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Classical 101

Coronavirus In Ohio: Local Arts Organizations Pay Steep Price

color photo of empty interior of the Ohio Theatre
JRD Photography
Wikimeia Commons

As Ohio’s COVID-19 crisis continues, Columbus-area arts organizations have canceled dozens of performances by local and visiting artists, world premieres of new musical works, exhibitions, classes, international tours and other events this spring. All anticipate major financial losses in the wake of Gov. Mike DeWine’s executive order banning large gatherings.

In a March 30 interview on WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher, Tom Katzenmeyer, president and CEO of the Greater Columbus Arts Council, described the current situation of Columbus’ arts and culture sector as “about as dire and grim as you can get.”

For some local arts organizations, the cancelations – which affect children and adults, student artists and professionals – have erased significant educational opportunities and put an abrupt and early end to the 2019-20 performance season, while other organizations are keeping events in May and later months on their schedules, with no assurance that those events will go on as planned.

Here is what some Columbus classical music organizations are facing now, in the near future and beyond.

Financial Uncertainty, Now and Later

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra has canceled nine performances between March 25 and what would have been their season-ending concert on May 2.

Denise Rehg, executive director of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, said in a recent email interview that she had anticipated the final two concerts would draw the largest audiences of the season. She now projects lost ticket revenue in the six figures.

Columbus Symphony Orchestra on stage
Credit Columbus Symphony Orchestra / Facebook

“We are hoping that most (ticket holders) will donate the tickets back to help, but it is difficult to know what the outcome will be in the end,” Rehg said. “That being said, ticket revenues against budget will take a huge blow – upwards of $200,000.”

Meanwhile, ­some of the Columbus Symphony’s donors have stepped forward with financial gifts to help support the orchestra through the crisis. And the orchestra’s Symphony Gala fundraiser, originally scheduled for April 25, has been rescheduled for August 22.

“We do some other smaller fundraisers. The Gala is, however, by far our largest and the most significant,” said Rehg. “It is vital to the budget.”

Janet Chen, executive director of the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, says she estimates $60,00-70,000 in lost ticket revenue from the three concerts that ProMusica has canceled so far.

In addition, the orchestra is paying some fees to guest artists who will be unable to perform on the orchestra’s current season.

“We have paid our musicians a portion of their contracted amount for the canceled services in April, to try to do everything we can to support our musicians,” Chen said.

ProMusicia Chamber Orchestra at the Southern Theare
Credit ProMusicia Chamber Orchestra / promusicacolumbus.org

Performance fees for world-class artists routinely run into the tens of thousands of dollars – something Columbus’ concert presenting organizations know well.

“Small, volunteer-run organizations like ours already run on a very tight budget, so anything that impacts our ticket sales, expenses or future fundraising is of grave concern,” said Katherine Borst Jones, president of the Board of Trustees of Chamber Music Columbus. Her organization offers an annual series of six concerts featuring world-class musicians from around the globe.

The COVID-19 emergency forced Chamber Music Columbus to cancel the final two concerts on its 2019-20 season. Those concerts were to feature the renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw in performance with the Brentano String Quartet, and Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic, in recital with Anna Polonsky, a noted piano soloist with Columbus ties.

Canceled concerts don’t always translate into canceled artist fees. Jones says the musicians booked for Chamber Music Columbus' now-canceled concerts, and the musicians’ managers, have waived payment of the contracted artists’ fees. The Chamber Music Columbus board is working to reschedule these artists to perform next season.

“We're very fortunate these artists are working with us to reschedule their appearances,” said Jones. “We spend tens of thousands of dollars bringing these world class artists to Columbus and marketing our concerts, so to lose that income and that community impact could be crippling.”

It’s too early to tell whether Early Music in Columbus will have to pay fees to artists booked for concerts now removed from their season. The COVID-19 emergency has all but brought an end to the 40th anniversary season of Early Music in Columbus, which presents six concerts each season – two featuring the Columbus-based early music ensemble The Early Interval, and the rest featuring early music ensembles from around the world – along with other events.

In addition to canceling a free March community engagement event to celebrate Early Music Month, Early Music in Columbus has had to cancel performances scheduled for March and April by two visiting ensembles, including the Cleveland-based Apollo’s Fire. That booking – for a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by orchestra, chorus, children’s choir and vocal soloists – came with a five-figure price tag.


Early Music in Columbus program director Sarah Hixon says she is negotiating with ensembles and agents to resolve financial disparities in a way that supports the performers and aligns with Early Music in Columbus’ budget.

“In some instances, we may not be obligated to pay the performing fee,” Hixon said, “but we are trying to do what we can to help freelance musicians who are losing many months of income due to cancelations all over the country and beyond.”

If more cancelations must happen, the income loss for musicians and organizations will stretch further into the future. Although ProMusica’s concerts scheduled in May remain on the orchestra’s calendar for now, Chen anticipates that those concerts may end up having to be canceled, as well.

Chen’s is also concerned about the orchestra’s free summer concert series and its fiscal sustainability in the future.

“We will absolutely continue to try and serve the community with music and art during this remarkable time, but the worry is how to plan ahead into next season and beyond,” Chen said. “ProMusica’s Summer Music Series in August is free to the community – we draw no earned revenues from this event and rely one hundred percent on sponsorship.”

“And will we have the means to support the future commissions and premieres we have planned for next season and beyond?" Chen continued. "So the challenge is, how do we manage the future landscape of ProMusica and of the arts in Columbus as a result of COVID-19?”

