Minnesota is Choral Country, the Land of 10,000 Choirs. We have – and this is a short list – the Minnesota Chorale, VocalEssence, National Lutheran Choir, Minnesota Boychoir, Oratorio Society of Minnesota, Bach Society of Minnesota, Bach Roots Festival, Cantus, St. Olaf Choir, The Singers, Magnum Chorum, Twin Cities Women’s Choir, Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir, Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, Giving Voice Chorus, Border CrosSing, Rose Ensemble, Prairie Fire Lady Choir and One Voice Mixed Chorus. There are countless church choirs and civic choirs.
So imagine the dismay when news broke earlier this spring about choirs and COVID-19. “Choir practice turns fatal. Coronavirus is to blame,” one headline read. After a choir practice in Washington state attended by 61 people, 45 came down with COVID, three were hospitalized and two died. In Amsterdam, after 130 singers performed Bach’s St. John Passion, 102 fell ill. Fifty members of Berlin’s Cathedral Choir got sick after a rehearsal. In early June, the New York Times asked, “When Will It Be Safe to Sing Together Again?” When, indeed? How sad is that?
Kathy Saltzman Romey has devoted her life to choral singing. Growing up in a time when women did not become conductors, Romey is a force in the choral world. She is the artistic director of the 250-voice Minnesota Chorale, the princial chorus of the Minnesota Orchestra and an umbrella organization of four choirs and several independent programs, many with close community ties. She directs choral activities at the University of Minnesota’s School of Music, serves as chorus master for the Oregon Bach Festival Chorus and is a faculty member of the Junges Stuttgarter Bach (JSB) Ensemble in Germany. Her former students run choirs and choruses all over the state.
How did Romey take the news about choirs and COVID?
“There were two weeks of darkness and despair within the national singing community,” she said by phone on Wednesday. Since then, “it’s been a progression.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: What did your 2020 calendar look like in March?
Kathy Saltzman Romey: It would have been a large Bach year. I was preparing Bach’s St. John Passion with my University Chamber Singers. That would have been April 4. I lead an annual church music festival, Bach Tage, in collaboration with David Cherwien from National Lutheran Choir, at the beginning of June.
At this time, I would have been in Oregon for the Bach Festival. And then I was going to come home and work with Oratorio Society of Minnesota on their summer singing program. In August, I was to have gone to São Paolo, Brazil, to prepare a professional chorus there in Bach motets. That was the spring and the summer.
MP: Did everything shut down?
KSR: Yes and no. At the university, we finished out the semester online. With Bach Tage and the Oregon Bach Festival, we moved to virtual offerings. What’s been extraordinary is how versatile and nimble both educational and arts organizations have been in adapting to online teaching and engagement and also virtual performing.
MP: What was your life like right before COVID?
KSR: I left the country on March 3 and traveled to Germany to work with the JSB Ensemble on two larger works by Bach, the B Minor Mass and “Köthener Trauermusik.” We were 80 teachers and participants from 30 different countries who came together to focus on these works. We were to present them on March 21, Bach’s birthday.
We were housed in a monastery in southern Germany. As COVID advanced, we were literally sequestered and isolated in this monastery as a global community.
When we reached the week of March 9, it was clear that the pandemic was becoming increasingly more serious in Europe. Then Trump gave his speech on March 12. For us in Germany, that was 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. We started receiving phone calls and emails from families saying, “When will you be sending my son or daughter home?”
We gathered later in the morning and read through the entire “Köthener Trauermusik,” which is essentially funeral music. [Its full title translates to “Cry, children, cry to all the world.”] That evening, we gathered and read through the entire B Minor Mass. It is such incredibly profound and joyous music! In that moment, I did not realize it would be the last live music I would experience or participate in.
On March 13, I flew home. By March 15, most of the performers from North and South America were en route or had arrived safely. The rest were already living in Europe.
MP: Talk a bit about the “two weeks of darkness and despair” and what came after.
KSR: On May 5, there was a webinar offered to the national community, “What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing?” It focused on what we can’t do. It shared data about the many risks surrounding choral singing.
