COVID-19: Vancouver classical and new music plays on, in creative digital ways

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      Even as Vancouver arts groups have been reeling from the effects of social distancing measures this week, they have been shifting into creative mode in the virtual world.

      From intimate, at-home commission series to full-blown virtual viewing parties, the classical and new-music community here has proven that it’s not only one of the industries hit hardest by COVID-19, but also one of the quickest to switch keys.

      “It will be interesting to see, when life gets back to normal, how much of this will have stayed with us,” observes Chor Leoni Men’s Choir artistic director Erick Lichte, who’s hosting his group’s first regular Wednesday-night live stream on April 1. “I have great faith and hope in the artists all over the world in how they’re going to find new ways to reach out, and I’m kind of excited to see what comes.”

      For its part, Chor Leoni has cooked up a sort of TV-inspired weekly online concert-show, in the face of what Lichte recognizes as one of the most pandemic-unfriendly art forms out there.

      “Think about it: our job is to put a large number of people in a room, have them sit as close to each other as possible so they can hear each other, and breathe for three hours,” the choir maestro, who will be hosting his group’s live stream, tells the Straight from his Vancouver home. “Then, when they’re done rehearsing, we put a thousand people in the same room to listen to them. I mean, it’s almost comical: we’re so tight it’s just a horrendous petri dish. But it hurts us not to do it!”

      At next Wednesday’s launch at 7 p.m. Inside Chor Leoni Livestream presents a mix of seven years’ worth of high-quality concert videos the choir has recorded in halls around the world, with commentary and special guests. It will stream on Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram TV.

      For this first edition, Lichte speaks with conductor Ethan Sperry about Translations, his new recording of Ēriks Ešenvalds’s works on the Naxos label.

      In another innovation, the ensemble will also stream its recorded music set to imagery by a local artist. In the first installment, Ešenvalds’s In Paradisum will be brought to life in artwork by Vancouver artist Tiko Kerr.

      In addition, the choir members will be on the line with commentary. “I think it will be a real eye-opener for the public on how we react,” says Lichte. “It’s a chance to come together as a choir once a week and remember what we do and why we do it, but also share that with the audience.

      “Yeah, we could have just released these videos on YouTube,” he adds, “but what we’re all missing is a sense of occasion; if you’re like me, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a Saturday, but it doesn’t feel different from any other day.’…We’re very clear that the impetus is COVID-19, but this is not going to be a woe-is-me show. Hopefully, it offers a bit of an escape; it’s about beauty and transcendence.”

      While the Little Chamber Music Series That Could’s Mark Haney launches Isolation Commissions, with Mark Takeshi McGregor.

      Over at the Little Chamber Music Series That Could, live-streaming on a more intimate scale has taken on roles as both emergency funding and a chance for artful reflection on these punishing times.

      The new Isolation Commissions offer donors a chance to give a musician of their choosing $200 to film a four-minute video performing at home—be it an improvisation, a favourite piece, a work of comfort, or a work in progress (the artist chooses).

      “Last Monday, when the shit hit the fan, my email inbox was full of cancellations and I had to cancel a concert series,” says managing artistic director Mark Haney. “I’ve been telling everyone this is really a chance to be reflective of this time, and it’s the artists’ chance to, in a low-key way, show how this impacts your artistic practice. I wish it was more money, but $200 is a trip to the grocery store or a way to top up the rent.”

      The well-known local composer and double-bass player has already collected a list of 25 donors and commissions for artists—some of whom have performed with the Little Chamber roster, and, to Haney’s delight, some who have not. The performers include Rebecca Whitling, Heather Pawsey, Rachel Iwaasa, John Korsrud, and Petunia. That’s $5,000 in emergency funding to musicians struggling to make ends meet.

      “When I first put it out there, I thought, ‘Well, I hope someone goes for it,’ ” says Haney. “Every day, a few have come in and they’re from all over the spectrum: artists supporting other artists, people I have never met, saying, ‘I want to support this person.’

      “Everything is moving so fast, I’m curious: what does Week 3 of this look like? Hopefully, when this whole situation is not what it is now, this [the commissions] will give a general idea of what this time was like, as a series of sketches from all these different artists who are all in the same position. Will we become more hopeful in the coming weeks, or do things turn really bad?”

      In the first commission, Vancouver flute star Mark Takeshi McGregor plays what he says is one of his favourite flute solos, Pierre-Octave Ferroud’s “Bergère Captive”, a choice that illustrates the constraints that some musicians are living under, having to practise at home. As he puts it in the video introduction: “Normally, I see myself as a performer of Canadian music, of contemporary music, but I’m home today and all of my neighbours are home today, so I thought I would mix it up and give them a bit of a break.”

      You can find the commission videos at and through social media, including the group’s YouTube channel, and sponsor your own at Little Chamber’s page on Canada Helps.


      Watch for more groups to launch virtual concerts. Early Music Vancouver, which was recently forced to cancel the remaining shows in its 50th-anniversary season, is one that has ideas in the works. In the meantime, here are three more local classical and new-music streaming initiatives to escape, reflect, or get inspired during lockdown:

      Unaccompanied: A New Online Concert Series

      The Canadian Music Centre BC, in partnership with Redshift Music Society, streams video recordings of live performances of Canadian works written for solo instruments. To launch, 10 musicians have been asked to choose and perform one of these works, with plans to expand as new funding becomes available. Names include sax player Colin MacDonald, soprano Dory Hayley, and cellist Marina Hasselberg. Watch for performances to be posted each Thursday at noon at, the organization’s Vimeo page, and on Facebook, and Twitter.


      Music On Main YouTube Channel

      The new-music series has been ahead of the curve, posting scores of videos on its channel, including concert performances and lively, informative Musical Moment talks with the likes of composer-performer Aaron Graham and composer Laura Bowler. It’s a way to relive the shows you saw or the concerts you missed when you took going out for granted; don’t miss the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, putting its chops to Caroline Shaw’s exhilarating “Partita for 8 Voices” at the Fox Cabaret.


      VSO Beethoven's Symphony No. 6

      When the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra live-streamed the "Pastorale" as its final concert of BeethovenFest last week, more than 70,000 virtual local and global audience members tuned in and the organization raised a whopping $16,000-plus to help keep the music playing. Now it's moved that performance to a permanent home on YouTube and wants your help to reach 4,000 viewing hours within three days, so it can unlock the next level on the platform. After that, the company says it intends to release another Beethoven symphony.