Rochester’s performing arts are struggling to draw crowds after COVID – Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — Audiences have been slow to return to the symphony and other classical performing arts in Rochester after the COVID-19 pandemic.

A combination of an older, more vulnerable core audience, uncertainty over scheduled performances and an abundance of caution have resulted in crowd sizes a fraction of the pre-pandemic audiences.

“I feel like especially for the classical concerts, our audience is older, so they weren’t ready to come back as quickly,” said Joan Smith, executive director of the Rochester Chamber Music Society.

On the cusp of the 2023-24 season, leaders of Rochester performing arts organizations say they have reason to be optimistic.

“We were really encouraged by the end of last season,” said Amy Lindstrom, president and CEO of the Rochester Symphony. “We were seeing significant growth.”

The Rochester Symphony was not the only organization last year to see a slow start to the season followed by an encouraging uptick later, which accelerated through the holidays.

Smith said the group’s final performance last season — an opera — drew the chamber’s largest post-COVID show so far. Many were first-time attendees, she added.

“It was encouraging to see so many people,” Smith said. “If they got a taste of what we do, maybe they’ll come back.”

Rochester Chamber Music Society average attendance.png

The Rochester Pops Orchestra similarly found success with an unconventional show last season. The Pops drew first-time attendees and performers with its “Rochester’s Got Talent” performance. The show drew 13 musicians who had never participated with orchestras before, said Brock Besse, founder and maestro of the Rochester Pops Orchestra.

Last year was also the final season for symphony conductor and artistic director of 42 years Jere Lantz

. His farewell season likely boosted sales, Lindstrom said.

Lindstrom said she expects the audition performances for Lantz’s successor to bolster interest in the symphony’s upcoming 104th season as well. She said it’s still too early to gauge how ticket sales are for the upcoming season, but added the symphony this summer was seeing new names attached to ticket purchase orders when they first went on sale.

If a farewell tour is a boost to attendance, the Choral Arts Ensemble has reason to be optimistic, too. Founder, artistic director and choir conductor, Rick Kvam, is stepping down from the CAE at the end of the upcoming 39th season.

“I’m expecting some terrific people to apply,” Kvam said, adding the region boasts several colleges and universities with strong choral programs. “This is choir country … for the right person it could be a really good opportunity.”

The ensemble is also collaborating this season with the Great River Shakespeare Festival in February for a show, “When Love Speaks,” featuring GRSF actors performing vignettes of Shakespeare love scenes as the ensemble performs related love songs.

Despite these glimmers of success last season and indications of better times ahead, the bottom line from last year — the second post-COVID season — is that attendance numbers remain below where they were before the pandemic across the board.

Rochester Symphony

The Rochester Symphony performs in this Post Bulletin file photo.

Post Bulletin file photo

The performing arts organizations’ attendance last year followed similar scripts — canceled in-person shows for the 2020-21 season. The next year started with cautious optimism which shifted again to uncertainty as COVID cases in the fall and winter. In-person shows were again either canceled or had limited attendance. Organizers said they hoped for a step toward normalcy last season but instead of rebounding to pre-COVID levels, 2022-23 attendance numbers only made mild gains from the year before.

“I don’t think the audience is quite as big as they were in the heyday before the pandemic,” said Kvam.

Attendance at CAE shows in 2022-23 was down about 70% from pre-pandemic. Average audience size at Chamber Music Society shows was 69% the size of the average crowd in 2018-19. The ensemble’s attendance in 2019-20 was set to eclipse the 2018-19 highs, but the two final shows were canceled due to COVID. Rochester Symphony shows averaged 739 people last season — down 80% from a pre-pandemic average of 919 but up from 607 in 2021-22.

Rochester Symphony average show attendance.png

“It was disappointing, but compared to the nationwide numbers, it was on track in the parts of the country where COVID restrictions were enacted,” Lindstrom said.

Some of that was due to distancing requirements and venue changes as much as an abundance of caution from concertgoers, Lindstrom said.

“I think in Rochester specifically we have seen more reluctance to be exposed to viruses,” Lindstrom said. “Audience members, and many of our musicians too, who work in the medical community, they feel it’s very important to protect people they come in contact with.”

Adapting during the pandemic

Some organizations worked to provide virtual and remote performances. Revenue and interest in those dropped. However, for the Rochester Pops Orchestra, that wasn’t an option.

“To be able to broadcast any of the music soundtracks, scores, or other music we perform, basically you need a broadcast license on top of the arranging licenses,” Besse said. “There wasn’t a feasible way to do that.”

Kvam said the amount of work it took to record and mix choir parts for virtual performances wasn’t worth the effort for neither audience nor the performers. The ensemble offered one ticketed online video in the 2020-21 season. They also held a free outdoor concert in spring 2021. Total ensemble attendance for the season was 216 people.

The larger symphony had little wiggle room to try new things during the pandemic.

“Just the sheer space that’s needed for sitting on a stage and holding that much sound, we’re pretty much required to be in a large seating venue,” Lindstrom said.

