For the performing arts in Vermont, 2020 was the year that wasn’t. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic revealed many arts organizations’ ability to redefine themselves — and for others it meant a complete shutdown.
January began optimistically with a splendid performance by the Montpelier Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Anne Decker, of Menotti’s Christmas opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at City Hall Arts Center. The Spice on Snow traditional music festival celebrated its 10th year, also in the capital.
Vermont Stage, the Burlington professional theater, mounted excellent productions of “Relativity,” by Mark St. Germain — in which Ron Crawford became Albert Einstein — and “Marie and Rosetta,” the rockin’ gospel of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
In February, the Vermont Philharmonic, conducted by Lou Kosma, delivered a pretty spectacular performance of Beethoven’s Fifth, and introduced teen cellist Layla Morris. In March, Capital City Concerts brought back the beloved Paris Piano Trio, the of the finest chamber ensembles in the world.
But then, COVID-19 hit, and these organizations have been pretty much unheard from since. However, a few organizations — Northern Stage, Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Taconic Music, Opera North and Chandler Center for the Arts, in particular — have been at the forefront of innovation.
Northern Stage, the White River Junction professional company, began the year spectacularly with two of its best productions since Carol Dunne took its reins seven years ago, and that’s saying something. Its January production of Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” starring Jaime Horton and directed by Stephen Brown-Fried, not only plumbed its literary and emotional depths, it proved downright exciting — and even scary. In February, it premiered Celeste Jennings’ “Citrus,” using intimate and personal storytelling to give voice to what it is and what it was like to be an African American woman in America.
When the pandemic hit, Northern Stage cut its staff to a skeleton eight, but invited those laid off to remain in the company’s dormitories at no charge. Some of its school programs went online. In May, “Playdates,” interactive discussions of theater subjects with experts went online. Throughout, Northern Stage was preparing its future.
Northern Stage became one of the first Equity theaters in the country to present in-person theater, with Stephanie Everett in her one-woman show “It’s Fine, I’m Fine” live Oct. 7-25 (and later available streamed). It also began creating prerecorded streamed theater, beginning with Greg Keller’s “Dutch Masters” Oct. 8-21, a two-man intimate look at systemic racism. That was followed up with a double bill, the world premiere of Marisa Smith’s “The Naked Librarian” and Anton Chekhov’s “On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco,” starring Gordon Clapp, Nov. 12-29.
“It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play,” in an adaptation by Joe Landry, streaming online (audio only) Dec. 8-Jan. 3, caps 2020 for Northern Stage. Given this kind of innovation, what’s next should prove quite exciting.
The year didn’t start auspiciously for the VSO. Leila Josefowicz canceled her performances of the Berg Violin Concerto scheduled for Jan. 25 and 26 at Burlington’s Flynn Center and Rutland’s Paramount Theatre. And Ben Cadwallader, the VSO’s young executive director of four years, was leaving in February.
Fortunately, Music Director Jaime Laredo conducted substitute Shannon Lee in an exhilarating performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, and the VSO chose a new executive director, due (from South Africa) at the end of the summer. And Troy Peters, former Vermont Youth Orchestra director, returned from Texas to conduct a tribute to film composer John Williams at a packed Flynn in Burlington.
When the pandemic took hold, bringing everything to a halt, the VSO and VSO Chorus were well into preparations for March 21-22 performances of Mozart’s Requiem. And that was it. Or was it?
Not a chance. Led by the staff and board president Barb Wessel, the VSO instituted a series of online programs in the beginning of summer introducing members of the Juke Box Quartet — also known as the Arka Quartet. Matt La Rocca, composer and VSO special projects chair, hosted each of the four VSO string players — violinists Letitia Quante and Brooke Quiggins, violist Stefanie Taylor and cellist John Dunlop — talking and playing in their own homes.
And the VSO presented outdoor pop-up concerts by small ensembles — thus continuing to provide work for its players. The VSO provided other support, brokering online lessons from its players, as well as offering education programs.
In September, Elise Brunelle, the VSO’s new executive director, arrived from her position as managing director of the Cape Town Opera, and a four-concert fall-winter season was created. Two Juke Box performances, Oct. 17 and Jan. 16, were planned to be streamed live from its home at the Burlington nightclub ArtsRiot. And “Music for Days Like This” mixed-ensemble chamber programs were recorded and streamed Nov. 21 and Dec. 19. So far, all have been expertly played and well received. An announcement of the spring season is expected soon.
