How do you keep (live) music playing in the age of social distancing?

What does the future hold for live music? We checked in with cherished music venues like Ashkenaz, Cal Performances and the Freight to see how they’re feeling and what they’re planning.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater returns to Zellerbach Hall in April 2021. Or will they? Photo: Paul Kolnik

For a brief moment on the morning of April 28 there was a glorious, tantalizing glimpse of the world before COVID-19 as Cal Performances announced its 2020-21 season. Even the fact that the press conference took place online rather than at Zellerbach Hall didn’t dampen the excitement generated by the cultural riches on the Cal Perf calendar, from incandescent divas Renée Fleming, Angélique Kidjo, and Lila Downs to Bang on a Can All-Stars, Miami City Ballet and of course Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. But optimism sustained by magical thinking was no match for the grinding reality of shelter in place.

Even as Gov. Newsom starts to ease shelter-in-place restrictions, we won’t be crowding together in the close quarters of theaters, clubs and performance spaces any time soon. The necessity of social distancing is going to linger for months after we start to roam outside our homes, and I’ve been talking to various presenters in Berkeley to get a sense of what the new normal might look like. Every venue faces its own particular challenges when it comes to keeping audiences, artists and staff safe, even the most amenable to the COVID-19 era.

Cal Performances: “All regular guide posts are removed”

The Cal Performances season gets busy the last week of September, but it opens Aug. 20 at the Greek Theatre with the all-star ensemble Not Our First Goat Rodeo featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolinist Chris Thile, and guest vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. But even in an outdoor venue that can seat some 8,500 people, there are dozens of questions about how to minimize the chance of spreading the virus at a concert. So the first thing to know is that no one involved in the Greek show knows whether it will proceed as announced, not Yo-Yo Ma, nor Live From Here host Chris Thile, or Jeremy Geffen, who’s in the unenviable position of starting his tenure as Cal Performances executive and artistic director.

“In a moment like this when all the regular guide posts that we look for are removed it was important to announce the season, even if we acknowledge there are inevitably going to be adjustments either in the way we present the performances or the performances themselves,” Geffen said during a recent interview via Zoom.


“We’ve never been more creatively tasked,” he continued. “The number of scenarios are considerable. We don’t know what’s going to come four days from now let alone four months. There are considerable doubts about Aug. 20, but the day after the press conference there was the announcement about a possible breakthrough with Remdesivir that could change the calculus. We put the health of our audience ahead of everything, and that goes for many of the artists. Yo-Yo Ma doesn’t want anyone to make a decision between seeing him and their health.”

Freight & Salvage: “We cannot wait to be with people again”

So how might venues navigate the minefield of presenting music (or theater or dance) while the pandemic still simmers? At Freight & Salvage, many classes have moved on line, while 5 p.m. Saturday has become primetime for livestreamed concerts (next up: Maurice Tani, the bard of Berkeley).

“We cannot wait to be with people again, supporting musicians, and listening to music we love,” said Sharon Dolan, the Freight’s executive director. “That said, I’m inclined to be conservative in reopening. We’re looking to health care professionals for guidance and we want to be certain we’re not putting people at risk.”

A three-person committee of top Freight staff has been strategizing on what it would take for the venue to reopen. Some of the ideas include removing every other row of seats (“but where would we put them?” Dolan said), installing plexiglass between the stage and the front row, and accounting for the extra cleaning costs of wiping down all surfaces after each performance. With six feet of social distancing, Dolan figures the room’s maximum capacity will be about a third of normal (about 160).

“Venues that reopen and ramp up won’t be doing it for the money initially,” she said. “It won’t work initially at a third capacity, but we may want to do it anyway when the time comes. Would we open a couple nights a week? Only present artist who live in the region? And then there’s the question of how to maintain social distancing in line outside and lines for bathroom. It’s complicated.”


