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Innovation Kept The Choral Society Singing During The Pandemic

Fall Semester Classes 2020 - College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities
Morgan Givens/UWF
Dr. Peter Steenblik leads UWF choral practice outside, socially distanced. One of the innovative ways the program kept going throughout the pandemic.

If you were walking past the parking garage on the corner of Baylen and Main Streets in Pensacola one day this past March you were treated to the sounds of beautiful voices raised in song.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not been kind to performing artists, but with a little innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, the Choral Society of Pensacola made the best of the situation. “We are one of the only community choruses that I’m aware of that continued rehearsing during the pandemic,” said Dr. Peter Steenblik, director of choral activities at the University of West Florida and the newly appointed artistic director of the Choral Society of Pensacola.

The choral society not only rehearsed but found interesting locations to connect with a live audience during the pandemic. “We had a creative season. The first concert was done in a gazebo on the (Pensacola State College) campus. We had two performances and I believe the audience was around 150 people. The next performance was in (that) parking garage downtown near the Levin Papantonio Law Firm and we had well over 200 in attendance there, spread out throughout the parking garage, on three levels of the parking garage.”

Steenblik was named the interim artistic director of the Choral Society in September and was appointed permanent direct in May. He is familiar with taking over an existing set of artists. In 2015 he came to UWF and started putting his mark on that chorus program.

“One really valuable way to step into an established program is to look at the history of where the program has been and really familiarize yourself with that and be respectful of that. As I’ve been stepping in at UWF, we’ve been bringing back old traditions just as much as we have been creating new traditions.”

One of the old traditions that Steenblik brought back was the UWF Summer Festival Chorus that was discontinued in the 80s. That program was open to all singers age 17 and older and was held this year in mid-July. Dates have already been set for next summer in June.

As he gears up for a new school year, Dr. Steenblik is assembling the UWF Chorus. He says that while talent is important, he looks for different skills in his chorus students.

“Do they show up on time? Do they do what they are asked to do? Do they work hard outside of class to prepare? I often find that there are students that have a lot of talent, yet those professional skills are still developing. And that’s the key. My personal view of choral singing is that, in a university experience, that choral music is simply the vehicle to train responsible adult behavior. And I think that is true of a lot of entities on campus. So what we really strive to do is create that professional environment. And then the music-making is easy.”

Fall Semester Classes 2020 - College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities
Morgan Givens/UWF
UWF students at choir practice outside.

Music-making was anything but easy over the past 18 months. Peter Steenblik says the Choral Society of Pensacola has plans for a modified season in various locations around the community. They will be staying away from larger venues like the Saenger Theater and will be using chamber or modified orchestrations.

“For example, our first concert will be at the Pensacola High School auditorium which seats 1,100 people. Now we don’t expect that to be the audience size, but to spread 400 to 500 people around in an eleven hundred capacity (theater) will help the audience feel a little at ease.”

And while there are no plans to return to playing parking garages, Dr. Steenblik admits the acoustics in that structure make the performance that much better. “It was amazing! It was more acoustically sound than a cathedral built in Europe, you know. It was a wonderful environment for us.”

The first rehearsal for the 2021-2022 choral society season is on August 16. The first show of the season is scheduled for October.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.