Throughout the country, the performing arts have taken a huge hit as their venues have been closed down during the pandemic. This six-part series, inspired by the Reading Musical Foundation, will visit our own performing arts community—theaters, musical organizations, presenters, and educational/performing institutions—to see how they have been coping, and what their plans are for 2021 and beyond.
BCTV is collaborating with local journalists to bring you the stories of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic. This media partnership is made possible in part by the support of The Wyomissing Foundation.
Healthy performing arts communities offer a balance of home-grown talent and world-class artists, in an abundance of genres. This has been the case in Reading for many years, with performers and presenters providing a smorgasbord of events each season.
The two organizations we are featuring in this story are vastly different in their mission and scope, but are both treasures that help make this community unique. And both are determined to keep the music coming.
The Friends of Chamber Music of Reading has been presenting free concerts in the WCR Center for the Arts (originally the Woman’s Club of Reading) since 1953. These intimate gatherings that join music lovers with outstanding ensembles in an acoustically perfect space are rare jewels, and the hall is nearly always packed.
In recent years, FOCMReading has also held Sundays at Stirling, dinner or brunch concerts by students from the Curtis Institute at the Stirling Guest Hotel in Center Park.
For 30 years, the Berks Arts Council has presented Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest, a 10-day extravaganza (with related events throughout the year) that has put Berks County on the map. It has also presented the Bandshell Concert Series in City Park since 1971, drawing audiences from the whole county to share summer evenings with each other and with bands from all over the country, playing music ranging from bluegrass to reggae, blues to salsa, and everything in between. And BAC has also presented the Reading Blues Fest, its newest venture, for the past two years.
While Covid-19 stopped the music temporarily, both FOCM and BAC are committed to bringing it all back in 2021.
Friends of Chamber Music of Reading
Anyone who believes that chamber musicians and their audiences are living in the past must check out the FOCMReading Facebook page. Rather than wringing their hands over the lack of live concerts, this organization has fully embraced the virtual world, with high-quality videos of ensembles performing, masked, in the WCR Center for the Arts.
According to the Friends executive director, Shari Gleason-Mayrhofer, this is thanks in large part to serendipity.
“We’re very lucky, because David Hall joined our board in April of 2019,” she said. “He is a professional videographer and amateur musician, who came to a concert and loved it.”
Hall, who owns Lone Cricket Productions, a Shillington-based commercial film and video production company, created the viral video “Kid Superintendent” for the Reading School District.
When, in the fall of 2019, the Aletheia Piano Trio was performing for a Friends concert, he worked with them on a video project featuring the musicians performing the Fanny Mendelssohn Trio in D minor.
With this video under his belt, Hall was able to help the Friends pivot to virtual performances, after they had to cancel the remainder of their 2019-20 season. (All the musicians were paid for the canceled concerts, thanks to generous donors.)
Gleason-Mayrhofer said they chose three concerts from the lineup they had already scheduled for the 2020-21 season to present virtually, beginning with David Kim and Friends on Oct. 4, 2020. Originally presented as a live stream on Facebook as a watch party, then aired on BCTV, and finally premiered on YouTube. The concert is still available to view on YouTube, along with all the subsequent videos.
After that, the Jasper String Quartet performed Dec. 9, and the Aeolus String Quartet gave their concert on Wednesday, Jan. 20 at 3:30 p.m., playing Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 131.
Rather than film the musicians onstage at the WCR, Hall has asked them to sit in the empty audience area, so he can move the camera in close, lovingly focusing on each player with a musician’s sensitivity to the phrasing and shifting lines. He bathes the films in warm sepia tones, the lamps glowing like candlelight, as if in a 19th-century salon.
“I wanted something that we could say, ‘This is a beautiful thing in itself,’” Gleason-Mayrhofer said, “rather than a stand-in for a WCR live concert. . . It looks like a film noir; it’s incredibly striking.”
She said the response has been very good overall, and the organization has continued to be supported by its patrons, as well as the Reading Musical Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, among other donors. The Presser Foundation awarded FOCMReading a grant for video production, since it is a response to Covid-19.
This season will consist of five concerts instead of the usual eight; the remaining two will be given by the Merz Trio in April and by the Brentano String Quartet in May (dates TBA).