We started to realize as individuals and a community what that means. Not just for next week or next month, but potentially an entire year or longer. Many of us serve vulnerable populations, like older singers who participate in church choirs or civic choruses. We need to be very cognizant about how to protect them and, at the same time, offer connection.
On May 16, there was another webinar, “Calming the Coronavirus Crisis and Taking Your Teaching Online.” It was about what we can do. On May 21, “Music Lives Here, A Minnesota Roundtable” offered resources and guest speakers supporting Minnesota’s choral community.
On Monday, the American Choral Directors Association released a 108-page guide to teaching in multiple ways – on site with safety protocols, in a hybrid format and completely online. Chorus America’s 2020 Virtual Conference is happening this week.
Certainly, the safety and well-being of our singers and our audiences is our primary priority. But we also know what the role of singing means in terms of community, connection, advocacy, solidarity, and expression of culture and humanity. We are searching for ways to not only deliver content online, but to gather safely as a community.
We still don’t have as much information as we would like. There are many, many unknowns. We would like to have specific mandates about how to move forward. Those were not offered.
MP: Plus we are living in a time of global anxiety, stress and change.
KSR: I feel an overload of information on a daily basis. Trying to sort through all of that and maintain linear thinking can be a challenge.
May 25, George Floyd’s murder, coincided with the death of our fourth Minnesota Chorale director, Joel Revzen, from complications of COVID. Both events happened on that day.
March 13 was the first major pivot point, May 25 the second. That brought a shift in thinking and focus, grief, emotional turbulence, community outpouring and civic rights activity, all of which we absolutely need. In between, the recession, the government response to COVID, and massive unemployment, not just of artists but across all industries.
Along with addressing the challenges of COVID and online content delivery, the Chorus America conference is offering seminars around diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI]. I am deeply indebted to Chorus America for so quickly shifting to address this. That, along with the outpouring of generosity and community following George Floyd’s death, sustains us.
More and more people are joining in solidarity, not only across the nation but around the globe. We cannot go backwards, we cannot forget.
The impact of COVID and the impact of George Floyd’s murder are inextricably linked within our community. They are certainly impacting our voices, our thinking and our reflection as artists.
MP: The Minnesota Chorale has four upcoming performances with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2020, two in October and two in November. What are some of your plans in terms of keeping everyone safe?
KSR: We’re still looking at safety protocols and guidelines in terms of convening for rehearsals and performances. We are doing this in collaboration with the Minnesota Orchestra. If it is deemed unsafe to gather everyone together, then we will be sharing alternate content and programming with our singers in a way that is safe.
MP: Is there a silver lining somewhere in here?
KSR: With COVID, when everything came to a screeching halt, we had time to pause, talk internally and reflect. We were thinking about how we might do things better, engage some of our artistic partners and recalibrate our educational program.
Then George Floyd’s murder occurred. We were all absolutely stunned and came together with the community to say, “We cannot proceed as we have before.” This is an opportunity to revisit mission and programming, to consider ways that we might collaborate more authentically and amplify voices of color. To really consider what diversity, equity, and inclusion access means within our organization on every level. While we have prioritized DEI within our strategic plan, we haven’t fully engaged with it. The time to do that is now.
MP: What is your main concern at the moment? What keeps you up at night?
KSR: How to be a leader in a time of crisis. This is a critical time for arts organizations to come together in solidarity, to uplift and support the greater community. How to do that with integrity is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. How to be an educator in a time of crisis. How to be a mentor. How to be a good colleague. How to be an artistic partner. How can we use our voices to amplify the critical issues, to create an inclusive and equitable singing community?
MP: What will you do first when you can do whatever you want?
KSR: Besides get a haircut? [Laughs.] I would love to come together with other choral organizations in some sort of larger singing event, where we could celebrate our community collectively, bask in the joy of being next to each other, and finally release some of the emotions that have been swirling around since March 13 and then May 25. Where we could use our voices proactively, hear the voices of people next to us, see their faces and share in that profound energy and connection of singing together. That’s what I look forward to. I think that will be a long time coming.
On Wednesday, the Minnesota Chorale released its statement on George Floyd’s death. You can read it here.