This article was published in the Hamilton Spectator on June 10, 2020
By Leonard Turnevicius
It’s on the mind of every chorister from Hamilton to Timbuktu during this pandemic pause: When will choirs come together again in-person?
Not until the development of a COVID-19 vaccine or drug treatments with 95 per cent efficacy, according to Dr. Lucinda Halstead, medical director at the Medical University of South Carolina Evelyn Trammell Institute for Voice and Swallowing, and president elect of the Performing Arts Medicine Association.
In her May 5 presentation for a National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) webinar, Halstead went on to say that until a vaccine or safe treatments are developed, “social distancing is key — mask, gloves, spacing is going to be really ideal.” The scenario she outlined for a return to group singing with the least amount of risk would entail, among others, at-the-door screening consisting of temperature and pulse oximetry checks administered in a private space by a non-choir person. She also said that there was no solution to singing without a mask “unless you’re wearing the mask or the hoods that the orthopedic surgeons wear which are essentially space suits with an oxygen supply.”
Not surprisingly, Halstead’s words rumbled like a seismic shock through the choral community.
“It struck me as alarmist when I first read it a few weeks ago,” said Musicata music director, Roger Bergs, for The Spectator’s ongoing series on how local choirs and their directors are weathering the pandemic pause. “More research has come out since questioning some of the conclusions it reached. Nevertheless, we have to respect any official guidelines we receive. At Musicata, we are subject as anyone else to governmental regulations. We hope that if the specific issue of singing is addressed, that those guidelines will be clear and capable of taking into account all sorts of variabilities — size of choir, masks or not, size of building, amount of distancing possible, etc.”
And until government regulations permit group singing, what then?
“Under current conditions, all that we can do is plan,” said Bergs. “But when things are loosened up, our home base for rehearsals and performances, Central Presbyterian Church, with its good acoustics and enormous interior space, should prove to be an enormous asset. The large sanctuary would allow for rehearsals to resume with safe distancing, perhaps limited to sectional rehearsals to begin with. Central could allow for a socially-distanced seating arrangement for audiences.”
Bergs feels that by being a chamber choir, Musicata could quickly adapt to a fluid situation. Among the levers that could be pulled for the coming season are setting concert dates in stone shortly beforehand, planning ad hoc performances, offering shorter concerts and multiple consecutive performances of a program, plus recording a performance should a live version before an audience prove prohibitive.
Should circumstances allow, then next season Bergs and Musicata would present a subscription series of three concerts, one focusing on Christmas, another on musical theatre with pianist-composer Rosalind Mills, plus the “Old Meets New” concert which was postponed from April 26 and was to have featured George Shearing’s “Songs and Sonnets from Shakespeare” as well as the première of Canadian composer Bonnie Penfound’s “Five Love Poems of Robert Herrick.”
Plans are still afoot for Musicata to record three works they’d premièred over the past few years and to sing at the Royal Canadian College of Organists’ 2021 Organ Festival Canada in Hamilton next July.
In addition to directing Musicata, Bergs holds down a handful of other part-time positions. He’s music director at Central Presbyterian, instructor in music at Redeemer University and sessional lecturer in music at the U of T where he teaches composition and theory, adjunct professor of worship at Toronto Baptist Seminary, and a private composition teacher. On the side, he’s currently editing a hymnal in collaboration with a pastor colleague.
In spite of the loss of personal contact with musicians and audiences not to mention a chunk of his income, Bergs is experiencing one bright side to this pandemic pause.
“A sense of respite,” said Bergs. “Something I have not had in years.”
Leonard Turnevicius writes about classical music for The Hamilton Spectator.