Piedmont Center for the Arts’ schedule busy despite pandemic
By Lou Fancher
Gale-force artistry at the Piedmont Center for the Arts may be temporarily redirected but will never be halted, even by a global pandemic.
Indeed, despite Alameda County’s current mandate preventing large indoor gatherings in performance venues, the PCA is a beehive of activity. The previously scheduled fall season is now online or has artists hustling to secure dates in 2021 and beyond.
“Our lease with the city of Piedmont requires we do regular inside maintenance, so we’re cleaning carpets, refinishing floors and, as an all-volunteer-run organization, we take out the garbage too,” says PCA board President Sue Malick. “We’ve also been fielding innumerable requests and scheduling people up to two years out.”
Ever since the PCA opened in 2011, more than a century after early settler and landowner Walter Blair established Piedmont Park (next to PCA’s location at 801 Magnolia Ave.) and developer Frank C. Havens in 1907 added the Piedmont Art Gallery, the town’s enthusiasm for the arts has been booming. Malick says the community has always invested heavily in parks, schools and playgrounds but lacked a cultural centerpiece for years before the PCA’s opening.
From all the response, we knew there was pent-up demand. Today we’re constantly looking to ways we can serve every art form and every age group.”
Standard offerings include a wide range: Piedmont High School poetry slams, author book talks, chamber and solo music concerts and annual and special art exhibitions.
“We want to start a film series to expand our artistic reach,” says Malick.
PCA’s internal data shows that their audiences have come from all over the Bay Area. A reputation for their facility’s exceptional acoustics, international guest artists rarely seen in intimate 100-seat venues and a commitment to supporting local community artists, schools and other nonprofits sets the tone.
“Chamber music was originally performed in drawing rooms, not concert halls,” she says. “Here, you don’t have to amplify the music, and the way the sound bounces off the space, performers just love it. Good word about us just spreads.”
During the pandemic, that “spread” has created momentum for several projects and presentations. Dedicated to long-term relationships already fostered, the PCA this year has supported cellist Annie Yeh’s “Bach Quadrupletet” summer 2020 episodes. New YouTube episodes every Wednesday of the cellist performing one of Bach’s 371 chorales ensure “the community doesn’t forget her — or us,” Malick says.
More Bach is on tap with Gold Coast Chamber Players’ live-streamed cello concert series featuring a collection of the composer’s suites. Launching this Sunday, with solo cellist Christopher Costanza performing Bach suites Nos. 2 and 6 and Stanford professor, author and composer Jonathan Berger weighing in on music’s effect on the brain, Malick says Gold Coast’s concerts provide marvelous educational content.
“We can’t physically have them, but we’re promoting what is supremely special about them. They bring artists from all over the world and make us a destination stop for exposing audiences to international offerings.”
Obviously, all is not solid ground for any arts organization charged with surviving the lengthy lockdown. Malick says the center’s enviable 10-year lease signed with the city and now under negotiations for renewal had them paying $1 annually in rent, with upgrades to the facilities made and paid for by the nonprofit to meet Americans with Disabilities Act compliance standards and annual maintenance and improvement requirements in addition to other terms. Subletting a few “rabbit warren-like” offices to a commercial tenant earns just enough income to keep the center afloat during the pandemic, she says.
“Even without user fees and live fundraising events, we’re doing better than many other arts organizations,” Malick says.
Also this Sunday, the PCA is hosting a virtual telethon from 12 to 8 p.m. to fundraise for the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco’s 2020-21 season. And when the county allows venues like the PCA to open their doors, Malick is looking forward to artist/historian Michael Stehr’s exhibit on Oct. 24 and the annual members’ exhibit with 40 artists of California Society of Printmakers on Nov. 15. PCA officials hope to present the events at the center but will present them virtually if necessary.
Festival Opera’s vocal recital series beginning Jan. 31 will also go virtual if necessary. Much like a current project that had cellist and videographer Samsun Van Loon opening the main door to film the individual members of the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco from a distance, the Festival Opera performers will be filmed against a green screen and later edited together into a seamlessly interwoven virtual performance that Festival Opera will broadcast online.
“We consider them part of our musical family,” says Malick, adding that “creating things is such a rush. It gives you a sense of purpose. It’s gratifying to feel you’re contributing to the greater good.”
Meanwhile, booking “a traffic jam of artists wanting to come in” and waiting for the county’s go-ahead to officially throw open the front doors, the center’s staff and board are developing appropriate safety protocols and researching the procurement of thermometers, masks and other necessary personal protective equipment.
“It’s all contingent on where we are as a county. We’re not just going into hibernation. We’re at the starting line, making sure we’re ready.”