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Spivey Hall, on the Clayton State University campus in Morrow, is set to open its 31st season this Sunday with an in-person recital by pianist Jeremy Denk. Patrons will first have to decide if they’re comfortable with its lack of Covid protocols.

Clayton State is part of the University System of Georgia and unlike most other performance venues in metro Atlanta and across the country, Spivey Hall is not allowed to have mandates for vaccinations, masks or tests. The Spivey staff will be masked, however, and patrons will be encouraged — though not required — to mask up. All shows will have the audience capped at 200, roughly half of capacity, to allow checkerboard distancing within the auditorium.

Sam Dixon

Sam Dixon acknowledges the lack of Covid protocols may impact Spivey’s in-person concerts.

In contrast, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra opened its in-person season earlier this month in a flood of emotion and gratitude. In part, it’s because of a banner that reads “Ensuring Your Safety.” The ASO has a mandatory vaccine policy, where proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test taken within 72 hours is required to enter Symphony Hall.

The Atlanta Opera announced similar measures (including proof of vaccination or a recent negative PCR test) to attend its upcoming in-person performances at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The opera also plans to have a reduced audience to ensure social distancing.

“I think the private non-profit and for-profit arts companies that require proof of vaccinations and masks may have something of a competitive advantage at this point in a public health pandemic,” says former Spivey executive and artistic director Sam Dixon, who stepped down earlier this summer after 17 years. These policies, he acknowledges, may result in “smaller attendance for presenters such as Spivey Hall.”

Notably, a few dates listed as Spivey concerts will be streaming only, where the artists stay at home and produce their own event — and anyone anywhere can buy a $25 pass to watch it. 

New Spivey leadership

Beyond the pandemic, there’s also a big question about the future direction for the hall. Known as one of the best acoustical spaces in the U.S., Spivey’s reputation within the industry is arguably as the premiere recital series in the Southeast. Although Dixon has stepped away, his refined programming and influence will be heard into the next few seasons. (To book top-tier artists, concerts must typically be contracted several years in advance; the pandemic and visa restrictions have added complications.)

Dr. Terrence Johnson, by training a choral director (and former chorister under Robert Shaw), is chair of Clayton State’s visual and performing arts department. He is serving as interim Spivey director until a permanent replacement is hired, and is on the search committee.

“There won’t be any un-Spiveying of Spivey Hall, the bread and butter of what we’re famous for,” Johnson says of the search for Dixon’s replacement. “There’s no talk of dramatically changing Spivey programming.” Thankfully, despite the pandemic, there’s still substantial support from donors, Johnson says. As before, every Spivey event in 2021–22 will be sponsored.

The Modigliani Quartet performs at Spivey Hall on November 7. (Photo by Luc Braquet)

In terms of high-profile guests performing on stage, the season starts rather slowly, growing in number into the colder months and springtime. With luck and many more vaccinations, that strategy might prove the best plan of action. Here are a few of the highlights:

Pianist Jeremy Denk (September 26), whose thoughtful, idiosyncratic recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” has become a go-to favorite, brings to Spivey a tightly integrated program. He will open with Bach, one of his specialties, and reach into many corners of the repertoire. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor is there, a refined Black English composer from the late 19th century. The unsettled music of Frederic Rzewski and his “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” is another attention grabber. It was written in 1979, based on a folk song performed by Pete Seeger that depicted 1930s workers’ protests in South Carolina. Denk closes with Beethoven’s Op. 111, which can feel like the greatest piano sonata ever written. It’s totally abstract and deeply personal. Beethoven storms the heavens; predicts the future with syncopated jazz; unpacks and compresses humanity. (Disclosure: In a past job, I hired Denk and other Spivey guests to perform with an orchestra.)

Organ Discovery Day (October 2) celebrates Spivey’s imposing Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ, built by the Italian firm of Fratelli Ruffatti and inaugurated 30 years ago. Billed as kid-friendly, this free event lets you hear Spivey’s organist-in-residence play and describe the instrument in detail, and you can peek inside at the 4,413 pipes. Alan Morrison (October 9) plays a proper solo recital, including a world premiere and music from across the organ scene.

Modigliani Quartet (November 7) is among the freshest and most energized of recent-vintage string quartets. We’ll catch them just days after they play Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall in New York City. Their program of Schubert, Bartok and Grieg is old-school standard (in a pre-2020 sense) and should offer countless rewards.

Spivey Vocal Series

For many listeners, Spivey’s vocal series is one of the premium artistic joys of Atlanta. Opera singers in complete control of their instrument, at full power in that small room, are often overwhelming. In the best moments, it’s a deeply visceral and emotional experience, pinning you to the back of your seat. Three red-star concerts, among many:

Longtime Rolling Stones backup singer Lisa Fischer performs a solo concert at Spivey Hall in December. (Photo by Djeneba Aduayom)

— Lisa Fischer’s “The Badass & The Beautiful” (December 4) is a program for the wildly charismatic voice of the red-hot jazz-soul vocalist. Rolling Stones fans will know her from her years as a backup singer with the band, particularly her show-stealing performance on the song “Gimme Shelter.” She was featured in the Oscar-winning 2013 film 20 Feet From StardomAs a solo act, everything she sings becomes her own, whether pulled from the gospel, rock or classical songbook.

— Jakub Józef Orliński (March 6) was a rising countertenor in the early-music opera world, till he and his accompanist were asked to perform a few arias for French radio in Aix-en-Provence. It’s radio, right? They wore flipflops and casual summer clothes. But cameras as well as microphones captured the performance. Watch the video and be entranced. Eight million YouTube views can’t be wrong: This guy is special. More than a few commentators have noted that he sings like an angel and looks like Michelangelo’s David.

— Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and pianist-composer Jake Heggie (April 29). Their smashing recital program looks to be another highlight of the year. A native of Rome and Atlanta resident, Barton is a regal, intense, unforgettable presence on stage. Heggie (Dead Man Walking, Moby Dick) has composed a new song cycle for Barton, and accompanies her in classics.

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