Another Round of Shifting Plans: Choral Arts Society of Washington

Five choruses with plans for concerts in January or February 2022 share how they made the decision to either reschedule or proceed. The Choral Arts Society of Washington postponed Living the Dream, Singing the Dream (a Martin Luther King tribute concert) from January 30 to April 10. See the full series here.

After a year of virtual programming, the Choral Arts Society of Washington scheduled 15 in-person performances for its 2021-22 season. At the Kennedy Center and other venues, Choral Arts executive director Tad Czyzewski has seen concert audiences sitting “shoulder to shoulder”—evidence, he says, that “there's an appetite for people to go out and do things again.” He believes concertgoers feel safe about indulging that appetite because in the DC area there’s a high level of compliance with vaccinations, masking, and other COVID safety measures. As for the mood in the chorus, “they were just happy to sing live again,” he says. Some would tell him they were tired of masking, but they understood the reasons for it.

Developments in December made everyone pause. “Omicron scared people, rightly so,” says Czyzewski. As infection rates shot up just before Christmas, it became clear Choral Arts and its presenting partner, Washington Performing Arts, needed to reconsider plans to hold their annual Martin Luther King tribute at Washington’s Kennedy Center on January 30.

Making the Decision

The offices of both organizations were closed over the holidays, and a meeting had already been scheduled for January 4. “So from Christmas Day until January 1 we just watched what was happening,” says Czyzewski. At the meeting, “there was really quickly general consensus that we needed to postpone this concert,” he says. It helped that the two organizations have a long working relationship, notes Czyzewski, and that Washington Performing Arts also has its own choruses, “so we're asking the same questions internally.”

Two main factors drove the decision.

It would not be safe to hold the necessary rehearsals.

Although Czyzewski says they were anticipating that the infection rate would be declining by January 30, they did not expect significant improvement before the scheduled start of rehearsals on January 10. “We had not even started the music for this concert,” he says, and “even though we are spaced out, there are still the aerosols produced, even with the mask. We just felt that it was the prudent thing to do with the current level of infections of Omicron.”

An alternate date was available.

After the meeting, the two organizations quickly determined that the Kennedy Center could offer them three alternate dates. “That helped us make our decision—we wouldn't have to cancel this program completely for this year,” Czyzewski says. They chose the latest of the three, April 10, because he says it fit best into their schedules—not expecting (but certainly hoping) infection rates would be lower at that time. Although the tribute concert has traditionally been tied to Martin Luther King’s January birthday celebration, he sees the postponement “as an opportunity to continue the celebration of Dr. King, as well as the dialogue about music's ability to unite us, beyond just one specific day or month.”

For several days after the meeting, Choral Arts staff worked behind the scenes, making internal announcements, informing board members, and working with the Kennedy Center box office and marketing to implement the schedule change. According to Czyzewski, “the most complex part was the announcement outwardly that we were postponing this concert. That's what took the most coordination. We had our marketing and communication and PR departments going back and forth to make sure it was a very succinct message,” one that would ensure patrons would be able to change their bookings as seamlessly as possible. 

Health and Safety Protocols Currently in Place

Announcing the postponement in a January 13 email, Choral Arts included a list of the protocols its audiences are now expected to follow:

  • At this time, proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 and corresponding photo ID is required to attend all indoor performances and events.
  • Children under 12 years of age and patrons with a medical condition or a closely held religious belief that prevents vaccination must provide proof of either 1) a negative COVID-19 PCR test, taken within 72 hours of the performance or 2) a negative professionally administered COVID-19 antigen test taken within six hours of the performance, to attend.
  • Masks are required at all times for all patrons and visitors regardless of vaccination status in all indoor spaces at our performances.

The announcement notes that Choral Arts observes all health and safety policies established by its performance and rehearsal venues. Czyzewski says the Cleveland Clinic advised the Kennedy Center on its protocols, and “that helps us be more definitive in our decisions and our communications with our patrons.” In addition, he says every chorister has to be fully vaccinated and have a booster if they're eligible for one, no exceptions. Singers are expected to wear masks in rehearsals and N95 or KN95 masks in performances. “Luckily,” he adds, “we have a very generous donor who supplied us with all of those masks.”

Learning from an Unexpected Past, Planning for an Unpredictable Future

Thanks to a last-minute decision to rapid-test every performer on the morning of Choral Arts’ annual Christmas concerts, “I've now become an expert in administrating the BinaxNOW test,” says Czyzewski. “I never thought I would have to learn about PPE, Omicron, infection rates, all these things that never cross your mind as an executive director of a performing arts organization.”

Making last-minute decisions is, in itself, a new thing, he says: “If there's anything that COVID has taught us, it’s that we can do things with much shorter lead times than we ever knew possible.” A reopening task force that includes board members, staff, doctors, and lawyers has helped the chorus prepare for the unexpected. “When a singer tests positive after a rehearsal, if we need to change something within 24 hours, or the day of a concert or a rehearsal, we have many different scenarios in mind and communications drafted depending on what happens.”

Looking ahead to the re-scheduled April concert, Czyzewski can imagine, sadly, that another variant could come up and it won’t feel safe to rehearse. He’s seen “a lot of talk about when it transitions from being a pandemic to an endemic, and I think that is when we'll have a conversation about, do we have to continue these protocols of masks? Do we modify our thoughts on vaccinations? Do we take into consideration personal risk level? Sadly, I see us singing in masks for a while.” One thing that’s certain, he says, is that any changes Choral Arts adopts will be based on science and recommendations from government authorities.

“I think about COVID on a daily basis, and how it affects the chorus, the staff, operations,” says Czyzewski. “It's something I hope in the future doesn't take up such a prominent place in my brain every day. I just don't know when that's going to be.”

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