What does an orchestra look like during a pandemic? What happens when concert halls close down but you still have a full roster of musicians?
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is finding out, as it ventures into unknown terrain. The company this week announced that, with its own investment of $287,000, it was rescinding musician and staff layoffs to May 1, with a goal of using the new the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy to keep them on through June.
That means the third-largest symphony in Canada has the human power it needs to keep the music playing. Now it can develop digital and other programming to keep audiences—old and new—engaged. Tonight (April 21), it's launching its VSO@Home series on YouTube, with a virtual chamber concert featuring excerpts from Richard Strauss’s Serenade for Winds and Gioachino Rossini’s Duet for Cello and Double Bass. Maestro Otto Tausk provides an introduction.
“We reevaluate every single day,” says Angela Elster, who stepped in as the new president and CEO of the VSO only two months before the city shut down gatherings of more than 50 people. “Now that the musicians are ready to perform virtually, we can bring two or three of them together.…We’ll have about 10 projects released in the next few weeks.” Quality recording will be paramount, she says, as the orchestra looks at virtual chamber pieces or duets and trios performed with members sitting two metres apart.
From the start of the pandemic, the organization has activated two task forces: a COVID-19 senior-management team that reviews the situation seven days a week, and a virtual-projects group made up of musicians and some of the VSO’s senior leaders.
“We’ve reached out to musicians for ideas,” Elster says. “We have to look at what kind of equipment we need. I believe, in times of crisis, artists and musicians are driving our best material.”
It’s not that the COVID-19 crisis hasn’t hit the VSO hard. Revenues have dropped by 40 percent. Furthermore, Elster says, it’s been one of the worst times of year to be forced to shut down, bringing the cancellation of VSO spring and summer pops concerts that were once expected to generate significant revenue.
“Like all of us, we are navigating uncharted territory,” she says, “but I’ve got to say I love this organization—what I’ve seen in musicians coming together and staff uniting around the importance of music in times like these.”
Elster is relieved at commitments from all three levels of government—from the renewal of core operational funding to the CEWS. She comments, “I’m so impressed with how absolutely articulate they’ve become about the importance of the arts and the role of music,” she says. “The CEWS is our anchor to proceed."
The musicians are figuring out new ways to perform. “We’ve been working on parts remotely, and it’s been interesting putting these together from miles—or perhaps blocks—apart,” says assistant principal bassist Noah Reitman.
“It’s been a very strange transition, because ultimately, for us as performers, we’re supposed to be in front of a live audience. What’s interesting is that classical music has primarily been an analogue profession: all you really need is lights, and maybe a battery for a metronome. Now, overnight, everybody has become a Youtube star.…But it may be a blessing in disguise: we can learn how to use technology online and hopefully it can entice new audiences.”
He says Zoom has facilitated meetings between the 60-plus musicians with their music director, Tausk, who’s currently holed up at his home in the Netherlands.
“That’s been a major positive of Otto’s leadership,” says Reitman, who’s been hosting his own YouTube series of musical exercises on his balcony in the past few weeks (one a scales duet with bass-playing wife Maggie Hasspacher, along with their baby, Madeline, in a back carrier). “In Europe, orchestras, when they’re hiring a new player, the conductor gets precisely one vote. It really shows he’s one of us. And this has been a tremendous opportunity for the individual orchestra members to step up. We have an opportunity for everybody to have an individual voice.”
The VSO has been uniquely well-positioned for this leap into virtual programming. It was one of the first orchestras to get livestream content online when COVID-19 restrictions hit, broadcasting YouTube and Facebook performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s fifth and sixth symphonies it had scheduled for its spring festival. Those shows, performed in an empty Orpheum, together drew more than 120,000 views, the equivalent of dozens of sold-out Orpheum shows—and a response that made the VSO confident it could pursue more online. “That’s when we realized expanding beyond the Lower Mainland was really important, as well,” Elster adds.
As another boost, the VSO last year wrapped up the creation of a five-year strategic plan, Cascade of Choice, that included launching more digital content; with COVID-19, it can now accelerate a plan that was already in the works. The strategy has been taken up just as quickly at its VSO School of Music, which now has a range of offerings online.
The digital advances being made now should benefit the organization long after the point when audiences can gather in the Orpheum or the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts again.
Meanwhile, the company is staying optimistic about moving forward with its 2020-21 season in September—though there are a few contingency plans. “We are completely committed to the experience of live performances by an orchestra,” asserts Elster.
For his part, Reitman sees the potential for classical music to broaden its reach via the digital sphere during these reflective times—even as he prepares to play live again. “We’re going to do concerts again, that’s for sure,” he says. “Now it’s ‘How can we come out of it stronger and more diversified?’