In tune with the new normal

Madison musicians, ensembles and venues tentatively return to live performances hopeful and grateful, but changed.
Barrymore Theater exterior with a marquee that says In Tune With The New Normal
Photo by Patrick Stutz

On a June morning earlier this year, classical violinist Suzanne Beia awoke to the news that Dane County was lifting the last of its COVID-19 restrictions. She felt cautious optimism — like many musicians, Beia’s world was upended 15 months earlier when the pandemic began — but not the relief she’d expected.

“After living with the pandemic and its ramifications for over a year, meticulously following every development, every setback, every small victory, the news … brought no corresponding tsunami of relief,” Beia says. “If anything, the end of lockdown provided reassurance that we were on the right track; however, I don’t expect a full return to life as it was in 2019.”

Nor is she sure she wants that. Before live shows and crowded public events ceased virtually overnight, Beia was one of Madison’s busiest classical string players. She serves as concertmaster with both the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, or WCO, and Madison Opera. She is co-concertmaster with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, or MSO, where she is a part of its Rhapsodie Quartet. She performs with the esteemed Pro Arte Quartet, part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, where she also teaches orchestral repertoire and coaches chamber music groups. Other than a series of six WCO performances (two outdoor, four livestreamed indoors) and a handful of Pro Arte streamed appearances, all other performances had been canceled.

Suzanne Beia standing with her violin inside an empty theater

Suzanne Beia at Mead Witter School of Music (Photo by Paulius Musteikis)

“I had this feeling of impending doom, like the whole house of cards was falling down,” says Beia. “I panicked and thought, ‘Wow, how will arts organizations survive this? How will musicians survive this?’ ” But as the pandemic stretched on, she started to feel a complicated shift. “My pre-pandemic life was so busy that I felt it was out of control. I was always pushing for more practice time and now I had it. But what should I practice with no performances coming up in the foreseeable future?”

Now as the violinist returns to her prior roles, she is not alone in feeling hope tempered with ambivalence. Other stakeholders across Madison’s music scene have been anxious to return to business as usual; summer was rife with rescheduled outdoor festivals, club gigs and perhaps more concerts than anyone expected. But many musicians, ensembles and promoters still question how much business they might expect, what “pandemic pivots” they should keep and how long it will take before audiences are in tune with the new normal — particularly as COVID-19’s Delta variant evolves. As organizations and venues tentatively ramp up their schedules this fall, Beia and her fellow artists may find themselves once again in high demand. But the performers, the organizers and the audiences have changed.

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WCO’s Joe Loehnis was just six months into his new position as CEO when the pandemic began. Once the shock wore off, the organization decided to make the best of the situation.

“We started evaluating why we existed and the purpose of what we do,” Loehnis says. “We dug deep and decided that the arts and music is where humans go for transformation, for connection, for hope. And that made it easy for us to push ahead.”

Online concert production was already on the table prior to the pandemic, but WCO’s original two-year plan quickly condensed into two weeks. Video technology enabled the orchestra to build stronger connections between the musicians and audience members through artist interviews and close-ups of the musicians at work. Soon WCO built a strong online presence with concerts streamed directly into listeners’ homes. From physically distanced Concerts on the Square with significantly reduced audience sizes performed for the past two summers at Breese Stevens Field to playing empty houses at The Sylvee for rebroadcast later, WCO kept the music live even if audiences couldn’t always join them.

“In August and September of 2020 at Breese Stevens Field, we were one of just three orchestras in the country at that time that pulled off a full orchestra concert last year,” Loehnis says. WCO’s two outdoor concerts in 2020 together were viewed online by approximately 5,000 households in more than 20 countries. But returning to in-person shows with live audiences is still the goal, and Loehnis is hopeful.

musicians scattered around Breese stevens field

Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra held two outdoor concerts in summer 2020 at Breese Stevens Field (pictured on Aug. 25, 2020). At that time, the organization was one of just three orchestras in the country that managed to perform a live, full orchestra concert during the pandemic year. (Courtesy of WCO)

“In terms of an appetite for live music, I think it’s there, but we’ll need to flex our muscles again,” says Loehnis. “What will tip the scale is the notion of human connectivity and music’s transformative experience. As soon as consumers feel it’s safe to come back to the theater, they will.”

MSO also experimented with online performances without the full orchestra, mostly featuring organist Greg Zelek, but virtual performances will never become a major part of the orchestra’s ongoing profile, says Richard Mackie, who retired on June 30 after 22 years as MSO’s executive director.

“We offer big music performed by a big orchestra for a big audience in a big auditorium,” Mackie says. “An online streaming concert is diminutive of all those elements and hard to monetize, so I don’t think it will substantially change the marketplace for concert attendance.”

MSO is launching its fall season in October with the first of several concerts honoring the music of Beethoven during the composer’s 251st birthday, as well as a later date featuring jazz/classical crossover performer Wynton Marsalis’ “Violin Concerto in D.” Like WCO, the orchestra was able to maintain an economic lifeline for its musicians through much of the pandemic and is looking forward to the coming season.

