In June, Columbus Symphony Chorus member Arthur Marks stepped into the Ohio Theatre for the first time in months.
With the coronavirus pandemic having sidelined the symphony in mid-March, Marks had been physically isolated — and musically estranged — from his colleagues.
“We’ve all been sort of craving making music,” said Marks, who, joined by a handful of symphony colleagues, was not in the theater to perform for a live audience but to film a new series of virtual concerts. The first, featuring Marks, made its debut earlier this week on the symphony’s website.
The concerts are the latest online offering from the symphony, which, since the outset of the pandemic, has been active in uploading fresh content.
“We have all created over 100 videos during the quarantine measures,” said Music Director Rossen Milanov, referring to both musical performances, large and small, and other videos (including cooking segments with the conductor). “It’s kind of a heroic act of showing that music is still playing. We are here; we are creating something.”
One of the most popular virtual performances to date featured symphony instrumentalists and singers performing an excerpt from Handel’s “Messiah” from their homes. That video garnered just under 60,000 views — a huge uptick in the symphony’s social-media reach.
“It’s how (audiences) consume the world right now,” Milanov said. “They consume it through only one medium, which is your computer screen at home.”
The new concerts are the first the symphony has filmed in the Ohio Theatre; musicians, who wore masks, were socially distanced throughout the shoot.
“It was a wonderful feeling, but at the same time, it was a little odd,” said Marks, who, in a program intended to connect with the Black Lives Matter movement, sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“I sang up in the balcony, and (the musicians) were on the stage,” he said. “It was a little weird to have that kind of distance.”
The symphony is among numerous central Ohio arts organizations to offer performance content — and often full-fledged performances — on the internet while theaters remain off-limits to the public.
The Columbus Jazz Orchestra pivoted to virtual concerts early on: The weekend following Gov. Mike DeWine’s initial ban on gatherings, announced March 12, the orchestra planned to present a livestreamed version of a canceled concert. The livestream was called off only when an orchestra member feared he had been exposed to the coronavirus.
“One of the musicians in my band said, ‘Hey, you know, I got back from Europe just a couple days ago, and the singer I was touring with … has a really bad fever now,’” Artistic Director Byron Stripling said. “That’s why we didn’t do it.”
A seed, however, was planted.
Since then, the CJO has been presenting an ongoing series called “Offstage LIVE.” The videos, which are livestreamed on Facebook, initially featured educational offerings — such as discussions between Stripling and musicians — but they soon grew to include actual performances with a small number of distanced musicians in a studio inside the Lincoln Theatre.
Among recent livestreams — many of which have view counts in the thousands — is a program with vocalist Phil Clark, joined by Stripling on trumpet and Bobby Floyd on organ; another, which aims to speak to the present moment of heightened awareness of racial injustice, is titled “Songs of Hope and Healing.”
The two-camera setup has required some mental adjustments by the musicians.
“I’m waiting for applause or even, ‘Yeah, baby,’” Stripling said. “It’s different for us. It’s been learning as we go, and learning what works.”
For CJO patron Dennis Kovach, the sessions have been a welcome respite.
“Even if it’s only for 30 or 45 minutes, it’s been a nice little break from the home confinement,” said Kovach, 38, who sets aside time each week to listen to the livestreams. “I can turn off my devices … and I feel like it’s that great escape.”
On April 24, CAPA — the organization that runs the Ohio Theatre and other local performing-arts venues — launched “ApART Together,” a concert series in which 30-minute performances by area artists — among them Angela Perley and George Barrie — were livestreamed on Facebook. The first run of livestreams ended June 6, but each performance is still available for viewing through the CAPA website.
“When the shutdown happened, and we got through the initial shock of taking our spring and moving it into the fall, we realized we need to have some content out there for folks,” said CAPA Vice President of Programming Rich Corsi. On average, he said, the livestreams reached around 10,000 people (a figure that accounts for the number of Facebook users who encountered a given video).
The musicians were paid by CAPA, which also set up a “virtual tip jar” on Facebook so viewers could show their appreciation.
“This truly is about the artists — and it’s local,” said Corsi, who added that CAPA is planning to produce more “ApART Together” livestreams.
Other central Ohio performing-arts organizations are gradually ramping up their virtual offerings. BalletMet has not yet performed new programs online, but the troupe has made videos of recent performances available to watch on its website for finite periods of time; a third will soon be uploaded.
The ProMusica Chamber Orchestra moved some of its educational programming online — including a family concert featuring a string quartet — but plans to offer more extensive livestreaming when in-person performances return.
“If we can safely be together in the hall, dependent on social distancing rules … we are planning to try to livestream the concerts,” said CEO Janet Chen, who emphasizes the need to generate revenue from streaming in addition to ticket sales.
“Perhaps we offer a subscription that you have access to every single livestream that we do,” she said.
Stripling also sees a need to monetize livestreaming to assure that it remains an option for audience members tentative about returning to venues.
“There are older people who may not want to come to the concert hall for the next two, three years,” he said. “Is there a way we could offer them something?”
For his part, Marks sees a higher purpose in connecting with the public through the virtual concerts.
“I’m hoping that people tap in to it and allow the music to soften hearts, open minds … or just to start a dialogue,” he said.