About three years ago, Brandon Elliott began thinking about how his choir would celebrate its 10th anniversary.
“I had requested a sabbatical from the board, and the main purpose was to craft and curate a beautiful season,” said Elliott, artistic director of Irvine’s Choral Arts Initiative, which has gained a national reputation for its dedication to performing new works.
“And then, of course, COVID happened.”
Choirs became emblematic of the danger of the virus. The Skagit Valley Chorale made the national news in the spring of 2020. During two rehearsals held March 3 and March 10 in Mount Vernon, Washington, the virus spread rapidly. Ultimately, 53 people were sickened and two died. All but one had attended both rehearsals.
Choirs, like all performing arts organizations, have been forced to adapt to a confusing new world of restrictions, and Elliott said he quickly became well-versed with virus behavior and HVAC systems. “I had to steer the ship through unprecedented times.”
In other ways, the last 18 months have brought more focus and dedication to the choir’s higher purpose, Elliott said.
“What stayed consistent and became even more important is our true north — our mission and vision. I’ve been telling all of our stakeholders in the organization that season 10 is not the season 10 that we had been planning for and had in mind, but it’s still perfectly aligned with where we are. And so in many ways I’m kind of grateful. But it kind of shook up a lot of my (plans) as far as what the next 10 years will look like. It’s just completely different.”
The upcoming opening concert that launches the choir’s 10th anniversary season, titled “Together,” tries to capture the things everyone has been missing over the last year and a half, Elliott said. The program of 10 works “allows listeners to be wrapped in a lush and comforting soundscape,” according to a description on the company’s website. “It’s a time to come together, reflect, and reaffirm: This is how harmony and unison feels.”
At the same time, the program reflects Elliott’s desire to continually challenge his audiences with new music that pushes boundaries — a trademark of his choir that he’s clearly proud of.
“I try to pepper (programs) with a couple pieces that are perhaps challenging for the listener to experience, but to really also … expand their landscape of what ‘new music’ is and what it sounds like. But in this particular program, I really wanted to just program a selection of music that’s beautifully lush. And, you know, some pieces are so simplistic, but that’s where the beauty lies.”
Bringing the Outdoors Inside
Elliott has no illusions about post-pandemic life. He acknowledged that there will be a new normal whose parameters are as yet unknown. And he understands the trepidation that audience and choir members will feel about returning to the concert hall.
“We do not want to be that next Washington choir. We want to make sure we do everything we can to be safe. I have an EdD after my name, but sometimes I feel like it should be a Ph.D. in epidemiology, because as choral directors, we really have to be our own scientists and do our own research.”
To that end, Elliott brought in some experts. “I thought, ‘Let’s cut through all of the noise on social media and see what the actual science is telling us.’ We partnered with the USC Keck School of Medicine. They’re epidemiologists. They’ve been offering these free consultations to choral organizations, and it’s been highly beneficial.”
Elliott is conforming to existing regulations, and he’s taking extra precautions as well.
“We are requiring masks for all guests, regardless of their status as far as vaccinations. We also are going to have a capacity restriction. That’s not required by the county, but we want to do it. It’s just an extra measure of safety.”
There will be some concessions that will result in less-than-ideal performing conditions, Elliott acknowledged. “The HVAC system is really robust, and that will be on the whole time. Normally during a concert that’s turned off because it does make a low rumbling noise.”
• “Birdsong” by Eric Nelson – west coast premiere
• “Be not Afeard” by Cecilia McDowall – United States premiere
• “Healing Heart” by Eric William Barnum
• “The Sometimes Joy of Reminiscing” by Zachary Ritter – west coast premiere
• “And That Night” by Kristian Rodriguez – west coast premiere
• “How do I love thee?” by Gabriel Jackson
• “The Long Willows” by Matthew Lyon Hazzard
• “Light Shines” by Juhi Bansal – west coast premiere
• “all I have” by Lauren Bydalek – west coast premiere
• “Sweet Rivers” by Shawn Kirchner
When: 4:30 p.m., Nov. 7
Where: St. Mark Presbyterian Church, 2200 San Joaquin Hills Road, Newport Beach
Tickets: $15 students; $35 general admission
Elliott said that singers, too, will take special care. “When they’re not singing, their masks will be on. They will remove their masks only while singing, even though they’re a fully vaccinated chorus.”
The venue, St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, can be ventilated to allow substantial outdoor air to flow through, but it comes at a cost, Elliott said. “We’re opening up every possible outlet that allows outdoor air exchange. So every window, every door will be open wide. Doesn’t that mean that there’s going to be some sounds coming from outside? Yes. And that’s OK. I’d love for it to be silent and have no road noise, but we’re just going to let that go.”
Elliott’s choir won’t be deterred by a small audience, he said.
“As a new music ensemble, we realize that we’re a pretty niche offering. A large audience for us is 200 people. If we can get that many people to sit through a concert and enjoy a 60- to 75-minute program of brand new music, that’s a huge victory because we can’t lean on the popular dead composers like Bach and Beethoven to draw an audience.”
Elliott said he was grateful that computers and other technology kept the choir performing for an audience, if only virtually, over the last 18 months. The experience helped keep the choir engaged with audiences, yet it also served as a reminder of what’s lost when the concert hall closes.
“I will say that working virtually held a lot of positives. We did do two virtual choir performances, which were great. But they also instilled a deeper appreciation for how much we missed in-person singing and how there really is no replacement for that. And both things affirm the importance of what we do.”
Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.