Choral Arts Ensemble rehearsal 32.JPG

Rick Kvam, founder and conductor of the Rochester Choral Arts Ensemble, leads vocal warm ups of the ensemble Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, at the Zumbro Lutheran Church in Rochester.

John Molseed / Post Bulletin

Despite the difficulties, none of the Rochester performing arts organizations affected by COVID have closed their doors permanently. However, some have had to change where they call home. Kvam’s had an office at Assisi Heights. In March 2020, he packed some essential things and moved his office to a bedroom in his home. This summer Kvam moved what remained at the Assisi site to a new office at Bethel Lutheran Church, 810 3rd Ave. SE.

“It’s very nice to have the office back,” Kvam said. “We can get a lot done with emails, but just a little bit of direct communication and creative communication is so much better.”

Packing the former office gave Kvam a perspective of the accomplishments and support the organization has had since he founded it in 1985.

“When I had to move my office from Assisi, going through the old programs, notes, posters, you just get a sense of all the people without whom it would not have been possible,” he said. “It was humbling.”

Choral Arts Ensemble total attendance.png

To save costs, the Great River Shakespeare Festival moved from its downtown Winona, Minnesota storefront office.

State and federal COVID relief programs were essential to the performing arts organizations’ survival, their leaders said.

“Financially, the reason that we’ve been able to get through this in a strong way is two-fold, the financial stability from COVID relief grants from the government was essential in giving us firm footing,” Lindstrom said. The other factor was support from the community.

Much of that came with a recognition of the role live music and performances have in enhancing people’s lives. Losing that, even temporarily, made people appreciate it more.

“I think that the performance aspect and that the audience experiencing the music is our major concern and we’re excited that that’s coming back,” Lindstrom said.

Upcoming performing arts performances in Rochester

As part of the ongoing process to select a successor to symphony conductor and artistic director of 42 years Jere Lantz, four finalist candidates will step in as guest conductors for the 104th Rochester Symphony season.

  • Chia-Hsuan Lin
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023.
    Presentation Hall, Mayo Civic Center, 36 Civic Center Drive SE.
  • Robert Khan
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.
    Presentation Hall, Mayo Civic Center, 36 Civic Center Drive SE.
  • Sounds of the Season
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 16, 2023.
    Presentation Hall, Mayo Civic Center, 36 Civic Center Drive SE.
  • Kelly Corcoran
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024.
    Presentation Hall, Mayo Civic Center, 36 Civic Center Drive SE.
  • Erik Rohde
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 23, 2024.
    Presentation Hall, Mayo Civic Center, 36 Civic Center Drive SE.
  • People of this Land
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 20, 2023.
    Presentation Hall, Mayo Civic Center, 36 Civic Center Drive SE.
  • Free family previews
    Rochester Symphony presents condensed, free shows for families to attend at Presentation Hall, Mayo Civic Center, 36 Civic Center Drive SE.
    Friday, Oct. 13, 2023; Friday, Nov. 11, 2023; Friday, Feb. 23, 2024; Friday, March 22, 2024. Each event starts at 7 p.m.
  • Sing with Cantus High School festival concert
    7 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.
    Zumbro Lutheran Church, 624 Third Ave. SW.
  • When Love Speaks
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023.
    Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW.
    3 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023.
    Central Lutheran Church, Winona, Minnesota.
  • Christmas with Choral Arts Ensemble
    7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 15; 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 16, 2023; 4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.
    Zumbro Lutheran Church, 624 Third Ave. SW.
  • A Symphony of Joy
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 9, 2024.
    Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW.
    4 p.m., Sunday, March 10, 2024.
    Cathedral of St. Paul, St. Paul.
  • Past is Prologue
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, May 4, 2024; 3 p.m., Sunday, May 5, 2024.
    Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW.
  • Frightfully Haunting
    7 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023.
    810 Third Ave. SE.
  • Christmas concert
    7 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 17, 2023.
    810 Third Ave. SE.
  • Opera and Rochester Pops Orchestra — classical edition
    Time TBA, February 2024.
    Location TBA.
  • As seen on TV
    7 p.m., Sunday, May 12, 2024.
    810 Third Ave. SE.

Rochester Chamber Music Society

  • Lieder by Schubert and Brahms
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023.
    Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW.
  • Christmas with Ninebark Ensemble
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.
    Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW.
  • Avita Duo
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024.
    Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW.
  • Root River Trio
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 2, 2024.
    Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW.
  • Piano with Winds
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 13, 2024.
    Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW.

Bach Society of Minnesota

  • A Symphony of Joy
    7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 9, 2024.
    Christ United Methodist Church, 400 Fifth Ave. SW.

Southeast Minnesota Youth Orchestra

  • 8th annual “It’s Instrumental: An Evening of Chamber Music”
    6 p.m., Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.
    Chateau Theater, 15 First St. SW.
  • Fall concert 2023
    2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.
    Century High School, 2525 Viola Road NE.
  • Winter concert 2024
    2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024.
    John Marshall High School, 1510 14th St. NW.
  • Spring concert 2024
    2 p.m., Sunday, May 19, 2024.
    Century High School, 2525 Viola Road NE.