Gleason-Mayrhofer said the FOCMReading hopes to have a live 2021-22 season, perhaps with live-streaming for people not yet comfortable with coming out. She said the organization wants to continue its relationship with Stirling and the Curtis Institute, and its outreach program for local schools, when it’s safe.
“Once things open up and people are comfortable, they’ll be starving for live performances,” she said. “We have such a loyal audience.”
For information on FOCMConcerts and to donate, visit www.chambermusicreading.org. To hear the latest concert by the Aeolus String Quartet, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DotZGnTCPfg&list=PLGXDh9cHE7K0aonoJtCWU25szurLixape.
Berks Arts Council
The Berks Arts Council had big plans for the 30th annual Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest last spring. The massive, 10-day event is a complex enterprise with hundreds of interlocking parts, attended by thousands of fans from all over the country, many of whom buy their tickets the moment sales are opened each December.
Meggan Kerber, BAC’s executive director, said the annual Art of Jazz Show had the artworks ready to display at the GoggleWorks as part of the kickoff to the festival when, on March 13, everything was closed down. The show was eventually hung on July 7, and opened to the public on July 13, where it could be visited for more than a month. BAC also created a virtual show, which can still be seen on its website.
But the Jazz Fest had to be rescheduled. Ticketholders were told to hold onto their tickets.
Kerber said both the Jazz Fest and the annual holiday show will happen this year.
Meanwhile, beginning last March, the BAC began a series, Jazz Fest Encore, online, allowing fans to view past concerts on the BJF Vimeo channel and Facebook. “We had a huge audience for that; it allowed us to stay in front of our audience and patrons,” Kerber said. “Our fans spent 5,500 hours viewing 20 concerts during Jazz Fest, and we continued for nine weeks, with 32 concerts. By May, fans had spent 7,700 hours. We went from 1,400 to 21,000 followers on Facebook.”
She said the BAC Bandshell Concerts, canceled last summer, will resume in July with artists booked last year.
The Reading Blues Fest, which usually happens in late fall, will be put on hold this year. Ernesto said Berks Jazz Fest will include many blues artists, as usual, and two additional blues concerts.
He said all the hotel venues are still in place for the festival, and some of the shows will be presented outdoors.
Kerber said that over the past year, BAC has continued to focus on fine arts, particularly student artists. The juried Fast Lane Arts for secondary school artists, a collaboration with the GoggleWorks and the Berks Intermediate Unit, was held virtually. In addition, BAC and the Greater Reading Chamber Alliance created an Art Walk, installing the works in storefront windows throughout downtown Reading.
They also partnered with the Reading Parking Authority and the Downtown Improvement District to call on local artists for works on the theme “Hope, Healing and Unity.” There are now 28 pieces installed in parking garages at Seventh and Cherry streets and Fourth and Cherry streets and in BARTA bus shelters.
Kerber pointed out that the arts are vital to people’s mental and emotional health at all times, but especially during difficult times.
“I’ve been told (by some people) that the arts aren’t essential,” she said. “But they are essential. Music and the fine arts have played an integral role during this time of Covid-19. It’s critical to support the arts.
“We know how important our programs are to the community, and we’re doing everything we can to provide them. We’re very blessed that we have over 300 volunteers. If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t be here.”
Over the past year, Ernesto has been in close touch with many jazz musicians and their agents, and has seen the effect of the pandemic on their lives.
“All musicians are hurting, national and local,” he said. “There’s just no work. Major musicians are collecting unemployment (if they are eligible). The whole industry is suffering, including production people, venues. This has decimated the arts.
“The whole concept of agents and agencies has changed. Some agencies have folded, and individual agents are forming small, boutique agencies. . . There’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a sad time for the industry.”
He said some musicians are working on composing, arranging and preparing to release and share recordings with their fans.
“Thank God for the technology,” he said. “But they all want to play in front of people.”
For information on the Berks Arts Council’s many programs, to donate, or to become involved, visit www.berksarts.org. For information on Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest 2021, visit www.berksjazzfest.com. To view Jazz Fest Encore concerts, visit https://vimeo.com/channels/1553672. To see the Fast Lane Art Show, visit https://berksarts.org/index.php/fast-lane-art-gallery-2020/.