“We lost a lot of income, partially offset by federal money and so many donors who stayed with us,” says Mackie. “The orchestra ended its fiscal year on June 30 with an estimated surplus of $300,000, which will help us launch the fall season in case audience members are still uncertain about returning. It’s a soft landing after a wild ride.”

Both WCO and MSO will maintain a continuing presence at Overture Center for the Arts. The downtown venue, which closed in March 2020 just two days into a run of the Broadway blockbuster “Wicked,” has reopened and is scheduling its own shows, including the return of “Hamilton” in August 2022. The venue’s various resident companies, of which the two orchestras are part, have announced performance schedules well into next year. Although MSO has no plans to do any full orchestra performances online, Mackie acknowledges the benefit of making MSO performances more accessible.

“Great music is for everyone,” Mackie says. “We’ll just continue to find new ways to put that concept into action.”

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Adapting hasn’t been quite as easy for smaller houses, which operate closer to the bone and rely on ticket and refreshment sales to keep the lights on. While many clubs and venues have reopened, there is still hesitancy among facility owners and concert promoters.

“We hosted our last pre-pandemic show on March 5, 2020,” says Steve Sperling, general manager of the Barrymore Theatre. “We pretty quickly realized we weren’t going to have shows for a while but didn’t have any idea it would take this long.”

The Barrymore took advantage of the shutdown to make some much-needed structural and mechanical improvements, most of which will be invisible to patrons when they return. The historic venue, which began its life as the Eastwood Theater in 1929, also hosted livestreamed concerts for local bands funded by donations that were largely split between the musicians and crew. The theater’s fall performance schedule began to fill out in September, but it needs the pre-pandemic crowds to make it.

Breese Stevens1

Breese Stevens Field brought back concerts in May 2021 using physically distanced “pods” during a Mt. Joy performance. (Photo by Chris Lotten Photography)

“The Barrymore can’t fully reopen until we can do so at 100%. No one can make money with much less,” Sperling says. “A lot of this has to do with the touring acts themselves. We’ve heard there’s a shortage of tour buses and that getting band merchandise produced in time has been difficult. Unless a band can mount a significant tour, they’re not going to bother.

“Of course, it’s also up to audiences,” he adds. “Do they feel safe coming back and do they have the money to do so?”

FPC Live, a Madison-based concert promoter and venue operator that promotes a number of Barrymore shows, tested Sperling’s thesis in May 2021 with two outdoor concerts by Mt. Joy and Smith & Myers of Shinedown at Breese Stevens Field. The events, which adhered to COVID-19 safety protocols, sold out very quickly, according to Matt Gerding, the company’s president.

“It was a great opportunity to test consumer confidence,” Gerding says, “but the pod-style seating arrangement requires more cost and effort to pull off relative to revenue and is not a sustainable model. We needed to go back to full-scale concerts as quickly as possible.”

FPC also promotes concerts all over the country and owns multiple music venues in Missouri, South Carolina and Madison, including The Sylvee, High Noon Saloon, The Orpheum Theater and The Majestic Theatre. He says there’s a strong appetite for live music that will only increase as pandemic protocols relax and more opportunities present themselves.

Rod Tuffcurls & The Bench Press performing on the stage at The Sylvee

The “Revival with Rod Tuffcurls & The Bench Press” show in July 2021 celebrated frontline workers and the reopening of The Sylvee. (Photo by JC Dunst Photography)

“Artists who haven’t toured for more than a year will be anxious to get on the road again,” he says. “We’ve refined our operations to enhance the listener experience and are keeping a close eye on how much music a city the size of Madison can support with its entertainment dollars.”

Livestreamed concerts that were the only option during the pandemic lockdown likely will stay a part of many artists’ performance profiles, but they won’t become major competitors with full-scale live events, Gerding says.

“There’s a lot of excitement and emotion right now about the return to live music and a heightened sense of appreciation that we live in a place that celebrates the arts in ways that we had always taken for granted,” he says. “We’re thankful to be in a business that brings people together and creates a sense of unity for brief moments we call concerts. We sometimes lose sight of how lucky we are to be doing what we do.”

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The long pandemic was especially hard on the musicians and performers who kept those events and venues going, depriving them of income and, in many cases, the creative outlet that serves as so much more than a profession. Shows were canceled, gigs were lost — and so was the muse.

“We were planning a huge summer,” says Demetrius “JAH Boogie” Wainwright, co-founder, bassist and lead vocalist of award-winning rock, roots and reggae quartet Natty Nation. “We had built up significant momentum over the past four years and we knew that 2020 was going to be one of the best seasons we’d ever had. The loss of those shows was financially devastating.”

Wainwright also suffered a “creativity crisis,” finding himself without inspiration or the energy to practice his art.

“I am usually down in my studio writing, but I let the pandemic affect my creativity,” he explains. “I didn’t feel any creative vibes for three or four months. I managed to write only one song during that period. It was a significant song, but it was the only one.”

