Chamber Music NW: never waste a good crisis

Forced to quickly shift from live to virtual performances, the venerable Portland institution achieves surprising intimacy and success

By the middle of March, Chamber Music Northwest’s leaders knew their upcoming summer festival would have to change. The spreading pandemic was clearly going to make the kind of crowded concert halls common in the annual summer festival dangerous at best, illegal at worst. How could the festival, approaching its 50th anniversary, respond? 

I know a lot of folks enjoy classical music performance precisely for the sense of grandeur and occasion and the chance to dress up. But for me, CMNW — except for the performers’ dorky, ill-fitting ‘50s-style white dinner jackets that no one looks good in — has always been about casual informality. From its earliest days with audience members sweating on cushions in a Reed College cafeteria to today’s college and club concert halls, CMNW’s relaxed atmosphere contributes to that feeling of accessibility. How would the festival be able to recapture it on screen instead of in person?  

(L-R) Incoming Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Directors Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim played Bartok with their predecessor, David Shifrin. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Like every other festival and performing arts organization, CMNW was entering uncertain territory. But unlike other summer festivals, which mostly happen in July and August, CMNW wanted to stick to its June opening, when performers and listeners would presumably have already blocked out. So it would have no examples to guide its response. “We’d been talking weekly with similar organizations around the country since the pandemic began,” Executive Director Peter Bilotta remembers. “We realized no one had a model for doing this. Being one of the first festivals occurring this summer, we essentially pioneered the model.”

That model turned out to be a surprising success — and it’s influencing other music festivals beyond Oregon.

Live and Archived

As they scrambled to create a new festival format, Bilotta, retiring Artistic Director David Shifrin, and their colleagues considered several tentative options: live performances in front of small, socially distanced crowds; an all-virtual festival comprising streams of archival recordings; a live-streamed festival with musicians streaming performances from their homes or empty concert halls. That weekend, Shifrin perused CMNW’s video archives, including recordings (some experimental, some archival) never intended for public viewing. He found enough usable video to make up an entire virtual festival. 

CMNW had an ace in the hole: along with video, those shows had also been recorded in high-quality, high-definition audio. If those recordings were synced to the video recordings, they could stream much higher quality performances than could ever be achieved by the camera-mounted microphones used to record many impromptu streaming performances.

Still hoping for some kind of live component, Shifrin also reached out to some of the musicians who were planning to play in Portland this summer. If live performances turned out to be untenable, he asked, could they maybe stream live performances from safe places and settings? That would depend on being able to present repertoire that didn’t depend on non-family members playing together. Several agreed. 

For five weeks beginning in June, twice a week on Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/ Friday, the festival presented two virtual concerts recorded at performances in recent years — sort of a CMNW’s greatest recent hits. Each weekend, the Virtual Summer Festival offered remote live performances from CMNW veterans, performing either from their homes or an empty concert hall.

Shifrin chatted with live with various musicians, including Emerson Quartet’s Eugene Drucker.

Along with a mix of live and archival streams, “we wanted to throw in another aspect that’s very important to the festival,” Bilotta recalls, “the social connection.” One of the summer gathering’s most attractive aspects is its easy informality, with musicians and listeners mingling on Reed College lawns, in casual pre- and post-concert talks, and other relaxed settings. 

To capture that feeling of connection, the festival aired brief, amiable, between-performance conversations between Shifrin (recording from his home)  and some of the featured performers and composers (from theirs), looking back on those original experiences. “We thought about making it polished and fancy,” Bilotta remembers. But they realized that with so many viewers now stuck at home, engaged in Zoom calls and other remote work, formality didn’t suit the situation. “That’s the moment we’re in. So we kept it a little rustic —more real.” They turned out to be one of the most charming and unusual aspects of what turned out to be a surprisingly successful and unusual festival. 

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Live Shots

Except for the Miro Quartet’s Beethoven cycle, recorded from the quartet’s Austin home base, the other live performances – limited mostly to solo or family shows to avoid contagion risk – of necessity amounted to relative trifles compared to the archived shows. Yet like the brief live conversations, they still played an important role: compensating somewhat for the medium’s inherent disconnectedness by offering appealing glimpses into the players’ home lives. 

In one of my favorite chamber works, Mozart’s epic, misnamed Divertimento for String Trio K. 563 (it’s way more substantial than a diversion), CMNW vets violist Steven Tenenbom and violinist Ida Kavafian played together from their New York living room, with masked cellist Peter Wiley appropriately distanced. As with the Neubauer family’s live performance of various quartets on the same program, the homey atmosphere compensated for other understandable shortcomings.

