Coping with COVID: BPO scrambles to preserve season

Coping with COVID: BPO scrambles to preserve season

By George Basler 

The Binghamton Philharmonic’s 2020-21 season began with a whimper when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of a BPO Beethoven Cycle concert, set for Nov. 14  at the The Forum in Binghamton. 

Now, the orchestra’s annual Home for the Holidays concert, scheduled for Dec. 12, is in jeopardy, and concerts planned for winter and spring are in limbo. 

But that doesn’t mean the orchestra is throwing in the towel for the season, Executive Director Paul Cienniwa said earlier this month. Instead, he and other staffers are working on alternative plans to keep bringing live music to the community, even as they deal with frustrations and disappointments of a very tough year. 

“We decided we can’t tell the future,” Cienniwa said. “Rather than call off the season, we choose a more optimistic route.” 

This “optimistic route” involves scheduling a series of “Social Gathering Concerts” for smaller audiences throughout the season. 

The first two programs were set for Oct. 10 and Oct. 24 at the Double Tree in downtown Binghamton. Philharmonic principal cellist Hakan Tayga was scheduled to perform Oct. 10 while concertmaster Uli Speth and principal pianist Tomoko Kanamaru were set for Oct. 24 (this Saturday). Attendance was to be limited to 45 persons for each concert. 

Again, however, COVID-19, has scrambled these plans. The Oct. 10 concert, which was sold out, has been postponed until Nov. 14 after a rise in the number of COVID-9 cases led state officials to declare part of Broome County “a yellow zone.” The designation limited attendance at social gatherings to no more than 25 persons. 

Meanwhile, the Philharmonic has moved Saturday’s concert to the Family Life Church, 157 Clark St., Vestal, which is outside the yellow zone. The event will begin at 7 p.m. 

The BPO then plans to continue the Social Gathering Concerts into next year “to keep in touch with our audience,” Cienniwa said. The next one is being planned for Dec. 5 at Temple Concord, 9 Riverside Drive, Binghamton. 

In addition, the Philharmonic is continuing work on a project to digitize 20 years of tape recordings of performances conducted by Fritz Wallenberg, the founder of the Philharmonic’s predecessor, the Binghamton Symphony. The work is being done in partnership with Newclear Studios of Windsor. Once digitized, the Philharmonic will share the recordings with local radio for broadcast and upload them to the Philharmonic’s website and its YouTube channel for free public access, the orchestra’s newsletter says. 

Even as they continue to operate, however, Philharmonic officials are conscious of the bottom line. For that reason, they rejected the idea of streaming concerts on-line. The price tag for such concerts — including costs for rehearsals and recording the event — is around $30,000, Cienniwa said. That is too high for the Philharmonic to break even. 

COVID-19 also forced the Philharmonic to cancel three “soft opening” concerts in September and October. 

The concerts, planned for two local churches, were intended to replace the opening night concert at The Forum. This plan unraveled, however, when a state COVID representative advised the Philharmonic that churches could not hold large-scale events that were not church-related. 

Nonetheless, officials still hope to salvage some of the concerts originally planned for The Forum this season, Cienniwa said. These include “Tapestry of New York” in January, an appearance by Cherish the Ladies in March, “The Music of ‘Star Wars'” in May and a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in June. 

The Philharmonic could stage these concerts at a minimum of 25 percent capacity if the state and county give the go-ahead, Cienniwa said. One plan to do this, and still break even, is to separate each concert into two smaller performances with different audiences. 

“There is no reason that the Philharmonic cannot make it through the pandemic,” Cienniwa said. 

As for the future, Cienniwa sees the next two seasons as “recovery years” for the Philharmonic. COVID-19 has forced the orchestra to take stock and look at new ways to reach out to the community, he said. 

This was on display over the summer when the Philharmonic produced “Concerts in Every Corner,” a series of nearly 20 “pop up” solo concerts at community centers, nursing homes and school lunch pickup sites. The concerts were a success, drawing collective audience of more than 500 persons, Cienniwa said. Money from the federal Payroll Protection Program supported the series. 

Staffers are now planning a series of three chamber music concerts for next summer. Each concert would be performed in Binghamton and a rural area of the county, Cienniwa said. One, featuring a brass quintet, would be a free outdoor concert. 

“The pandemic has forced us to look outside what we were,” Cienniwa said. “And that’s been beneficial.”

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