VOCES8, an a cappella octet from England.

From the Stage to Your Living Room

Performance Santa Fe Reimagines Live Concerts for a Digital Audience

by Brian Nelson

A global pandemic, it turns out, is bad for business, especially if your business revolves around the live entertainment industry. But it turns out that empty concert halls and cancelled tours have a silver lining: the opportunity for innovation. Under the leadership of Executive/Artistic Director Chad Hilligus, the team at Performance Santa Fe has not only risen to the challenge but blazed the trail for how to present engaging, impactful live events in an online world. The key to their success? Focus on the advantages.

“The digital content has increased the geographical impact and the visibility for our organization and for Santa Fe as a whole,” says Hilligus. “We had 2,000 viewers in fourteen different countries for our digital gala in July.” This extended reach sets the foundation for growth that will help organizations like Performance Santa Fe bounce back stronger than ever once business returns to normal. With a growing international patron base in place, the next question is how to best serve these supporters. For Performance Santa Fe, the answer is bringing carefully curated, high-quality musical performances straight into listeners’ homes via the PSF@Home concert season.

Performance Santa Fe Executive/Artistic Director Chad Hilligus
Performance Santa Fe Executive/Artistic Director Chad Hilligus
Uprooted, The Journey of Jazz Dance
On December 10, PSF@Home presents an exclusive screening of Uprooted, a cinematic exploration of Jazz Dance.

PSF@Home isn’t some singer-songwriter live-streaming from a couch using choppy internet and insufficient audio-video equipment. Rather, these are professionally produced concert experiences featuring today’s top talent and delivered to the best seat in the house — the listener’s house, that is. Quality and care are at the core of PSF’s virtual experience.

“Pivoting from in-person to digital events has required a lot of innovation and experimentation, and we’re always trying to anticipate and adapt to the particular needs of our digital audience,” says Hilligus. “We’ve made several updates to our website so that it’s more user-friendly. We’ve digitized materials that we normally provide at live events, like program books.” He adds, “And we’re increasing our customer service and communication efforts so that our viewers know there are real people on the other side of the screen who want to take care of them. It’s an ongoing process to evaluate what’s working and where we can improve.”

Adaptation is just part of the gig for an organization that has served Santa Fe for more than eighty years. In 1937, Performance Santa Fe (then the Santa Fe Community Concert Association) came to fruition as a presenter for Columbia Artists Management’s famed Community Concerts program. The concert associations that spread across North America set the standard for the annual concert season model still prevalent today. But even more consequential was the cultural impact these community concerts made in hundreds of small and midsize towns across the continent. The opportunity to enjoy performances by the top-tier artists of the day at an affordable price meant that hundreds of thousands of people could experience live music for the first time.

But beneath the live experience lies a deep history. This is art, and it takes skill, dedication and vision to create it at a professional level.

Think about the last time you went to a live performance. The energy of the crowd, the performers. The atmosphere of the theater and the brimming excitement when the lights flicker on and off, alerting the audience that the show will soon begin. But beneath the live experience lies a deep history. This is art, and it takes skill, dedication and vision to create it at a professional level. While many Santa Feans know Performance Santa Fe as a presenter of the arts, fewer are aware of the organization’s significant efforts to inspire and educate the next generation of performers and audience members alike.

Via a trio of education programs, Performance Santa Fe reaches more than 3,000 New Mexico students annually: it supplements schools’ existing music programs, provides masterclass mentoring by professional artists and presents touring acts that students attend through matinee field trips to Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center. The 2020-21 school year also finds PSF beginning a partnership with JazzReach, a nationally recognized nonprofit dedicated to the promotion, performance, creation and teaching of jazz. This partnership will deliver a new, thirteen-part original docuseries to New Mexico students, a perfect virtual offering for remote learners. Cementing their dedication to providing quality digital content, Performance Santa Fe has also made their entire PSF@Home virtual concert season available to students, free.

A student playing trumpet.
Performance Santa Fe brings the joy of music to Santa Feans of all ages. Photography ©Gabriella Marks.
Percussionist Cal Haines with a student.
As part of Performance Santa Fe’s Arts for Life Program, percussionist Cal Haines gives a class at a Santa Fe public school. Photography ©Gabriella Marks.

“Ambition matched by flawless execution” could very well be the motto of the staff of six who make the magic happen at Performance Santa Fe — or maybe just “Crushing it.” There’s no way around the extensive work necessary to successfully execute a live production . . . or develop, distribute and implement a teaching curriculum . . . or transform an entire industry model from in-person to online. This organization is doing a lot and doing it well. In this way, Performance Santa Fe is a perfect example of what an arts organization should be: resilient, adaptive, forward-thinking. Right now, there are scores of workers in the entertainment industry scrambling to make the pieces fit, to create and present the art that lies at the core of our culture. From crew members to box office employees to the talent in the limelight — the future of arts organizations is on the line. Fortunately, this is an industry built on innovation. Talk to any tour manager or venue owner and they’ll tell you that reacting to the unforeseen is part of the deal.

In Northern New Mexico, Performance Santa Fe stands as a beacon of success in the performing arts world, proving that a statewide social lockdown is no match for hard work, effective leadership and creative problem-solving. And, as in 1937, when the organization was founded, community is at the heart of it all. “The pandemic has proven to be the most challenging time in our eighty-four-year history,” says Hilligus. “The support of our community truly means more now than ever before as we continue to adapt our mission to these difficult times.”

For updates on Performance Santa Fe, visit performancesantafe.org.

Brian Nelson

Brian Nelson is a freelance writer, editor, musician and educator based in Glorieta, New Mexico. He is the co-founder and artistic director of Queen Bee Music Association and a contributor for the online music publication Rootfire.


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