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Happy to Be Here: Gone missing in 2020

It’s a familiar story these days of COVID-19. A structure collapses – not a physical building but an organization. Like dominoes, everything falls. And no industries have been harder hit than the performing arts.
With theaters closed and large-group gatherings forbidden, there is no live audience, a necessary ingredient for musicians’ and actors’ work.
That’s the Riverside Symphonia’s plight this year. The orchestra’s carefully planned 30th anniversary season was stopped before it could start.
The Gershwin Spectacular planned for April had to be cancelled; then the Caprio Young Artists Competition set for May 3 was postponed until fall.
Perhaps the biggest calamity, since it is the biggest fundraiser or the year, is that the outdoor Concert Under the Stars complete with picnics and fireworks to celebrate the Fourth of July at Tinicum Park had to be cancelled. The Symphonia depends on ticket sales from that concert to support activities for the next season.
The future is anything but certain. The orchestra board was hoping that outdoor concert could be moved to Labor Day but the judgment, based on talks with local government and park officials and common sense favored cancelling that concert altogether.
“The cancellation has a huge impact on the bottom line for revenue,” said Elizabeth Griffin, a board member and former chair. There are worries about a resurgence of the virus after relaxation of shutdown rules, which is hoped to begin this weekend.
The virus hit close to home with Bruce Hamilton’s hospitalization this spring after contracting the coronawirus. Hamilton, former board chair and the current finance committee chair, was released from the hospital in May after weeks of treatment. The number of perennial ticket holders infected in the pandemic is not known.
“I worry about the plight of our musicians,” Griffin said. “Many have lost all sources of livelihood ... many of them are also music teachers and that source of income is also now lost.” Michael Arenella, whose small group entertains with 1920s and ‘30s music at Symphonia social events, has resigned from the board so he can pursue more engagements and income he depends on.
Music Director Mariusz Smolig has been with the Symphonia since 1995. He thanked the supporters and volunteers on the Symphonia website this year for 30 years of making sure that “live orchestral music is part of the artistic life of our river towns.”
“Like everyone else, I’m a prisoner of my house,” he said Friday in a call from Houston, Texas, his home. Smolig is an international performer, accustomed to traveling around America and Europe conducting orchestras as a guest or as music director.
Smolig spoke of differences in other countries, especially Germany and Austria, where orchestras and other cultural institutions have direct government support. But the central element in the United States, he said, “is that people cannot gather under one roof.”
Smolig sees a bigger picture than losing just one season in the Delaware Valley. “There is no way to support music here when there is no participation by audiences,” he said.
One bright light ahead is an intimate evening of music that travels through time. It’s full of variety, Smolig said, hoping that the performance will go on as planned. “From Mozart to Billy Joel and Leonard Cohen” is scheduled for 8 p.m. Oct. 19, at the First Presbyterian Church of Lambertville, N.J.
Amazingly diverse, with violinist Gregory Harrington as soloist and the Riverside String Quintet, the music glides through Mozart, Dvorak, Bach, Bob Dylan, Beethoven, Leonard Cohen, Radiohead, Johnny Cash, Adele, U2, and Dave Brubeck.
For every one of its 30 years, the Riverside Symphonia has held a Christmas concert on the first weekend in December. If Christmas angels are with them the full orchestra and a chorus will be on the stage of South Hunterdon High School in Lambertville for this year’s Musical Celebration of Christmas at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7.
Another of the Symphonia’s offerings, its community outreach, has been cut off, probably for the rest of the year. In an ordinary year, musicians visit nursing homes and assisted living centers and they work with schools to bring professional musicians to students. Outreach is gone for the duration, with senior housing areas off limits to visitors and uncertain access to schools, if they are open.
The 30th Anniversary Gala that the board spent months preparing had to be held off until 2021. It was to be held at the Woolverton Inn in Stockton, N.J.
Cullen McAuliffe, the orchestra’s executive director, speaks in an animated, upbeat voice. “Full steam ahead,” he said this week. The board is already making decisions for the 31st season, recognizing that many unknowns lie ahead. One of them is whether people will be comfortable joining a large audience. Another is the musicians’ union, which has been cooperating.
“It’s hard but still important – we have to fulfill our mission,” McAuliffe said.
All involved are hoping that next year will be different.
Donations and ticket purchases may be made online at, by check sent to P.O. Box 650, Lambertville, N.J. 08530, or by phone at 609-397-7300.