A Cultural Cost

While local professional musicians are losing income from canceled concerts, local students are missing out on potentially life-changing educational experiences because of cancelations in the face of the COVID-19 emergency. Free engagement experiences for youth and senior citizens also are disappearing.

The Columbus Symphony Orchestra has canceled all rehearsals of the Columbus Symphony Youth Orchestra through at least April 3 but still lists the youth orchestra’s April 26 concert on its website.

The Columbus Children’s Choir (CCC) has canceled four of its concerts in March and April and is expecting to cancel more this season. The choir’s management anticipates that ticket revenue lost from these canceled concerts won’t be their only shortfalls.

“CCC projects losses of well over $10,000, between end-of-year donations, ticket revenue, low enrollment for summer programs and merchandise sales,” said Kerry Haberkern, managing director of the Columbus Children’s Choir. 

Credit Columbus Children's Choir / Facebook

Beyond the missed opportunities to perform here at home, the Columbus Children’s Choir’s top ensemble, the New World Singers, had been scheduled to perform this July on a tour of the U.K. and in the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales. The 2020 Llangollen festival has now been canceled, with no plans to reschedule.

But Haberkern says the COVID-19 emergency’s biggest potential threat is to CCC’s ability to recruit new tuition-paying members. The choir’s most effective means of recruiting new members is to mail information packets to school music teachers, which teachers in turn give to their students.

Now that Ohio’s primary and secondary schools will not be in session until at least May 1, those recruitment packets won't get to the teachers – or to their students – anytime soon.

“This is a big hit for us,” Haberkern said. “As many 60 singers join CCC annually through this channel, and school music teachers expect this communication. Local teachers are our biggest and best recruiters. Our contact with teachers, and teachers’ contact with students, has drastically changed.”

Now, Haberkern says, Columbus Children’s Choir staff plan to recruit members via email with teachers and with posts on social media, and will send out recruitment packets bu mail in late summer or early fall.

College-age student musicians will also suffer the loss of educational opportunities as a result of the ban on gatherings.

Chamber Music Columbus guest artists clarinetist Anthony McGill and soprano Dawn Upshaw had been booked to give masterclasses for Ohio State University students. Now, even as Ohio State students finish their current semesters online, the student musicians who had been slated to perform in those masterclasses will not have the opportuty to receive once-in-a-lifetime coachings from masters musicians.

Chamber Music Columbus’ Katherine Borst Jones says she hopes those masterclasses can be rescheduled for next season.

ProMusica’s Janet Chen says the orchestra has had to cancel “several” scheduled outreach and education events, including two free performances at Columbus Metropolitan Library branches and Open Rehearsals for Senior Citizens.  

“The cancelation of our outreach programs will have significant cultural impact on our residents and communities,” said Chen. “Many of the young attendees have never seen a musical instrument up close, or been to an actual live music concert. Without these programs due to the COVID-19 cancelations, we are not able to fully provide the public value of arts and music that are so important to making a community culturally rich and vibrant.”

World Premieres Delayed

In addition to causing financial and educational loss, the local arts cancelations have also undone plans for major performing events, including what would have been the world premieres of three new musical works – two of them by two Columbus-area composers.

ProMusica’s now-canceled April concerts were to feature the world premiere of the orchestra’s 68th commission, a double concerto by cellist and composer Joshua Roman. Roman himself was slated to perform as cello soloist alongside ProMusica's Creative Partner and Principal Guest Artist, violinist Vadim Gluzman.

photo of Antoine Clark conducting the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra
Credit Ronald Hoehn / antoinetclark.com
McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra

The world premieres of musical works by two Columbus composers were scratched when the McConnell Arts Center Chamber Orchestra (MACCO) in Worthington canceled what was to be its final concert of the season. The cancelation of the orchestra’s May 3 concert, “Do More Than Listen, Hear Our Voices: Voices of Freedom,” came as a result of the McConnell Arts Center’s closure through May 10.

The May 3 concert of MACCO was to feature the world premiere of a tone poem by Mark Lomax and the world premiere of work by Linda Kernohan, which MACCO commissioned.

MACCO music director Antoine Clark says he hopes to reschedule the performances of Kernohan’s and Lomax’s works.

“The biggest impact  (of the concert cancelation) will be on our musicians, who are pay-per-service musicians. Since we cannot collect ticket revenue, we cannot pay them for unfulfilled services,” Clark said. “Many freelance musicians have lost a lot of work.”

Any Silver Linings?

There are some glimmers of hope amid the loss of live arts events for the community to engage with in-person.

Like the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Music Columbus reports that the COVID-19 emergency has prompted some supporters to make special monetary donations. Also, Hixon says so far about a third of Early Music in Columbus’ ticket holders have chosen to donate their tickets for the canceled concerts back to Early Music in Columbus.

Other organizations are hoping to receive similar ticket donations, instead of requests for ticket refund.

And, for now at least, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, ProMusica Chamber Orchestra, Early Music in Columbus, the Columbus Children’s Choir, CATCO and BalletMet still list performances through early June on their calendars.

Some or all of those performances will likely be canceled, if the ban on large gatherings and shelter-at-home order is extended.

No one knows when Columbus artists will be able to return to live rehearsals and performances. When that day comes, Jones says, people will crave the experience of being face-to-face again with art.

“When we get back to concerts for a live public, I think we will see an upsurge of concert goers,” said Jones. “It is my sense that we will all realize how important live music is for all. And we will appreciate the opportunity to perform in groups as well as to listen together in groups.”

Disclaimer: Classical 101 host Jennifer Hambrick serves on the board of the Columbus Children’s Choir.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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