In another live show, Edgar and George Meyer’s father-and-son performance, one of the world’s greatest bassists reminded viewers of the incredible fluidity he displays on what can be an ungainly instrument — though not in the hands of an Edgar Meyer, or David Friesen, Jaco Pastorius, Victor Wooten, or other great bassists. Meyer even somehow made his adaptation for bass of one of J.S. Bach’s famous cello suites look easy. 

Live on screen: Hyun & Meyer.

The episode also included a remote guest appearance by Katie Hyun on the world premiere of George Meyer’s likable viola and violin duo, which reflected his Americana roots music background. The pair played from two different remote home studios.

I didn’t catch the Miro Quartet’s Beethoven performances, but I did enjoy another concert-hall stream. In a live segment of the closing compiled concert, which otherwise was devoted to classics, Shifrin delivered a persuasive premiere of a short, virtuosic new solo by composer David Ludwig. Good to know that his celebrated chops are intact, as he’ll be returning to CMNW as a (nonpareil) clarinetist even though he’s passed on his leadership baton to incoming artistic directors Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim.

Shifrin played Ludwig live and solo.

Second Time Around

 I’m sure I’m not the only music lover suffering a little screen fatigue from the abundance of offerings that I’d have welcomed in past years. So I wound up skipping most of the archival concerts I’d actually attended in person, and those exclusively featuring standard classical repertoire. (Besides, no point in re-covering many of these concerts we’ve reviewed over the years here on ArtsWatch.) Moreover, some CMNW vets’ recent performances of overfamiliar classic chamber rep have felt phoned in, like they’ve played it too many times to invest it with any real passion, yet rehearsed it too few times for it to feel polished. In my experience, the musicians seem to bear down more when playing new or unfamiliar music. 

Nevertheless, in the performances I did see in this virtual greatest hits parade, it was clear that Shifrin cannily chose some of the very best out of the festival’s extensive archive, assembling each virtual concert from performances by different groups, sometimes recorded years apart. In that respect, the virtual fest had an advantage over the real thing. Shifrin also chose wisely in brief pre-performance talks by the composers or performers, some live this time, some from the original  talks.

Anne-Marie McDermott & Gilles Vonsattel play Stravinsky. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Along with the cream-of-the-crop performances, I was pleasantly surprised by the archived concerts’ high video and recording quality, courtesy of photographer/ videographer Tom Emerson, and recording engineers Rod Evenson and Branic Howard, whose work I listened to both on my headphones and speakers. Several videos used multiple camera angles, including closeups on the keyboard, that really paid off in shows such as CMNW veteran Anne Marie McDermott and fellow pianist Gilles Vonsattel’s blistering rendition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, arranged for four hands piano. Like several of these videos of performances that I also witnessed in person, the recording compensated for the inevitable loss of irreplaceable immediacy with closeups that spotlighted their fierce concentration and the intricate dance of their hands careening across the keyboard. It’s a spectacular performance with surprising clarity amid all the fireworks, and I was glad to hear (in their live comments to this rebroadcast) that the release of this video has inspired them to revisit it again for the first time since it was recorded in early 2015. 

CMNW’s Breaking Boundaries show happily avoided the usual retreads, concentrating instead on late 20th century and early 21st century music by the great Argentine composers Lalo Schifrin and Astor Piazzolla, and nicely caught the spark of fun that animated Shifrin and his colleagues in the festival’s informal tango ensemble. Shifrin and the Dover Quartet also had a jazzy good time in a spiffy David Schiff arrangement of classical Duke Ellington tunes. I also enjoyed a bluegrassy set starring Meyer pére and fils. And it was a treat to hear other 20th century classics by Bartok, Shostakovich and Peter Schickele in other concerts, even those I’d seen the first time.

 I especially enjoyed the Protégé Project performances, which confirmed an impression I’ve had since the project started: Whatever these young players lack in experience, they more than make up in the freshness and energy of their performances of classics that their elders have probably played too many times. For example, violinist Angelo Yu and pianist Andrew Hsu’s ebullient performance of a Mozart violin sonata, originally recorded in 2016 at Alberta Rose Theatre, delightfully captured Mozart’s ever-youthful spirit, and the multi-camera-angle closeups allowed everyone — not just the front-rowers — to experience their evident joy. I hope CMNW will make these videos available, either for free or as fundraising vehicles to contributors. 

Andrew Hsu and Angelo Yu performed at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Contemporary Sounds

I mostly wanted to hear contemporary music. It’s a truism in new music that while premieres are essential, second performances may be rarer and more valuable: They lack the excitement and media coverage of a first performance, but are necessary if a piece is to have a chance of entering the performing repertoire. This is another advantage of virtuality: allowing listeners a second chance to grasp inherently unfamiliar material.  

