Courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Door County, Wis. (January 18, 2020) – On April 16 this past year, the unthinkable happened.
Peninsula Players – Door County, Wisconsin’s oldest, largest, and best-known outdoor theatre – announced that it was cancelling its entire 2020 season. Not just a performance, series, or run … but the entire season:
“The Board of Directors and its management team have examined a variety of scenarios and have concluded that the health and safety of our company, volunteers, community, and you – our dedicated supporters – must take precedence over all else at this time,” said Managing Director Brian Kelsey in a press release. “With that in mind, our hearts are heavy in announcing that we will be cancelling our summer productions.”
Kelsey’s words were apocalyptic. All other performing arts nonprofits quickly announced that they, too, would be cancelling their summer seasons: Northern Sky Theater, Door Shakespeare, Birch Creek Music Performance Center, Third Avenue Playhouse, Door County Auditorium, Fishstock Concert Series, Trueblood Performing Arts Center, Peninsula Music Festival, among others.
Well before closures were mandatory, these arts-oriented groups decided it would be in everyone’s best interest to shut down.
For a community and county largely dependent on St. Louis tourism, however, the effects of these unprecedented closures were devastating.
One organization anxiously wavered about finding ways and means to continue. ¨From Board members to meetings with staff, we repeatedly tried to reach consensus about the ‘right’ and best direction,” recall Allyson Fleck, Executive Director, and Jim Berkenstock, Artistic Director, of Door County’s Midsummer’s (Chamber) Music.
¨We wanted to find ways to deliver stellar performances and engage audiences, without raising risks or jeopardizing anyone’s health.”
While some directors believed it best to cancel Midsummer´s 2020 ¨live” season – its 30th – as the other performing area arts organizations had done, all on the Board pushed for ways to move forward together. Ultimately, it was agreed to begin the season virtually, with online performances, and, somehow, create a crescendo which would pay homage to the classical music organization’s venue-based roots.
But that would prove easier said than done.
For one thing, the small staff comprised only Allyson, a part-time student intern and office assistant, the office manager, volunteers who stepped into action, and the nonprofit’s marketing manager who worked offsite (remotely). For another, none of the team was well-versed in how to effectively and cost-efficiently handle the logistics and technical requirements of state-of-the-art digital undertakings.
Professional-quality audiovisual equipment had to be purchased and mastered. New roles and responsibilities assumed. Appropriate sites found and booked for recordings. Performers coached on doing things differently: social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands before every movement. Alternative delivery media identified and connected. Audiences prepared to tune in and embrace chamber music in new ways.
And, of course, attract funds to finance the creative new enterprise.
Like many performing arts groups, Midsummer’s depends on revenue streams of which about 25% comes from ticket sales. Without live performances, patrons and sponsors needed to donate more … supporters and audience members to continue contributing, even if the events were a different “flavor” from what they’d paid for in the past.
Fundraising appeals and solicitation letters appraising the challenges were distributed by mail—postal and electronic. Phone calls were made by present and past Board members, urging others to donate. Website news and announcements tactfully reminded visitors about the status of the season. A “gala” showcased student violins painted, decorated, and repurposed by the county’s favorite artists for an extraordinary online auction interspersed with chamber music, interviews, and special effects.
Staff meetings — creative, developmental, and administrative — were conducted using Zoom, while recorded performances were streamed via Midsummer´s website, its YouTube channel, and Facebook page.
Their persistence paid off.
In the end, Midsummer’s had delivered 30 virtual performances of six different programs by trios, quartets, and quintets boasting world-class musicians … each presented in five different concerts. Website visits were up slightly, although page views increased dramatically-from 11,546 in 2019 to 17,236 in 2020, while the organization´s Facebook page “Likes” had increased 47%. The Violin Channel broadcast six programs performed by Midsummer’s in August and early September, which garnered approximately 85,000 views. The Chicago Philharmonic recognized Midsummer´s by playing one of its recorded concerts to Chicago´s own audience, while the CityMusic Cleveland Chamber Orchestra aired movements from Midsummer´s recording of Le Beau´s String Quintet in C Minor.
Yet what brought tears of joy to the organization’s many friends and supporters occurred towards the end of its season, when Midsummer’s held a live, outdoor performance at Woodwalk Gallery attended by enthusiastic fans, following all health protocols of the pandemic.
“Jim always picks repertoire by relatively unknown composers and creates a season of gems that, often, had not previously been recorded,” insists Allyson. ¨He did that – and more – by presenting five female composers and three of color, one a black female composer. We also performed another world premiere by young composer Jacob Beranek.”
Grit and determination aren’t words typically associated with chamber music and classical performances. But as the prophetic words of William Congreve remind us: ¨Music has charms to soothe the savage beast.¨
For Midsummer’s Music, this tired cliché had a lot more truth to it in 2020 than Congreve ever imagined 400 years ago.
Visit Midsummer’s at www.midsummersmusic.com or on Facebook.