Bonnie Geller went to a live concert Monday morning, but the 75-year-old didn’t have to do much more than click a few buttons, let alone leave her couch.
Seated in her apartment in River Heights, coffee in hand, laptop at the ready, Geller tuned in for the jazz stylings of guitarist Larry Roy and vocalist Erin Propp.
It’s not her favourite genre — that would be classical or the folk music of the 1960s — but still, Geller was grateful for the entertainment and company at a time when it can be tough to come by.
"It’s an event," she said, a little different than the symphony, but an event nonetheless. Even if they aren’t in the same room, about 150 people are also watching.
Until March, Geller could count on a taste of live music, a dose of current events, or weekly Shabbat gatherings at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre, a non-profit seniors’ organization with over 350 active members as young as 50 or as old as double that.
For the last decade, the centre gave Geller a few days a week of conversation and stimulation, something she’s missed dearly since the pandemic began.
The centre’s staff felt the same way since its last event, a March 13 concert with 80 people in attendance at the small North End hub. "As much as the seniors are missing coming here, we’re missing having them," said Becky Chisick, the executive director.
In lieu of in-person gatherings, the centre redeveloped its website, with hopes of delivering some kind of programming to its clientele, some of whom had relied on the centre for four decades for community engagement, cultural connection, and ultimately, a place to feel welcome.
"Our first thought was entertainment," Chisick said. "What they look forward to more than anything is to hear music."
Chisick certainly never planned on it before COVID-19, but the Gwen Secter centre has now entered the world of streaming to deliver on that promise.
With funding from the Manitoba Arts Council, the centre, led by long-time collaborator Karla Berbrayer, produced a 10-concert series replete with jazz, klezmer, Golden Era Broadway tunes, and a dash of George Gershwin.
Every Monday morning until mid-December, a new 30-minute concert will be posted to gwensecter.com, free of charge; all you need is an email address and an internet connection.
Berbrayer said the intention of the series was to provide high-quality entertainment, so each show was staged by a professional crew — lights, camera, editing — at the Berney Theatre, and shot live, without an audience.
"The first question I got from many performers was, ‘How many takes do we have?’" Berbrayer laughed. "One!"
The series was shot in a single day, with rotating performances, including Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra pianist Richard Boughton, vocalist Nadia Douglas, Rainbow Stage and Manitoba Opera regular Aaron Hutton, duo Kevin McIntyre and Laura Olafson, and a "borscht belt" revue of Yiddish, Hebrew and English songs sung by Shayla Fink of klezmer outfit Finjan.
The result is more polished than the live-from-my-living-room shows that have become popular during the pandemic era, and a bit more up to the expectations of an audience of people, like Geller, starved for live entertainment.
Chisick’s biggest worry was whether members would be able to navigate the website, but she says she’s been impressed by how quickly people who might never have touched an iPad before March have already become adept with the technology.
For Geller, it’s been no problem: as a former school teacher, she had to learn to use computers in the 1980s, and saw it was pretty intuitive.
“With these concerts, it’s brought back the experience and our warm memories of what we had before the pandemic.” –Bonnie Geller
"People don’t realize seniors can have excellent computer skills," says Geller, who favours her Macbook and uses it daily. "My son (in Ottawa) is having a bris for his son coming up, and I’m going to watch it on Skype!"
Geller said she has felt lonely and disconnected since the centre closed to the public, and especially since cold weather and rising case counts have relegated most visits to phone calls or FaceTime, but the concert series has already become anticipated viewing.
"It makes your day, and it starts making your week, because there’s not an awful lot to do," she said. "With these concerts, it’s brought back the experience and our warm memories of what we had before the pandemic."
Even if it’s jazz, it’s still music. She can make time for that.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.