I got both in a single-show compilation of highlights from recent CMNW American new music concerts. Along with miniatures by David Lang and Chris Rogerson, it boasted glittering compositions by two generations of composers Hannah Lash and Kevin Puts, plus a ripping reading of young L.A. composer Kristapor Najarian’s danceable A Tale for Two Violins, which featured CMNW veteran Kavafian sisters unleashing fierce fiddle fireworks and smartly navigating the odd meters thanks to their familiarity with the Armenian music that inspired it. I wanted to stand up and cheer again at home, as I actually did the first time around in person. Despite the success (and title) of this duet version, I’d love to hear a fully fleshed-out arrangement of this swinging music for chamber ensemble, or even orchestra. 

The Jasper Quartet played movements from a new ‘Four Seasons.’

The concert closer, the intriguing 2019 CMNW co-commission Four Seasons, consisted of new seasonal compositions for the Jasper String Quartet by American composers Lera Auerbach, Akira Nishimura, and Joan Tower (the fourth, by Christopher Theofanidis, was unfortunately not performed), arranged into a kind of modern suite and performed in various cities. Like its namesake, Vivaldi’s famed foursome, it comprises very different separate works, each of which stands alone but which also work surprisingly well together. After Auerbach’s mysterious-to furious-to playful first movement, Nishimura’s eerie and intense Azure Dragon functions as a taut yet pensive slow movement, while the terrific Tower’s concluding Wild Summer (inspired by an “intense manic” teenage summer she filled with “as much dancing, partying, and going after the boys as possible”) pulls off one of those dramatic, exhilarating kickers she delivers so masterfully. It’s one of her best, and CMNW’s long, fruitful relationship with Tower has been a boon to American music. I can’t wait to hear the full foursome. 

I’m a fan of American composer Bruce Adolphe’s amiable music, but the star in his Marita and Her Heart’s Desire was the irresistible 2016 performance from the great Portland actor Michele Mariana, who also sang in the 1994 premiere and on the recording. I’m so glad this delightful performance has been preserved so that kids and adults alike can continue to enjoy this modern female-centric counterpart to the inevitable Peter and the Wolf. 

‘Marita’ narrator Michele Mariana. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Another kid-friendly perennial on the program, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, even received a freshening-up, courtesy of pianist Orion Weiss’s original narration from 2017. Also from that year, Imani Winds flutist/composer Valerie Coleman’s lively Portraits of Langston completed a superb concert compilation of words-and-music combos whose music alone would have thrilled me even without the welcome bonus of Imani oboist Monica Ellis’s sly, expressive narration and the words of my own favorite poet, Langston Hughes.

Finally, the rerun of Bright Sheng’s CMNW-commissioned chamber opera, The Silver River, proved every bit as enthralling on screen as I remembered it in person, with the bonus closeups of the singing actors nearly compensating for the you-aren’t-there musical distancing that screens impose. I hope lots of readers got a chance to catch it in the week-long run CMNW allotted it and Marita.

‘Portraits of Langston’ narrator Monica Ellis. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Ironic Intimacy 

How do you measure success in a festival that necessarily departed from all norms, including ticket sales? For me, this summer’s emergency rebooted festival proved surprisingly successful at maintaining the sense of connection that’s always made this festival so appealing. 

Granted, there’s no getting around the fact that for me, at least, sitting in front of a screen, large or small, just feels detached from real life and real performance. I shamefully confess to occasionally doing other things, like checking in on the federal government’s political-theater abuse of Portland and its brutality for political purposes, while the musicians were laboring away on screen, mostly when viewing a concert I’d already seen in person. (One Texas writer has called this Screen vs. Live experience the difference between being a viewer and an audience member.) 

Nevertheless, these live glimpses of t-shirted musicians talking and playing in their homes in some ways brought us closer to the players, both on stage and off, than a distant seat in an auditorium could. During one such chat, a shirt-sleeved Shifrin’s handsome canine wandered happily through the frame, again reinforcing the sense of intimacy and connection that longtime festival goers cherish. And who couldn’t fail to be touched by the musicians’ surprise final-concert virtual thank-you and farewell to the longtime artistic director? “You got me!” Shifrin grinned. Anything that knocks classical music off the dusty pedestal erected by the early 20th century snobocracy can only be good for both the music and music lovers. 

CMNW’s comfortingly familiar-looking online program book also made it easy for techno-paleos and -phobes by patiently walking readers through the process of getting the sound to play through connected speakers. Each video’s opening sequence even slipped recorded concert-hall conversation behind the introductory explanatory material onscreen, subtly recreating the atmosphere of browsing through the program book before the show starts, while other audience members around you chatter.  