With the onset of summer, two performing arts organizations dared go indoors. On July 11, Manchester’s Taconic Music presented the first public indoor concert in Vermont at Burr and Burton Academy’s Riley Center for the Arts. With all COVID restrictions in place, 75 seats (a third of the hall) were reserved immediately for the excellent chamber music performances. Despite a COVID-19 scare in Manchester — a false alarm — Taconic continued with the same success for the series’ three remaining concerts.
Opera North, based in Lebanon, New Hampshire, was the only opera company in the United States to produce live opera this summer. For that, it decided to go outdoors for its reduced two-production season, using its scenic Blow-Me-Down Farm summer home in Cornish. On Aug. 8, Broadway star Lea Blackhurst performed her tribute to Ethel Merman,” Everything the Traffic Will Allow,” to a sold-out socially distanced crowd. Mozart’s “Magic Flute” sold out Aug. 6 and 8. More complicated by minimal staging and a 24-piece orchestra, the performances proved quite delightful.
On Aug. 21, Randolph’s Chandler Center for the Arts presented live and live-streamed the Cassotto Duo – pianist and accordionist Annemieke and Jeremiah McLane (soon after their Sharon home burned down) — sponsored by the (canceled) Central Vermont Chamber Music Festival. Chandler went on to present part of its annual New World Festival live and streamed on its stage Sept. 6.
Those were the biggest steps towards Vermont’s future in the arts, but there were many others on a smaller scale. On May 2, TURNmusic, Decker’s Waterbury Center-based contemporary music ensemble, began a series of Zoomed programs with its individual members.
Middlebury Acting Company presented readings of “Saint Bernard, an Opioid Play” by Peter Espenshade on Zoom May 28 and 29. Currently the professional company is presenting “The American Dream Project” Dec. 13-May 16, readings of a series of new plays that confront systemic racism.
Burlington’s Discover Jazz became the all-virtual ReDiscover Jazz Festival June 4-14. Stowe’s Spruce Peak Arts instituted drive-by concerts with Chad Hollister, in which the stage-truck stopped off around the region. Higher Ground began a high-end series of drive-in concerts at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds, beginning with Myra Flynn June 21, and eventually Grace Potter. Catamount Arts followed up with its own at both Johnson and Lyndonville campuses of Northern Vermont University.
Chandler took its annual Pride Theater Festival online. Violinist Jaime Laredo and his wife, cellist Sharon Robinson, offered a streamed recital for the Brattleboro Music Center. And the Craftsbury Chamber Players took their music and stage-truck all around central Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom.
Vermont’s two major theaters, Weston Playhouse and Dorset Theatre Festival, went dark. Still, Weston offered two virtual programs, “Weston Premieres,” a series of online commissioned 10-minute plays, and “Songs for Today,” new compositions by Weston composers and writers offered weekly. Dorset offered professional readings to keep its actors employed.
Greensboro’s Mirror Theatre went online with Bernard Pomerance’s “Hand of Light,” a benefit for AWARE Vermont. The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival went virtual Aug. 27-Sept. 3.
After losing its entire summer season to the pandemic, Montpelier’s Lost Nation Theater mounted a staged reading of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Nights Dream” on the State House lawn Sept. 20. Able to return to City Hall Arts Center for the first time since March, it live-streamed the inimitable raconteur Willem Lange in his 46th reading of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” on Dec. 18. It was hoped that it could include a live audience, but the COVID spike made that impossible.
Finally, perhaps the most creative response to COVID-19 came from Grace Congregational Church in Rutland. Rather than cancel its annual and beloved performance of the Christmas portion of “Messiah,” Alastair Stout, minister of music, created a unique recorded multimedia video of Handel’s masterpiece. Solo vocal arias were newly recorded in different parts of the church with the excellent Arka Quartet (aka VSO Juke Box Quartet), while young dancers interpreted choruses recorded in previous years. It set off the holidays with a truly joyful experience.
If there is any take away from this, it’s that Vermont’s performing arts will creatively overcome COVID-19. They’re artists, they can’t help themselves.