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Pandemic Profile: How One San Diego Arts Leader Pivots 3 Performing Arts Groups To Virtual Spaces

Ruben Valenzuela, Founder/Artistic Director of the Bach Collegium, choral conductor of the La Jolla Symphony Chorus and Director of Music at All Souls' Episcopal Church is shown in the church on Dec. 31, 2020.
Local Arts Leader Reflects On How The Arts In San Diego Are Faring During The Pandemic
Listen to this story by John Carroll

What happens to an organization whose sole purpose is to perform in front of a live audience, when that’s not possible? That’s a question arts organizations have been grappling with since the onset of the pandemic.

“As the months progressed, it became even more clear that this was, this was a long haul,” said Ruben Valenzuela, reflecting on the early days of the pandemic.


Valenzuela has played the organ at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Point Loma thousands of times, but now he plays to an empty church with only microphones listening. Valenzuela is the Director of Music and organist at the church.

“What’s been taken away is the very thing that we’re usually doing, that is performing,” he said.

VIDEO: Local Arts Leader Reflects On How The Arts In San Diego Are Faring During The Pandemic

So, like many churches all over the world, Valenzuela moved the music, organ and choir, into the virtual space.

He calls the early online days the "Jurassic period."


But over time, with safety in mind, changes were made. The end product got better.

“Things started to kind of refine themselves. 'OK, we can get some people in here in the building which gives us a proper acoustic, which means we can use the organ which means that OK, I think the product would be better if we had lights,' so somebody donated lights and little by little the church became essentially a recording studio for the week-to-week church,” said Valenzuela.

Valenzuela’s musical world stretches beyond the sacred. He is also choral conductor for the La Jolla Symphony Chorus.

The group is made up entirely of volunteers, so along with moving performances online, Valenzuela had to think about how to keep the group engaged.

“We have some time, let’s stop now and look at X, Y and Z in depth. We can’t sing it, but we can talk about it, we can look under the surface, we can look at the history, the context and so there’s been a lot of occasion for that,” he said.

RELATED: Pandemic Profile: San Diego Opera

In addition to his duties at All Souls’ and the La Jolla Symphony Chorus, Valenzuela is also artistic director of the Bach Collegium. He founded the group in 2003. The pandemic presented him with very different challenges for this group compared to the others.

“What are we going to do next? We have concerts planned, they got pulled, they got cancelled, people paid for things. What are we gonna do?” Valenzuela wondered.

In an ongoing series, KPBS takes a look at how San Diegans are coping during the coronavirus pandemic.

Somehow, he has made it all work. He’s done it by being innovative, thinking outside the box.

He said that means a number of things learned during the pandemic, different ways of doing things, will remain once the pandemic is past.

“It would be a huge mistake to just turn your back on all that’s been learned in this year, whenever this ends, 'cause there are some valuable tools. I mean, you need to have at your fingertips the ability to reach out to your constituents, whether they’re your congregation, whether they’re ticket buyers, supporters, donors, when you can’t do a live performance,” Valenzuela said.

Now, with vaccines being distributed, Valenzuela is looking toward the future, and he admits to some anxiety.

“I find myself looking at things on TV or YouTube, and I see pre-pandemic footage, and I cringe because I think we’ve gotten used to now seeing people distanced, people with masks, certainly in the music arena, so I think that trigger will be there for quite some time, and I wonder how much of that distancing aspect will linger for even longer than we think," he said.

Even in a virtual way, the arts have helped a lot of us get through these dark days.

Now, that the end of the COVID era is hopefully coming into view, we’re all left to wonder - what form will they take in a world finally free of the ravages of once-in-a-century pandemic.