Finding a Way to Come Together Again

By Paul Eichhorn, General Manager, SweetWater Music Festival


Remember a time way back in 2020 when we all were saying this COVID thing would be a distant memory by the summer of 2021? It didn’t work out that way… not by a longshot!


For live music presenters such as the SweetWater Music Festival and the Georgian Bay Symphony, to call these times challenging is an understatement. From week to week, from month to month, it’s never totally clear if you can hold concerts indoors or even outdoors, how many people can attend, and is it even safe to do so. For SweetWater, there was no doubt we would once again keep the music alive in 2021 but how it would happen was the big question.

Unlike a typical year when most details including venues and performers are confirmed by early spring, in 2021 much of this was in flux. As we entered a Third Wave (are we not getting a little tired of the waves), it was unclear if any live in-person events would be allowed even by September when SweetWater 2021 would take place. We knew the spring had no window for an in-person concert. Our always determined Artistic Director Edwin Huizinga quickly came up with a plan in early March to record a digital concert with pianist Philip Chiu in Toronto (Philip is also a featured performer during SweetWater 2021). Naturally, COVID-19 once again roared back to life by the end of March and the church they had planned to shoot the performance was suddenly not available. But Edwin persevered and found a private residence that would work for this shoot. Yes, we kept the music alive in the spring and we had many who tuned in to enjoy the digital concert premiere.


By early summer, it appeared we were saying goodbye to COVID and everyone was feeling relief with vaccinations now happening. We moved boldly forward with our first plan for a hybrid festival: indoor, outdoors, and online. With the border situation still up in the air, we opted to go with a Canadian-only line up again – just seemed prudent. But even as things looked promising as Stage 3 began, it’s clear our new normal can present lots of unexpected challenges.

Many of our long-time venues have had to adapt and also ensure health and safety. This is meant restriction patrons to numbers well below what works for operating a live music event. And there’s all the other measures such as limited use of facilities etc. We had to adapt again and in some cases opted to look at alternative venues as well that would better suit our needs. Yes, we actually had to change two venues in mid August (unheard of a month before a Festival any time in our past 17 seasons). And that’s not all… a key concert line up was totally changed that same week in part due to COVID considerations. Yes, that virus was now even getting a say on the artistic programming!


Launching a Festival and ticket sales is one of the exciting times for any live music event. We typically do so mid to late spring. Due to the many unknowns, we opted to move it to mid summer. But even that was a challenge as we had our mid-August surprises. Everything was pushed into late August. Not ideal but that’s the reality of running a live music event in the COVID age.


Right now I am putting together a seven-day production schedule. It is uplifting to see on that schedule for four Mainstage Concerts, a special Celebration concert, four Community Concerts, along with our Classical Jam event and the String Instrument Showcase. We have brought together an amazing group of musicians (20 in total) along four finalists from our Next Wave Showcase (held online again back in June). Looks like COVID is staying at bay for now… I’m just watching the weather forecast as it’s a factor when you are doing outdoor events (so much easier when concerts happen indoors).


Tickets are still for sale both for in-person and livestream access (no tickets at the door – another change do to COVID). It has been another crazy journey to bring together a music festival but we’re doing it. Some would say, “Is it worth going through all these hoops to make it happen?” My answer would be, “YES!” We all need to come together again… and we all need to hear the music.


To find out more about SweetWater 2021 or to purchase in-person or livestream tickets, go to sweetwatermusicfestival.ca



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