The 2019-20 season was supposed to be a period of transition for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, with the search for a new music director taking front and center, and then a grand finale season in 2020-21 for outgoing music director Robert Spano.
The Atlanta Opera had grand intentions of its own, a “season of all seasons” that would feature Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first part of the composer’s epic and legendary “Ring” cycle.
COVID-19 had other plans.
The season of all seasons morphed into the year unlike any other as the symphony shifted to virtual concerts in the fall, and the opera responded by buying a circus tent and launching its “Big Tent Series” of live performances at Oglethorpe University.
Live-music venues closed at the same time, some for good. Musicians turned to virtual living-room concerts to combat the loss of income an stay connected to fans. Some venues, such as Eddie’s Attic, tried socially distanced concerts, and there were occasional “drive-in” rock concerts. But for the most part, the city’s live music scene became still.
It seems that it’ll be next summer or fall before any normalcy returns.
THE ATLANTA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
The ASO began 2020 in grand style with a tour-de-force performance of excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, with Spano conducting and pianist Jorge Osorio as the featured guest. Osorio performed Manuel de Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain with nuance and precision.
Spano and the orchestra returned the next week with a program of daring choices, headlined by Two Organa, a piece by the late British composer-conductor Oliver Knussen. Spano and Knussen were friends, and the Brit guest conducted the ASO five times. Spano began the evening with an introduction that detailed their bond and offered insight into Two Organa. Spano had a unique insight: He was with Knussen when the music was composed.
By late February, we knew COVID-19 was coming, but there was uncertainty around how serious it would be. The first tangible shift came March 11 when legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman canceled his scheduled performance because of safety concerns, and Pinchas Zukerman filled in. It was a portend of the future in another way: The ASO livestreamed the sold-out concert, which featured former music director Yoel Levi as guest conductor.
A day later, stages across the city and the nation began to go silent. The pandemic was here and it was real. The ASO first canceled all performances through March 22. “These decisions have no precedent,” one of our stories said at the time, “and, at this point, no one knows if it will be days, weeks or months before normal behavior can resume.”
By April, the ASO had canceled the rest of its 2019-20 season, announcing a $3 million loss in ticket sales and amending its musicians’ contract to allow livestreams of past performances for fans hungry for classical music.
In August, the ASO announced an abbreviated seven-concert fall season from Symphony Hall without live audiences. The concerts featured smaller ensembles and were broadcast virtually to subscribers. It appeared that Spano would push his exit date with the ASO to 2022 so he can conduct the large-scale works planned for his final season.
The virtual concert series will continue through at least June. “I am so grateful that we have been able to find new avenues to continue our commitment to presenting great symphonic music,” Spano said. “We have configured our programming to allow proper social distancing and other safety protocols, and we have placed a great focus on local talent as featured soloists.”
THE ATLANTA OPERA
The year began with the dark and haunting production of Salome at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The Oscar Wilde–Richard Strauss opera was a twisted imagining of the circumstances surrounding the beheading of John the Baptist circa A.D. 30.
The stunning performance featured Georgia native Jennifer Holloway in the title role, at first stirring empathy for the young woman in an impossible situation — coveted by a murderous stepfather as well as his soldiers — before it devolved into dysfunction and death.
In March, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, with Atlanta’s Morris Robinson as the crippled Porgy, took the stage for three performances: on March 7, 8 and 10. The March 13 performance was canceled at the last minute. Catfish Row, and just about every other public venue, closed indefinitely because of the pandemic.
The opera then began blazing innovative trails. It formed The Atlanta Opera Company Players, consisting of several well-known singers — including Robinson and Jamie Barton — who are based in Atlanta and the Southeast and were without work. “The world needs art, we need something to lift us,” said Tomer Zvulun, the company’s general and artistic director.
The opera then purchased a circus tent and staged two outdoor shows — Pagliacci and The Kaiser of Atlantis — on the Oglethorpe University baseball field. Atlanta was the only major American opera company to stage fall performances. It even enlisted Emory University physician Carlos del Rio to devise safety measures. The performances, staged in front of small, socially distanced audiences, were a rousing success. The operas were filmed and are now available to watch online.
Pop music was hit particularly hard in the year of COVID.
Two of Atlanta’s mainstream rock/blues artists — Tinsley Ellis and Blackberry Smoke — were on tour far from home and had to shut down. The Indigo Girls canceled a March–April tour.
“We were on tour in Canada,” Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr told ArtsATL. “We were sitting in Ottawa, watching the news and wondering what to do. Some of our fans on social media were saying, ‘Go home. It’s inconsiderate of you to still be playing shows at this point.’ And I thought, ‘Holy cow, that makes sense.’ Then the shows were called off. The promoter said, ‘You better go home while you can, while the border is still open.’”
COVID also scuttled plans for a 30th anniversary reunion tour of the Black Crowes, prompted by a mending of fences between siblings Chris and Rich Robinson. The band was to perform June 27 at the Cellairis Amphitheatre at Lakewood. The brothers did release a three-song video of an acoustic concert from early March under the moniker Brothers of a Feather.
Atlanta artists released plenty of new music, though, with Janelle Monáe, Rising Appalachia, Widespread Panic, Summer Walker, Usher and Childish Gambino putting out new songs. Usher combined with Lil Jon and Ludacris to form the supergroup behind the single “SexBeat.”
The Indigo Girls released Look Long in May and turned to livestreaming in lieu of the tour. Emily Saliers and Amy Ray predicted that live concerts were over for the foreseeable future. “I don’t think we’ll be doing anything for a long time,” Ray prophetically told ArtsATL in May. “The entertainment industry is trying to figure out if there’s a way to safely have concerts at some point, if there’s a way to shoot new movies, all those kind of things. I think we’re probably looking at the spring of 2021 unless something drastic changes.”
COVID also canceled the 2020 Atlanta Jazz Festival, which has traditionally marked the beginning of the city’s summer season. Among those scheduled to perform were bassist Ron Carter and R&B’s India.Arie.
Atlanta singer Freddie Cole, a frequent jazz fest headliner, died June 27 at age 88. He’s a member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the brother of Nat “King” Cole and considered a premier vocalist and pianist of the jazz era.
Live music came back for one October weekend with Big Night Out, a socially distanced concert series at Centennial Olympic Park with Big Boi. It was the exception, however, and staged just before a COVID resurgence in late fall.
The club scene lost the Vista Room and The Bakery and Mammal Gallery, a DIY event venue that had hoped to open in March, did not.
For most, 2020 was the long wait. Progressive Atlanta metal band Irist symbolized the frustration. The band released its first album, Order of the Mind, in late March, then had to cancel its release-party concert and all associated tours. “We’re just trying to keep the ball rolling in some direction so we don’t fall into depression and hopelessness that are affecting a lot of people right now,” said guitarist Pablo Davila. “It’s not exactly comforting, but at least we know we’re not the only band trying to figure out what to do with ourselves.”