Another Round of Shifting Plans: Baltimore Choral Arts

Five choruses with plans for concerts in January or February 2022 share how they made the decision to either reschedule or proceed. Baltimore Choral Arts is moving ahead as planned with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on February 27. See the full series here.

The COVID-imposed retreat from in-person performances ended for Baltimore Choral Arts on June 6, 2021, with a concert in the parking lot of a suburban Baltimore church. Executive director Jack Fishman refers to it as the “cicada concert,” because at the time, the much-talked-about Brood X cicadas were at peak volume in the Eastern United States. They were “chirping at 90 decibels,” he says. “It was 95 degrees out. I mean, it was not a great experience, but it felt so rewarding to be back. You could tell how badly people missed real concerts.”  

The chorus made its return to the concert hall in early November, and a month later it gave its Christmas concert. A February 27 performance of Carmina Burana will go on as scheduled. According to Fishman, the Omicron surge has slightly increased the frustration level in his choral community, but “because we're being very careful with all our COVID protections and testing, I think people are okay” with the plan to proceed.   

Making the Decision 

In a career that goes back four decades, Fishman says COVID has driven more meetings than any topic he can remember. In the course of their discussions, he, his staff, and his board have settled on two primary strategies to guide their actions.  

Maintain connections to your singers and your audience. 

Early in the pandemic, Fishman recalls, “we sat down with our board and decided that our guiding principle would not be money, not panicking over the budget, but how are we going to maintain connections to two very important groups: our audience, but equally important, our singers,” who are mostly volunteers. For the first year of the pandemic, the answer was virtual connections: a private Facebook page, Zoom rehearsals, and group discussions for the chorus and video interviews with musicians and virtual choir productions for the audience. Fishman feels the effort to maintain singer-to-singer connections has been successful, but “the final word on whether we've lost audiences may not be known for years.” Still, response to concerts so far this season has only encouraged the chorus to move ahead with planned performances. “The audiences have been enthusiastic and really grateful to be there,” Fishman says. 

For Baltimore Choral Arts, the resumption of in-person performances has revealed a lesson about social media and digital music distribution, says Fishman: “Now that we're doing live concerts, we don't need two-hour-long videos.” Instead, they’re producing five- or ten-minute recordings featuring a single piece of music, accompanied by a bit of talk. The goal remains the same, says Fishman: “All the while, we are asking ourselves, how does it connect singers to each other and how does it connect to the audience?”  

Digest the research and decide what you’re comfortable with. 

Throughout the pandemic, Fishman says decision-makers at Baltimore Choral Arts have used the COVID Risk and Vaccine Tracker at to assess the level of risk their singers and audiences might be facing. They set up a grid emulating CovidActNow’s color scheme, with bright red representing the highest risk level. At one point well ahead of last year’s return to in-person concerts, they took the position that “we're not going to go back to live concerts until we're out of the bright red.” Using that system, “we didn't have to have a two-hour debate,” he says. It was helpful at the time, Fishman feels, but “at this point, we're not using that system as much, because Omicron is different than Delta, and it doesn't seem as relevant.” He is still looking at the numbers, though. When they shot up after Christmas, the chorus canceled rehearsals. More recently, “they’ve come way down, especially in Maryland,” Fishman notes, “but I think it's good to be careful and to talk about what we feel comfortable doing. The fact that Omicron seems to be causing many less hospitalizations is one of the reasons we feel comfortable moving forward.” 

Health and Safety Protocols Currently in Place 

On January 10, Baltimore Choral Arts announced a set of concert policies updated in response to the Omicron variant.  

Proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 AND booster shot, if eligible, will now be required to attend the remaining performances of the 2021–22 season. Please provide one of the following at our concerts: 

  • COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card 

  • Photocopy of Vaccination Record Card 

  • Digital image of Vaccination Record Card on mobile device or tablet 

  • Vaccination status on medical mobile apps including Bindle and Clear. 

PLEASE NOTE: Proof of a negative COVID-19 test will not be acceptable for entry at this time. Full vaccination is also required for our staff, volunteers, and members of our chorus. 

Masks ARE required at all indoor performances this season. Children who have not been fully vaccinated by the concert date will not be admitted. We will be implementing social distance seating at all venues. 

The chorus’s February 27 performance will take place at its primary concert venue, Shriver Hall, which is owned by Johns Hopkins University. The university established many of the protocols, says Fishman, and “we're grateful that they're doing it for us. They're one of the leaders in researching about COVID.” Hopkins did not insist on booster shots. Fishman says that requirement was prompted by the increasing availability of boosters and their proven effectiveness against Omicron. A negative test will not be an acceptable substitute for vaccinations because verifying that status could become challenging for front-of-house staff to manage. One piece planned for the program has been cut in order to shorten the concert and eliminate intermission. Since resuming in-person concerts, Fishman says Baltimore Choral Arts has communicated health and safety notices to its patrons via e-blasts and Facebook posts. 

Learning from an Unexpected Past, Planning for an Unpredictable Future 

In addition to continuing to watch the numbers, in the longer term Fishman plans to be watching his peers. How will other Baltimore performing arts organizations respond to shifts in the pandemic? “It's very important to keep people safe. I don't mean to belittle that,” he says. “But it's also important to have people comfortable about feelings. So if nobody else is changing their COVID requirements, we're not going to. On the other hand, if almost everybody is changing, we will think pretty hard about loosening it up.” He feels confident enough about the future to be planning a 10-day European tour in October. And he believes developments in medical science will eventually make people feel more comfortable about gathering in public. “We may be wearing masks longer than any of us want to. We may be doing socially distant seating longer than we want to.” But he says, “I'm convinced that people will not lose their love of live concerts, that they'll come back to it. I just don't know when.” 

Read the full "Another Round of Shifting Plans" series here.