Demetrius "JAH BOOGIE" Wainwrighter performing at Atwood Fest

Natty Nation’s Demetrius “JAH Boogie” Wainwright performing at AtwoodFest in July (Photo by Miles Mullen)

Wainwright relied a great deal on the meditation he had been practicing most of his life to help him get through the pandemic. “It helped me write that one song,” he adds. “You have to try your best not to let your surroundings affect you mentally.”

Natty Nation did a few shows and a significant amount of online streaming during the pandemic. When the floodgates opened on June 2 — Wainwright’s birthday month — the band began booking gigs again for the summer, including a June 22 Cafe CODA birthday performance. The most significant booking so far was Natty Camp, a two-day camping-and-music festival in Hillsboro on July 2 and 3. Wainwright and his group played three sets, sharing the stage with DJs, dub artists and even some late-night silent disco performances. Even early on, the musicians saw that things are different now.

“There has been a change in the audience vibe,” Wainwright says. “They seem to be more appreciative that we’re back, and we’re more appreciative to be there. We’re rehearsing longer hours and I think we’re musically tighter than ever before. And we’ve learned not to take anything or anyone for granted,” he adds, “not family, friends or fans. We’re trying to make things better than before. It’s one of those unsaid things, but everyone still knows it.”

Even though he has a working spouse, the shutdown’s timing was incredibly challenging for Sean Michael Dargan, a local singer-songwriter and guitarist who also plays Highland bagpipes. When the lockdown began, St. Patrick’s Day was just around the corner and so were numerous scheduled gigs at Irish bars and events — all were canceled.

“St. Patrick’s week is my biggest week of the year and I lost well over 20 gigs in 10 days,” says Dargan, who also helms his own power-pop band and plays in several others. “Many thousands of dollars disappeared.”

Dargan had also just started The Rock & Roll Supper Club, a monthly dinner-and-music performance at The Bur Oak that attracted two sold-out houses before being shut down. As they did for many independent musicians, the lack of income and absence of performance opportunities quickly started taking a toll.

“Performing was an emotional and psychic outlet for me as an extrovert,” says Dargan, who has depression and bipolar disorder. “I spend a lot of time alone writing songs, but then I need to get out in front of audiences of sometimes thousands and do what I do. It can be a very constructive mania, but the pandemic has been equally destructive from both emotional and income perspectives.”

One month into the pandemic, Dargan penned a new song, “The Bright Side of the Virus,” to help him cope. The song allowed him to vent his emotions, while at the same time attracting notice on bandcamp.com. He’s hoping the creative momentum will carry him forward now that many of the limits on live performances have lifted.

Dargan also used his pandemic isolation to write and produce a new seven-song CD, “Maximum SMD Vol. 1,” mixed in his home studio and including performances by his bandmates — drummer Bill Guetschow, bassist Joe Lampe and keyboard player Aaron Scholz — with each musician recording tracks separately at home. New gigs, including a Sept. 11 show at the Garver Feed Mill with Milwaukee singer-songwriter Willy Porter, are also starting to fill in his calendar once again.

“The new normal is where we’re headed and will include some societal changes that have been overdue,” Dargan says, referencing the pandemic era’s concurrent social unrest sparked by the May 2020 murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests for racial justice.

Sean Michael Dargan playing the guitar

Sean Michael Dargan (Photo by Miles Mullen)

That shift in audience hasn’t gone unnoticed by organizations, either. Audiences have changed. WCO, for one, plans to broaden its repertoire to better represent living, non-white and female composers, as well as examine its hiring practices for musicians and guest artists.

“With last year’s huge racial reckonings, we can’t turn away from composers of color,” Loehnis says. “If we continue to just play 18th century dead white guy music, we become less relevant, so we have to change the narrative and invite other composers in. … How we take the teachings of the past 18 months and apply them to newly returned audiences will be critical.”

And then there are the changes so many have felt — this sense of not necessarily wanting to return to the way things used to be. Beia, who’d questioned how she should spend her newfound practice time, soon found herself studying music she had never learned and revisiting works she hadn’t played since high school. She also spent more time exercising, walking in nature, and — something completely new to her — learning to cook.

“I always try to think about silver linings,” Beia says. “Besides, after the third week of peanut butter sandwiches, I decided I couldn’t do this anymore.”

With the return of live performances this fall, Beia’s growing culinary expertise may once again be shuffled to the back burner as she’s called on to help satisfy what everyone hopes will be a renewed hunger for live performances.

“Artistically, I believe the reopening of society will herald a rebirth of sorts. The pause has given performing artists time to hone their skills and develop new ones, while it has afforded arts organizations a chance to reevaluate and refine their missions and operations strategies,” Beia says. “I feel that, going forward, we will find improved ways of doing what we have always done, while remembering never again to take an opportunity to make music together for granted.”

That’s music to everyone’s ears.

Michael Muckian is a Madison writer who covers arts and entertainment monthly for Madison Magazine. Reach him at mmuckian@icloud.com.

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