92Y Welcomes Live Audiences Back with ‘Almost Home’ Mini-Season

Popular online programming will continue

| 28 Apr 2021 | 09:49

For the first time in a year, live performances — with in-person audiences — are resuming at 92nd Street Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall. For some performers, like soprano Susanna Phillips, the reopening offers an exciting opportunity to fall back into a more natural rhythm after an unusual year of online events. Still, preparing to sing in front of an audience in the wake of COVID-19 comes with its own hurdles.

“It’s a little bit like riding a bike, you know,” Phillips, who will perform with clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Myra Huang on May 11, explained of her nerves preparing for the in-person show. “You get back on the bike and you remember how to do it, but it’s a little tricky at first and then you find that smooth place. So I’m kind of doing a lot of extra thoughtful preparation.”

The mini-season, titled “Almost Home,” started on Thursday, April 29 with André Holland’s reading of “The End of White Supremacy: An American Romance” by Saidiya Hartman. After that, 92Y will host performances from a range of musicians, many from 92Y’s Marshall Weinberg Spring 2021 Classical Music Season, in addition to a theater performance for kids. Events in the series will adhere to new COVID-19 safety precautions, according to 92Y CEO Seth Pinsky. And though the return of in-person audiences marks a hopeful shift back toward life as normal in the city, 92Y will also continue its online programming — which Pinsky says has been a hit.

A Long Time Coming

While planning for the concert series began in earnest only in recent months, Pinsky explained, thinking ahead for the return of in-person events began in the spring of last year and many COVID-19 precautions have already been implemented since, for gatherings like classes and meetings. Though some 92Y performances have been filmed on-stage over the past year — and these mini-season performances will also be streamable — this will be 92Y’s first event series with in-person audiences since the start of the pandemic.

To pull it off, 92Y is requiring that audience members comply with temperature checks, fill out health questionnaires and offer proof of a negative COVID-19 test result or of vaccination, according to a press release. Intermissions and concessions will be cut and only 150 in-person tickets will be sold for each performance to fill the 905-seat venue. The organization has also upgraded its ventilation systems in the theater and worked with CBRE, a real estate management firm, to develop COVID-19 protocols.

On top of it all, Pinsky explained, there was the task of lining up a group of performers — a feat also affected by the pandemic. “We’re really excited to see the combination of performers who have expressed a willingness to come back in person,” he said, “because that was another factor that we had to consider. Not everyone is ready to do that.”

“The Music Is In The Moment”

For Alyson Cambridge, an Upper West Side operatic soprano, the pandemic year proved, initially, to be “a real shock to the system.” Gigs were canceled or postponed one after another, she explained.

In the meantime, Cambridge devoted herself to new projects, like co-producing “Rock Me Amadeus,” a show for which she is planning to have a preview showcase in June. On May 3, she’ll make her 92Y debut with “Habanera” by Georges Bizet, “Song to the Moon” by Antonín Dvořák and “Vilja” by Franz Lehár. She’s hopeful that in-person collaboration — even if without a live audience — will increasingly begin to rebound.

“I’m itching to have those moments more and more; slowly, but surely,” Cambridge said. “We have a weekly sort of Zoom catch-up session with ... one of my agencies every week and it’s just very encouraging to get their take and their updates on sort of how and when things are coming back.”

For Phillips, the past year has been “kind of up and down,” with moments in which she didn’t care to make music and others in which she reconnected with her craft. Now, she’s begun singing for in-person audiences again and performed outdoors earlier this month at the Mainly Mozart Festival of Orchestras in San Diego, a drive-in concert during which listeners honked and flashed their car lights in lieu of clapping.

In Phillips’ eyes, singing for a live, in-person audience is integral to the art of performance. In mid-May, at 92Y, she’ll perform Franz Schubert’s “The Shepherd on the Rock” as well as “Chavah’s Daughters Speak” by composer James Lee III.

“I found myself repelled by trying to collaborate virtually to a video,” Phillips explained of some alternatives to traditional performances during the pandemic. “I find, for me, that the music is in the moment — the music’s in the room.”

Large (Digital) Crowds

Online performances and programming, however, have drawn large (digital) crowds to 92Y over the past year, while COVID-19 has put live, in-person performances on pause.

The organization’s online platform has brought in over 4 million views, according to a press release, and roughly 60 percent of tickets for digital programming were purchased by people new to 92Y and from outside the city. Pinsky explained that moving the organization’s events online has attracted a broader audience, geographically, than 92Y has “ever reached before.”

In a normal year, 92Y would attract around 300,000 people to its programs, he said.

Even as the “Almost Home” performances unfold in-person, they will also be streamed online for remote viewers. And Pinsky intends for digital programming to stick around a while longer, given its success during the pandemic.

“I think that that’s a really important part,” he said, “of our future.”