While streaming will never come close to replicating the thrill of live music, what I saw of CMNW’s virtual festival managed to capture many of the real thing’s best features: excellent performances, hefty doses of new music, and, thanks to Shifrin’s easygoing approach, the relaxed intimacy that has made it an Oregon summer standard. How ironic that a medium so detached from human contact could nevertheless bring us closer, in some ways, than attending a live show, and somehow convey a measure of the close-up intimacy many of us are craving in these socially distant days. And let’s face it: it’s hard to get more relaxed than watching from your couch.

I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed much of this summer’s festival. One indicator: audience size. “The number of people who watched was shocking to us,” Bilotta said, noting that while a normal summer festival typically draws eleven to twelve thousand attendees, nearly fifty thousand people watched this summer’s festival, ranging from a per-concert low of 1,500 to a high of 3,500— both way more than would ever fit in Kaul Auditorium or Lincoln Hall.

That’s an impressive surge, but of course, unlike before, the listeners didn’t have to come to Reed College or Portland State University or even Portland: Some tuned in from around the U.S. and the world. And they didn’t have to pay. A brief donation appeal preceded each show, resulting in a total of $20,000 raised from more than 200 donors — still way short of breaking even. Bilotta reports that this year’s festival cost about $100,000, about a sixth of the usual expenses, with artist fees paid but no travel or venue rentals, etc. Despite the gap between income and expenses, CMNW raised nearly four times as much money — and garnered nearly ten times more viewers — as a similar Seattle festival brought in a few weeks later after putting the performances behind a paywall. 

Equally heartening to Bilotta were the abundant post-festival congratulatory messages from initially skeptical patrons, many of whom tentatively tried one show and wound up watching another dozen or more. He said the average viewer caught four concerts, but many watched all 18. “Not only did more people watch, but they kept coming back,” Bilotta said, and many watched entire two-hour concerts, way beyond the usual 10-minute YouTube experience.

The Price of Success

All that approbation came at a high cost. CMNW’s virtual performances might have looked easy to viewers, with few visible glitches and a laid-back, homey atmosphere. But producing that experience was a lot harder than it looked. 

“It’s an incredible amount of work and expense to do this,” Bilotta cautions. “People think you can just pull that stuff out of your archives and set up a video camera and go. No. It takes all the work of a live concert and almost all the expenses of it, too. Live-streaming and obtaining the right equipment and technicians to produce a quality video is very expensive,” ranging from $2,500 to $5,000, including paying the artists, videographer, sound engineer, video producer and CMNW staff. “It adds up to nearly the cost of doing a live concert. You’ve got to devote resources — people, time, money — to do it well. And you have to allow time.”

Chamber Music Northwest Executive Director Peter Bilotta.

Not just time for recording and editing. Moving massive, high-quality audio and video files from one machine to another, especially over the internet, can take hours. “We don’t have the tech resources for rapid uploads of massive amounts of information,” Bilotta explains. “A single Beethoven string quartet with high quality audio and video could take 16 hours to upload, sometimes even over fiber optic cable. Then the video producer’s got to download it, create two or three drafts that also have to be uploaded and downloaded and exported — another 12-16 hours. Then we have to upload to YouTube or or another video platform — that’s another 12-16 hours.” 

Bilotta said the Seattle festival that followed CMNW had planned to record each concert on one day, then edit and upload the next, and premiere the performance online that night. They wound up shifting the festival back by a week because they couldn’t get the programs up in time.

Lessons Learned

Allowing adequate time for moving data around is only one of several major lessons Chamber Music Northwest learned from this summer’s on-the-fly experiment. 

• Invest in quality. “Commitment to quality was the most important thing we did,” Bilotta says. “When it comes to supporting the artists providing it, we learned that people are willing to pay for quality content. The quality of the video, programs and audio really had an impact” on customer satisfaction revealed in a post-fest audience survey. “One of the lessons we learned is that you have to commit resources to quality, not just content. The  biggest lesson we learned this summer, and that others have learned from us, is that producing a high-quality program takes a lot of time, but that’s what differentiates us from all the other streaming events out there.”

• Be nimble. In the immortal words of pugilistic artist Mike Tyson: “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” So with so many punches coming these days, it’s important to adjust plans on the fly. “Our traditional model, which has been around a couple centuries, was blown to heck” by the pandemic,” Bilotta says. “How do we adapt to meet the new circumstances? We as organizations really need to enter the new era, the 21st century. We have to be more nimble, more flexible, more adaptable to changing circumstances.” He notes that it’s a lot easier for chamber music groups to do that than, say, orchestras, opera, theater or dance companies.

