In fall of 2012, the Oregon Symphony was eagerly anticipating its impending return to Carnegie Hall, where its critically acclaimed performance in the previous year’s Spring for Music festival had vaulted the orchestra to national attention and affirmed what Oregonians had known for years: at its best, OSO performances could rival those delivered by top ranked American orchestras.
But at the peak of its national renown, the orchestra suffered a setback: a financial crunch meant it couldn’t afford the return visit to New York for the 2013 Spring for Music festival. With the performance canceled long after the rest of the season had been planned, OSO musicians faced a rarity: a week with no musical obligations.
The cancellation revealed another, less welcome truth: for all its demonstrated musical skill, the orchestra lacked the community support to pay for the New York trip, and in fact the players were facing cuts in pay, possible downsizing, and other challenges — part of a much broader, longer term (and mostly self-inflicted) decline in the classical music establishment’s contemporary cultural relevance.
That was the backdrop when OSO concertmaster Sarah Kwak and a few of her colleagues sat down to brainstorm what to do with their unexpectedly available week. The players could have taken a well deserved break or maybe filled the calendar with teaching, rehearsing, or chamber music gigs, though the late notice might have made that difficult.
Instead, they chose to make a virtue of necessity and turn a setback into an opportunity. A need for community connection, a suddenly available week for symphony musicians… maybe both problems could be addressed simultaneously. During a brainstorming session that fall, OSO musicians tried to figure out how best to use their unanticipated break. They arrived at a goal: “How can we help the symphony to gain more visibility for the orchestra and do something for the community?” Kwak recalls. It would cost way too much for the whole orchestra to perform, the group realized. “So we decided: ‘why don’t we go out and play chamber music instead?’” Kwak remembers. “The ideas evolved into a community engagement project.”