The Back Room: Plexiglass barrier for singers

The Freight’s spaciousness provides some flexibility. The very attraction of some of Berkeley’s smaller venues, the intimacy and that homey living-room vibe, entails a different set of challenges. Blues/jazz pianist Sam Rudin has been presenting an eclectic mix of singer/songwriters, jazz players, bluegrass, blues and roots music at the Back Room on Bonita Street since 2016. He’s hoping to start presenting again in July, knowing that ticket sales will have to be well below 95, the room’s pre-pandemic capacity. But he’s got some shows scheduled for next month (starting June 3 with Berkeley-reared tenor saxophone great David Murray and percussionist Kahil El’Zabar) that might be live streamed.

“I’m going to need to get a plexiglass barrier for singers that stands up like a curved windshield,” he said. “I won’t be able to have eight or nine-piece bands like I used to. Here’s a question I don’t know the answer to: What happens to the virus in terms of spreadability when it goes through a saxophone? Do I treat a horn player the same as I do a singer?”

Rudin is assuming audience members and some performers will wear masks. He’s been reconfiguring couches and chairs to figure out the room’s capacity with social distancing. “Each couch can hold one person or a couple who live together,” he said. “If it’s all couples we can have about 54 people, and with all singles, 35. For a popular group or performer I can have two shows, 7:30 and 9:30. My biggest concern is how will it feel in terms of people’s comfort level and being around each when you can’t see each other’s smiles. That’s a variable that I don’t know how to quantify.”

California Jazz Conservatory: Not taking any chances

Susan Muscarella saw the viral writing on the wall and shut down the California Jazz Conservatory on March 9 to protect the health of her instructors and students. Along with all the classes, the school cancelled more than two dozen concerts booked in the Fiddler Annex a few doors down from the Freight. After spring break, trombonist Rob Ewing, director of the CJC’s Jazzschool community music program, had managed to bring all of the Conservatory’s classes online, though ensemble courses can’t play together due to the limitations of online technology (the time lag turns performing via online platforms into instant train wrecks). While classes are back in session, there’s no time frame yet for presenting concerts.

“Rob and I have talked about some exciting opportunities for live streaming, with cameras placed throughout the hall,” Muscarella said. “We could zoom in on each player and you’d be able to get a different perspectives up close and personal, so we can actually see the pianists hands, or the bassist cuing the band. Whatever the guidelines. I’m of the mind not take any kind of chance. Health comes first in my opinion.”


Ashkenaz: “Hand sanitizer will be readily available!”

No venue in Berkeley faces a steeper climb back to action than Ashkenaz, the East Bay’s social dancing headquarters for Lindy Hoppers and Cajun waltzers, kelp-swaying Deadheads, Balkan folk, reggae and bellydancers. Chris Ullsperger, president of Ashkenaz’s board, isn’t convinced that the club can function under the constraints of social distancing. He’s figuring it might be a year before “some reasonable number of people (100? 150?) can be allowed into a sizable room and onto a dance floor without having to wear any ‘protective gear’ or having to have a doctor’s note,” he wrote in an email. “Hand sanitizer will be readily available! And those people will be free to touch other if they wish (and at their own risk, as it ever was). We won’t have ‘social distancing monitors’ kicking people out of Ashkenaz because they got closer to each other than is ‘permitted only for verified partners or family members,’ or because their face mask isn’t on tight enough. That’s the reality that I’m pushing for.”

The only thing certain about our new concert-going reality is that the old rules and assumptions are no longer operative, and there’s no way to tell at this point when we’ll return to pre-pandemic musical experiences. In the time between Cal Performances 2020-21 season announcement and now there’s already been a major alteration, as the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan has postponed the 2020 US tour and cancelled their Dec. 5-6 Zellerbach dates due to concerns over the unpredictable nature of the pandemic.

Like other presenters, Cal Performances is looking into the possibility of presenting some events as live streams, but the global nature of the internet means that touring artists would be radically undermining their ability to perform widely. “We’re reliant on artists for the delivery of our mission, and artists are the most at risk now,” Geffen said. “If there are no performances they don’t get paid. It’s an incredibly difficult time for Cal Performances, but without the artists themselves we’re nothing. Performers need to feel the energy of the audience. You can’t get that experience online at a Zoom meeting.”