CMNW Live from NY – Kavafian, Tenenbom & Wiley streaming from home.

What does nimbleness mean? Maybe contracting out more jobs (like video editing) as needed and less on fixed staff? It all depends on what could be rapidly changing circumstances, he says, and organizations need to be able change course quickly in response.

• Broaden skill sets. “Internally, one of the biggest lessons we learned is that making this evolution is going to require skills we don’t have,” Bilotta says. Not just tech chops, but also the knowledge and resources to promote and market these new concert experiences.  

• Just do it. “We’re all having to adapt and deal with this new world,” Bilotta urges other arts organizations wondering how to move forward amid so much uncertainty. “Just do it. It’ll have meaning to someone now maybe more now than ever before and it will connect.”

It’s not exactly an instructional one, but “maybe the biggest lesson we learned is how vital our music and other arts are in people’s lives,” Bilotta says. “To see the positive reaction to what we were able to do this summer brought home how vital what we do is to people’s lives. We have to stay focused and share our music with as many people as possible.”

Looking Ahead

CMNW is applying those lessons to its just-announced 2020-21 season, which the staff is preparing as nine online concerts. But it’s also making contingency plans — on a concert-by-concert basis — to be able to go back to live performances if that becomes possible, whether it’s the old full orchestra-hall experience, or small socially distanced concerts of 50-100 listeners, or some hybrid of live and streaming. 

Performers will include the Brentano String Quartet, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, pianists Marc-Andre Hamelin and Julius Drake, clarinetist Anthony McGill, the Kenari Saxophone Quartet, mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, and more. Subscribers will also receive exclusive access to the recordings for some time after the livestream, plus monthly live musical conversation, invitations to online social gatherings, and — if live performance is allowed — the usual first dibs on tickets, priority seating, etc. Subscribers renewing before September 1 get a $25 discount. 

The festival is also investigating other streaming platforms that might be able to provide even higher quality sound than YouTube, with its compression algorithms, can. And it hopes to make some of the archived festival concerts available again in some fashion. 

CMNW’s Breaking Boundaries concert featured tango music with Pablo Aslan, David Shifrin, and more. Photo: Tom Emerson.

The pandemic and lockdown have pushed Chamber Music Northwest to be bolder than it otherwise would have, Bilotta says, and that attitude will influence the moves it makes going forward. “We’d all seen [the shift to streaming] coming for awhile, but this [pandemic] forced us to pivot to the new digital realm and reach out to people,” he says. He takes inspiration from a colleague who advised him at a conference during the recent recession: “Never waste a good recession,” then-Minnesota Opera chief executive Kevin Smith told him. “This is a chance to make all those changes you wanted to make for all these years — and blame the recession.” 

 Chamber Music Northwest has done things a certain way for decades — seven concerts per week, five weeks per summer. “With this crisis and a new artistic leadership team coming in, we can take a step back and ask, ‘does it still have to be this way?’” Bilotta explains. “Let’s use this crisis to evolve, to adapt to change, to shift our priorities, and find new ways of doing things. If we make a few missteps, we can blame it on the two years we had to take off. Never waste a good crisis.”

Now that it looks like we’re going to have to rely on recordings for a lot longer, and like virtual performances will be a big part of our lives from now on, we can be grateful that CMNW took the chances it did this summer. I’m disappointed that we couldn’t have a live experience, but the fact that this virtual festival is as good as it was provided a ray of sunshine amid the Covid cloud. And maybe the lessons learned from it will help Chamber Music Northwest and other arts organizations cope with the next storm.

Did you catch any of Chamber Music Northwest’s Virtual Summer Festival? If so, please leave your impressions in the comments section below.

Find out more about CMNW’s upcoming season here.

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About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell has been classical music editor at Willamette Week since 2008, music columnist for Eugene Weekly since 1996, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal since 2000. He is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities and has also written for The Oregonian, Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer. He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

One Response.

  1. Annie Munch says:

    Although I enjoyed both live and recorded concerts as CMNW pivoted to pay performers and produce a season, several of the “greatest hits” were worthy of their reprise. It was delightful to hear David Shifrin, Gloria Chien, Soovin Kim, the Emerson and Miro Quartets, plus several family groups perform. One performance that had remained seared in my memory was the duo of Augustin Hadelich and Inon Barnatan playing Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No 9 in A Major (Kreutzer). I think that David Shifrin put them together for the first time and the performance was magic in person and gorgeous in replay.

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