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Colorado musicians find new ways to share holiday season sounds during coronavirus

Singing and other forms of breathing-based music can be high risk for coronavirus transmission, pushing many groups to virtual programs

The Colorado Children's Chorale films choreography at Red Rocks for their holiday program, offered virtually for 2020. (Courtesy Colorado Children's Chorale)
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This time of year, Joel Rinsema is usually in the thick of orchestrating the holiday programming for Kantorei, a nationally acclaimed choir based in Denver.

But as with so many things in 2020, the artistic director’s job has looked very different since the coronavirus pandemic began. For one, he doesn’t get to conduct 58 of Colorado’s finest singers in bringing live holiday cheer to thousands of their neighbors.

“It’s the season for singing, and here we are and we can’t sing,” Rinsema said. 

Even as many so desperately need some holiday cheer this winter, in-person concerts are hard to come by. But that doesn’t mean that the sounds of the season are canceled; they’re just going virtual instead. Kantorei, for example, is broadcasting its 2019 Christmas concert, recorded at Denver’s historic St. John’s Cathedral, on Rocky Mountain PBS for Christmas Eve. Rinsema counts the choir lucky that it invested last year in an audio and video recording setup. 

The choir did try out a few socially distanced, pre-recorded recitals earlier this year. But a small ensemble has much different energy and impact — for the singer as well as the audience — than a choir with dozens of people, especially from the perspective of a conductor. 

“It really is like if you took a visual artist’s tools away,” Rinsema said. “You can have all these creative ideas in your head, and you can look at other pieces of art, but to not be able to create the art, it’s painful.”

As the state and country see record numbers of coronavirus cases, performing live music has become a public health hazard. Early in the pandemic, a 61-person Washington choir made headlines and was scientifically analyzed as an early superspreader event. After a multi-hour rehearsal with only one infected singer, more than half of the group ended up sick. (When accounting for probable cases, not just confirmed ones, that number rises to 87%.) Three were hospitalized; two died.

That choir practice occurred indoors, and before much of the U.S. began wearing masks. Colorado saw its own versions of singing-induced outbreaks early on in the pandemic, mostly through churches. Researchers are still looking into how to minimize viral transmission while making music, often focusing on ways to reduce aerosols — tiny droplets of liquid suspended in the air — that are a natural result of human breaths. 

Until there’s a solution, many musicians are playing it safe, even during one of the most musical times of year. In addition to the impact of coronavirus on the general population, Rinsema noted the long-term impacts of a COVID-19 infection could devastate a singer’s respiratory system. 

Some groups are offering fresh holiday programs this year, albeit often on the virtual stage. Instead of the traditional Holiday Festival, which draws thousands of attendees each year, the University of Colorado Boulder music department is offering an on-demand program that mixes songs recorded this year with some from previous years. 

“We’ll miss doing the show for thousands of people, without a doubt, but we didn’t want to put a pause to it,” said Don McKinney, the concert’s artistic director.

Half of the time spent making the program was logistical, according to McKinney. Songs were recorded in Macky Auditorium, the annual concert’s normal location — but instead of crowding into risers on the stage, musicians sang from the seats, with ample space between each person. 

The University of Colorado Boulder’s University Singers record a performance for the annual Holiday Festival, offered virtually for 2020. (Courtesy University of Colorado Boulder)

To refresh the air in the concert hall and reduce potential viral exposure, performers were required to take a 15-minute break for every 30 minutes in the hall, thus adding more time to the process. After months of work, the program — which is available until Jan. 4, 2021 — is just about an hour long.

McKinney said this year’s concert is one of the hardest things he’s done in his career. And it’s certainly different from previous Holiday Festivals; typically, the first week back from Thanksgiving break is a frenzy of rehearsals, culminating in four back-to-back performances over the weekend before students hunker down for finals. Macky was eerily quiet this December.

“That energy, we just can’t recreate it,” McKinney said. “But I do hope that people viewing from home will feel our sincerity.”

Finding connection and comfort when in-person events are on pause

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling classified houses of worship as essential places, meaning that they are not subject to closures and capacity limits like other places. But for many, including St. John’s Cathedral in Denver, they’re still taking precautions.

“It’s sad, I miss people so much,” said Dean Richard Lawson, who’s been at the cathedral for three years. “But it’s also an opportunity to realize that in being safe, we are loving our neighbor.”

In a normal year, the Episcopal church draws thousands of people to worship for the holiday, with about 40 people in the choir. This holiday, an octet of (masked, socially distanced) carolers, along with an organist, will perform in the cathedral for broadcast on RMPBS, starting at 8:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

The church has been pre-recording its services during the pandemic, including for Easter, but Christmas Eve will be one of the first live-streamed services, if not the first.

“Adaptation is the name of the game,” Lawson said. “We can get carols out far and wide in a way that we’re really excited about.”

Lost traditional ticket sales mean many performance groups are hemorrhaging money to stay together. Like many other groups, the Colorado Children’s Chorale is relying on grants and community donations. 

“That’s the scary part that I think all arts organizations are dealing with right now, is just staying viable and healthy to get through this current weather,” said marketing director Cheryl Shoemaker.

But working to create holiday cheer — and a sense of normalcy in an abnormal year — has been worth the effort and expense, Shoemaker said.

“Our kids need an outlet,” Shoemaker said. “And it may be something else that they’re doing online after school, but it’s something different and I think it’s important for mental health. … I think those outlets are few and far between right now.”

The chorale has spent the past few months preparing for their virtual winter program, which is available on-demand from Dec. 18 to Jan. 1. Dozens of young performers rehearsed over Zoom and recorded each musical part as solo tracks. The final production combines all of the vocals and backing tracks, plus video of the kids doing some choreography (while masked and socially distanced) at a handful of Denver metro landmarks including Red Rocks.

The Colorado Children’s Chorale films choreography in downtown Denver for their holiday program, offered virtually for 2020. (Provided by Colorado Children’s Chorale)

“I think our kids have gotten a completely different type of experience than they have in a normal year,” Shoemaker said, “which is making this kind of a drag, but also special.”

While many musicians cherish performing live, the sense of community in an ensemble can be just as much a reason to participate, especially during the holidays. Kantorei, like so many other choirs, normally goes caroling around town and visits medical facilities along the way. Those places are now epicenters of the virus.

The pandemic has also strained choir members themselves. Some singers’ family members have died from COVID-19; a few singers even caught coronavirus.

“We haven’t been able to be there for them [in person],” Rinsema said. “You want to be able to reach out and comfort and care like you do your immediate family. It’s just difficult now.”

Updated at 9:53 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020: This story has been corrected to clarify that an octet will be singing at St. John’s Cathedral on Christmas Eve.

Rising Sun