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In CWA discussion, St. Pete music-makers talk about their pandemic pivots

Bill DeYoung

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During Thursday’s panel discussion on the arts and the pandemic, moderator Paul Wilborn read an email that had come in from a viewer: “Livestreams by The Florida Orchestra and Monday Night Jazz have been a lifesaver for all of us home-bound fans,” it said. “We’ve also grown the audience by sharing these with friends in faraway places.”

That was the overall theme of the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs virtual talk, as Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium Theater, discussed the pandemic past and present with Dwayne White, representing the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association; Florida Orchestra artistic director Michael Francis; and Mark Sforzini, executive and artistic director of St. Petersburg Opera Company.

Each of the panelists discussed the creative ways in which their organizations are keeping the music playing during these difficult times.

Since October, The Florida Orchestra has been performing shorter concerts at the Mahaffey Theater, exclusively, with a 25 percent capacity (a maximum of 500 people).

“It does still feel strange to go out and see such a small audience,” Francis said. “But what’s great is to see an audience.

“And now that the vaccinations are coming, we’re seeing a huge jump up in tickets. And our subscribers are coming back as well. So that’s very encouraging.”

Francis noted that intermissions, which have been canceled to avoid lobby-mingling, are an intrinsic part of the classical music concert experience, and he’s looking forward to the day when the (full) audience his musicians play for can get together and talk about what they’ve been listening to in the auditorium.

“No matter what side you’re on, of all the things that unfortunately can divide us, it is the arts that unite us,” he said.

The panelists agreed that the pandemic has forced them to up their virtual, video-making skills. White, for example, talked about the jazz group’s regularly-scheduled Monday night jam at the Hangar. Covid-19 put a (temporary) end to it.

The Downing Association pivoted with “Monday Night Jazz Hour,” livestreamed from another location, with multiple cameras and a different group of musicians each week. “It has become something that’s gone way beyond what we even imagined,” White, a trumpet player, declared. “We’re exposing people all over the world to some of the best and brightest jazz talent here in the Tampa Bay area.”

Sforzini’s group was one of the first in St. Pete to launch a regular virtual series, less than a month after the pandemic began.

“I think after a number of months, people were really getting tired of the virtual things,” he said. “And we wanted to do something live.” Thus began the outdoor “Popera” series, which has grown wildly popular.

“We learned a little each month about what to do to make them more exciting for the audience,” Sforzini explained.

He discovered, he said, that the shorter outdoor performances were helping SPO with part of its mission, to bring the operatic art form into the community for people who might not normally come to hear it.

“We should have been doing this all along,” he said. “So I’m sure when things start to get back to normal, and we start doing out fully-staged operas at the Palladium, we will keep the Popera as a thing we do all the time. Because it’s been such a good outreach for the community.”

The Palladium’s new series of virtual concerts, video-recorded using multiple cameras and state-of-the-art audio, debuts March 5.

The full video of this panel discussion will be available early next week.

 

 

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