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ISO concerts help rejuvenate Sarnia’s music scene

Sarnia’s entertainment life has been rejuvenated since weekend closures of Christina Street began in late July.
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Caitlin Mason on violin/fiddle and Jim Lahey singing and on guitar at the second Thru the Looking Glass performance by the ISO. Photo Credit: Lou Sprenger.

Sarnia’s entertainment life has been rejuvenated since weekend closures of Christina Street began in late July.

Not only are restaurants and bars taking their distanced seating out to the street, entertainment venues are offering live music for the first time since the pandemic hit.

Thru the Looking Glass is a unique Saturday afternoon event that has attracted a good-sized, yet distanced crowd, since its July 25 debut.

It’s the brainchild of the International Symphony Orchestra (ISO), which moved downtown last year in order to draw more people in, only to be completely shut down in March.

“We are a cultural organization and all cultural organizations are in distress right now,” says ISO executive director Anthony Wing.

“Our mandate is to provide music so we’ve been figuring out inventive ways to do that and I believe we’ve found the fix.”

Thru the Looking Glass features live musicians on a raised stage behind the ISO’s Christina Street window. A sound system, set up by ISO volunteer and local musician Bil Eldridge, brings the music to the street where chairs are set up in pods of twos and threes.

The first event featured Chatham jazz singer Megan Whalen and a few orchestra members. It went unusually well for an unadvertised concert, according to Wing, who is acutely aware of how COVID-19 has made people anxious about congregating.

“There was an ebb and flow to the crowd. We probably had about 50 or 60 people,” he said.

The second week featured local favourite Jim Lahey and attracted twice that number.

“This is a very special time,” Wing noted. “When else will you have Christina Street shut down and free Saturday afternoon performances for a city starved to hear live music?”

The ISO was forced by COVID-19 to cancel its last two performances of the season. There are no regular shows scheduled as of yet. One of four employees is laid off and all activity in the U.S. is curtailed.

The only ISO music produced through the pandemic was online “ISObar Sessions" that will be shown on Detroit Public television.

“What dominates our board meetings is when we can return to the stage,” said Wing. But no one knows.

Meanwhile, the ISO’s musicians and the community are being extremely supportive, said Wing.

The Saturday afternoon performances are being sustained by donations that have so far been generous enough to pay the musicians.

The next show at 2 p.m. Aug. 15 will feature Bil Eldridge followed by Jim Chevalier Aug. 22.

Wing anticipates Thru the Looking Glass will continue as long as Christina Street is closed weekends, which will likely be until late September.

The weekend road closure has also encouraged The Imperial Theatre to experiment with First Friday plexi performances.

The first was held August 7 with 15 vocalists singing on the sidewalk behind a clear wall. Audience members remained on the street at a safe distance in their bubble.

“Safety is our number one priority,” said theatre executive director Brian Austin Jr.

The complete shutdown of theatre is causing Austin and his board a great deal of stress, although they had a successful capital improvement fundraiser in July that generated $44,500.

That certainly helps but the fact remains that more than 50 Imperial Theatre performances were cancelled and over $78,000 had to be refunded.

Ontario is allowing theatre to reopen in Stage 3 but only 50 audience members are permitted. That’s not enough to pay the overhead of any regular performance, even community theatre, said Austin.

Yet many people have told him they badly miss local theatre and performers are “chomping at the bit.”

Experimenting with First Friday outdoor shows is testing the waters for what may become full-fledged outdoor concerts in the future.

And a final note about downtown’s local entertainment revival. An event called “Stage Three: A Pop-up Art and Open Mic Night” is being hosted at 100 Christina Street on Friday, Aug. 14.

It’s being billed as a celebration of art and music created during quarantine and starts at 7 p.m.

If you have an idea for an inspiring cultural story featuring local talent, send it to [email protected].

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