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After weekly concerts during the pandemic, here’s what’s next for the Secret Garden in Old Town

Garden portion of The Rectory set up as music venue during the pandemic in 2020. (via Classical Movements)

At the height of the pandemic, Classical Movements held weekly open-air concerts with world-renowned musicians in their “Secret Garden” in Old Town North.

Business is slowly returning to its hectic pace for Neeta Helms, the organization’s founder, as she and her staff organize trips around the world for some of the biggest classical musical acts in the business. The touring company has worked in 147 countries, and produces more than 50 annual musical tours, as well as hundreds of concerts.

“For us, this garden became the sign of spring and hope,” Helms said.

While the weekly concerts are no more, there are still monthly performances at the Secret Garden.

“It was never about the money,” Helms said of the Secret Garden concerts. “For 50 distanced people at $40 a person, that’s $2,000, while we have the concert master of the Philadelphia Orchestra, concert mistress of the National Symphony Orchestra, as well as the principal and second violin, the principal viola and principal clarinet play with us. If musicians of that caliber, who play in the greatest concert halls in the world and the Kennedy Center and are back playing every week to play in our garden, that should tell everybody something.”

Classical Movements, in June 2020, was one of the first venues in the region to open their doors for live performances. Between June and December 2020 alone, they hosted 40 socially distanced one-hour-long concerts, with a few noise complaints from neighbors.

“The first violinist in the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, before he played, said that he hadn’t played to a live audience for 15 months,” said Johan van Zyl, the company’s senior vice president. “As he was saying that, I was sitting on the side of the stage in the back and I could see his lip quivering. He was so emotional about the fact that he was playing to a live audience. That’s the moment for me where I thought we’re doing the right thing.”

The venue has also become a popular spot for weddings.

“What shocked us about Covid was that the music was singled out as one of the most dangerous things to do,” Helms said. “Choirs were identified right from the get-go, and performing music became this lethal activity. For us, we had 40-or-so tours all over the world that we had to cancel. We had to try to figure out how much money we could get back and give to our clients, which is a huge amount of money. Really what was at stake was millions of dollars.”

Helms said that the travel industry is at the whim and fancy of plagues, weather and international relations.

“We were affected by SARS and had to put tours on hold in China, or there was MERS, or there was a volcano erupting in Chile and we had to bus people 18 hours to get to a performance in Argentina,” she said. “On September 11, 2001, we had the New York Philharmonic itself flying back home from a residency in Braunschweig, Germany, and all flights were grounded until we could get everyone home four days later.”

Bucking trends musically is commonplace for Helms, whose first touring concert in Moscow’s Red Square in 1992, right after the fall of the Soviet Union, was attended by 100,000 people. The event was conducted by Russian defector Mstislav Rostropovich and featured the National Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Arts Society of Washington.

“For us in Red Square (in 1992), what was marvelous was being mobbed by people,” she said. “It was like touring with Elvis or the Beatles, because anyone in this Russia who met us gave us flowers and notes, and thanked us for the miracle of actually having music on Red Square, as opposed to demonstrations with tanks. By presenting music, it was a surprisingly revolutionary event, in hindsight.”

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