresy of Spivey Hall)

Sam Dixon, executive & artistic director of Spivey Hall. (couresy of Spivey Hall)

For Dixon’s part, presenting concerts in the current environment requires adaptability. Beginning sometime in September, Spivey Hall’s pandemic season will advance concert by concert. These performances will appear to ticket-holders not as live, in-the-hall events, but in the guise of pre-recorded videos.

To envision Spivey Hall’s new 30th season, Dixon looked to a recent example of performance during the coronavirus pandemic. He woke up at 5 a.m. on March 12 to witness the Berlin Philharmonic blaze a new COVID-19 path. As he watched the livestream of a chamberized, socially distant Mahler 4, he turned on his presenter brain.

“Parts of it worked for me, parts of it didn’t,” he said in a recent interview. Dixon recalled that the spoken introductions about the performance aspects brought a depth to the work, but that the act of having musicians bow to an empty hall and making exits and entrances as they would in a normal setting rang a little hollow. Still, the livestream left plenty to admire:

“I loved the fact that we could see faces, I loved the fact that we could hear things happening in real time, and I loved the fact that the music was still speaking to us,” he said.

For him, the Berlin experiment rose above the proliferation of online performance videos. With so much content, there is stiff competition for viewership. Livestreamed concerts on Facebook and Instagram have been very successful in the jazz realm for singer Cecile McLorin Salvant (who gave a performance that mirrored her spring Spivey Hall gig in feeling and style). Pianist Dan Tepfer paired up with saxophonist Dayna Stephens (another recent Spivey Hall guest) on a new platform that allowed the jazz musicians to play in time, over live video, as they sat in their studios 30 miles apart.

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Many of these performances have been free, and with so many shows, it’s easy to imagine listeners scoffing at pay-per-view concerts. Dixon and other presenters will have to get imaginative to create exclusive experiences for which patrons are willing to pay.

“We’ve gone past the stage of being able to put something out there for you,” Dixon said. “Now there’s some really high-quality stuff.”

Dixon’s pandemic music viewing schedule has also included the Metropolitan Opera’s HD performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle. While he watched with rapt attention, he admitted that intensive opera viewing doesn’t translate perfectly for on-demand viewing.

“I’m not sure that everybody at home … can always give that much time to being online in one sitting,” he said, noting that Season 30 might not ask viewers to sit through a standard 90-minute Spivey Hall performance. He might instead embrace additional content to create an immersive musical experience for ticketholders.

“We’re here for the music. We would not be doing it if it were not for the music, and the music must benefit from what we do,” he said. “But the experience of the music is something that we now must curate, in every sense of that word, very carefully.”  ■

Jon Ross writes about jazz, pop and classical music for Downbeat magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and other publications.