Micah Barnes and Jackie Richardson  Photo: Bill King
Micah Barnes and Jackie Richardson Photo: Bill King

A Conversation With .. Pat Silver

Bill King: SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival is about ready to kick off year nine - this year virtual. How is this shaping up?

Pat Silver: We will probably know when it is all over. It was a lot of effort to pivot to not having audiences in the room, but audiences will be on screen and the exciting thing, we can now offer our programming worldwide. When you have a 450 seat theatre like we’ve been using that’s the most who can watch your show live. Now, millions can tune in and see amazing artists like Countermeasure, Freeplay, Micah Barnes, Travis Knight, Jackie Richardson, and Cadence, and these concerts can be enjoyed everywhere. Also workshops from the New York Voices, The Real Group, The Swingle Singers,  that could never happen in a live festival. We couldn’t manage to bring all of these people here for workshops in the same year. Anyone who wants to do a workshop with any of those can do it through our Zoom platform through the festival.

B.K: You mostly have one international act a year. This year no airfares, no accommodations costs, and you can spend in other areas.

P.S: It still costs a lot of money to pull it together. Normally, we have a group like The Swingle Singers headlining like last year, this year a workshop. The accent will be our headliner next year. This year they are doing a vocal workshop on the history of singing. We have Deke Sharon who literally wrote the book on arranging with Dylan Bell. He’s the brains behind the Pitch Perfect movies and The Sing-Off TV shows, he’s doing a workshop on arranging from his home in the US. It’s amazing what we are able to offer to people. Some people think it’s just using your camera at home and video yourself. We’re not doing that.

We’ve gone into a proper theatre as you know and filmed these concerts and they are gorgeous, on stage with the excitement of a full live performance, unlike you’d ever get in the Zoom calls. That’s what we are providing, as well as four nights of the Best of Sing! –concert videos done over the years maybe people in Sweden, Texas and other places in the world didn’t see. Even the troupe reunion of the original Hair cast production in Toronto. By going virtual it offers so many new opportunities for us.

B.K: How did you come to a theme for the festival – a way to avoid repeating years past?

P.S: We have a very active board of seventeen people who are hands-on, not just in name only. We have great musical directors in Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell. We meet every month and in between, we continue to talk. Every month since March the tenet has changed as well as the thinking we could do something in person and then we weren’t sure. We then thought we could have a certain number of people and that was rolled back. We’ve been listening closely to the announcements from both provincial and federal government to hear what we can possibly do.

The festival has changed and morphed multiple times the last few months to as recently as a month or two months ago when we thought we’d have this wonderful theatre bring in twenty-five people. Impossible. The safeguards required for singing are stringent with Plexi-glass barriers between the singers and the audience so we just said, we can’t do it. We are constantly talking to the artistic team and logistics team. Both of whom must make it work.

B.K: Outside funding was tied to live performances and early on virtual wasn’t part of it.

P.S: Absolutely. All the funding we had from sponsors and government funders and foundations were for a live performance. We had also sold tickets to our live shows. We had to go back to everybody and explain. The ticket holders could turn their tickets in and use for the virtual performances that are ticketed, though not everything is ticketed. When we went back and explained to our funders that we had to go online, they all understood and expected that. We are not the only festival gone virtual. Celebrate Ontario, which is all about tourism, is now looking at tourism being virtual rather than in person, they know that.

Of course, there’s a lot of communication required with your funders at every level. We are constantly talking to our donors and sponsors and explaining what we are doing and getting enormous support.

B.K: The other side of this, when doing live you publish a program, buy a few adds and on-site signage. This way you have advertising built into the visuals preceding performances. This way the event, performances and support have an extended life for decades to come.

P.S: Yes. We will have a program, but it will be online. Instead of printing a program and handing out to several thousand people, again, its’ worldwide and people can go online and see the program and adds for all the sponsors. There are commercials from those sponsors who provided us with actual television commercials. They are embedded in our videos. Anytime you watch a concert video you will see one for a TD Bank or any of our other sponsors.

B.K: I’ve thought about that sitting in Woodbine Park during Beaches Jazz under a blazing sun and watch people run for cover and thinking how comfortable it would be to catch some of the events online.

P.S: Think of this. How many people are sitting in a park vs worldwide or Ontario wide going to see these commercials? I use TD as an example because they’ve been awesome sponsors and throughout with us, now they get a bit more reach worldwide. Not just people sitting in a park or a 450-seat auditorium.

B.K: The real challenge is getting eyes on the event. That means working social media which requires hiring talent with a grasp and expertise at doing so.

P.S: We are not a rich festival, but very much a grassroots festival with one paid administrator and lots of volunteers. We rely on those volunteers, artists and our venue to put the word out through social media. A small amount is paid to advertise but it is mostly promoted through the A Cappella community. We have wonderful relationships with other A Cappella festivals in other countries we have promoted in the past and now they will be promoting us. We are also being streamed on Acaville Radio, the only A Cappella station we know of in the world, out of Oregon and they have very dedicated listeners. We are not going the route of posters and flyers this year. How do you hand out flyers in a pandemic?

B.K: What about Jackie Richardson and the Slaight Music Sing Toronto Legacy Award?

P.S: It took my breath away listening to Jackie recording her pieces. You were there and know how amazing this woman is, not only a great singer but a performer who captivates you and grabs your attention. She’s won so many awards, humanitarian awards and performance awards. This is the first time we are giving her an award. Slaight Music has been a sponsor for several years and we are very grateful. It is a legacy award. Every year, one person or ensemble that has made a real difference in the vocal world and is also a Canadian is honoured. Some of the past winners; Michael Burgess, Sylvia Tyson, Elaine Overholt, The Toronto Northern Lights, Debbie Fleming and others. We pick someone who is an example to the rest of the vocal world and is a wonderful creative genius and certainly Jackie is that person.

B.K: Festival dates?

P.S: September 29 to October 4, 2020.

B.K: I also know you are pleased Countermeasure is out with a new recording, Guest Sessions.

P.S: You know I’m thrilled. They are our finale concert, and that was all planned a year and a half ago, 10th anniversary, big celebration and then Covid. Instead of an in-person concert, it will be a ten-year retrospective with unseen footage of their tours and lots of great insights into the group. The Guest Sessions album has just been released and is their pride and joy. Countermeasure features thirteen A Cappella singers teamed up with renowned instrumentalists. Each track has a piece written in the style of that instrumentalist and sung by the thirteen singers with solo pieces coming out of the songs. We have Randy Brecker, Natalie MacMaster, and Charlie Gabriel, one of the originals of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. They went to New Orleans and recorded Charlie on clarinet and singing a duet with Tara Park from Countermeasure.

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