Chamber Music Charleston planned a great 2020-21 concert season.
The Lowcountry musicians dedicated to developing classical music audiences had performances scheduled by a clarinet, bassoon and piano trio, a program exploring the life of Ludwig van Beethoven, a guest appearance by violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti and a “Classical Christmas” program for the holidays.
And despite the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on live events, the group is still hosting their concerts online.
Starting earlier this month and continuing until the pandemic is under control, concerts will be filmed and streamed from a private YouTube link for two weeks after the performances. Unlike some other venues and arts organizations that have done free livestreaming, Chamber Music Charleston (CMC) is providing this service to ticket buyers only as a way of generating revenue.
“We knew from the beginning that we were really going to stick to our plan,” said CMC’s president and artistic director, Sandra Nikolajevs. “We announced the season back in February and we had really great ticket sales, so we were confident that people wanted to see us play. The problem was figuring out how to make it come together in a safe way.”
Which was not an easy task, considering that the group had little or no experience with streaming concerts before the pandemic began. In fact, CMC didn’t document their programs much in general.
“We only professionally audio-recorded our larger performances, and very rarely videotaped our performances,” Nikolajevs said. “We didn’t really have money in the budget for videography or audio recording, and not much experience.”
Luckily, Nikolajevs had people who were willing to give her a crash course in recording and streaming performances, and she had family help her out for the first program, which was recorded on Sept. 13.
“I did it with the help of my 15-year-old son,” she said, “using three different video cameras. And we had really good audio recording equipment. On Sunday we spent about three hours playing through the program, and then on Sunday night we edited it, and the next morning we uploaded it to YouTube so that we could send a link to all of the ticket holders to be able to watch it.”
CMC offered free content throughout the summer while they were getting up to speed on streaming technology, but the plan to offer the season’s performances to ticket holders only was firmly in place from the beginning.
“We knew that once the season began that it would be really important for us to still capture ticket income,” Nikolajevs said. “Our ticket income will be greatly reduced, but our expenses will be slightly higher because we had to invest in the videography and we still pay our musicians the full rate. So we had to have a bit of a paywall, and that we did by sending out more private links to the ticket holders. So in order to watch it, you had to have had communication with us to get the information.”
Given the circumstances, however, Nikolajevs said it made sense to reduce ticket prices once they realized concerts would be virtual.
“We decided $60 was a bit too much for a virtual concert, so we’re now selling them for $20,” she said, “and we also have a subscription discount.”
The virtual format has also allowed CMC to expand their approach beyond performing music.
“We’re selling tickets for a full concert, with introductions to the music, the musicians are speaking and there’s a tour of the venues we’re playing,” Nikolajevs said. “We’re trying to capture the spirit of Charleston and the unique venues we have. We’re going to take the time to highlight the Sottile Theatre and the renovations. The concert will open up with a tour of the Sottile and then it will land on the musicians playing the concert.”
As much as Nikolajevs would like these performances of beautiful compositions to take place in front of a crowd, she’s excited about the possibilities the concerts have provided.
“I have to admit I love it,” she said.
Nikolajevs said she’s also gotten positive feedback from ticket buyers.
“About 85 percent of our ticket holders have watched the performances, so we’re thrilled at the audience response we’ve gotten,” she said. “A lot of our audience members are in the higher-risk category, and they get such a sense of comfort that they can feel like they’re at the concert and not have to leave the safety of their homes.”
Learn more about livestreaming Chamber Music Charleston concerts and purchase tickets at chambermusiccharleston.org.