Covideo

Oregon music organizations respond to corona culture cancel with livestreaming

On Wednesday, March 11, Cappella Romana executive director Mark Powell faced a tough decision. The Portland vocal ensemble had a performance scheduled for that Saturday. But the coronavirus now threatened all concerts. Gov. Kate Brown had just prohibited public gatherings of greater than 250 people, half the attendance the group was expecting. And with the virus spreading and responses racing, even that might change. But the group had already rehearsed its performance of Tchaikovsky’s Divine Liturgy, singers from around the country had already arrived to join the Portland-based performers, 500 seats had already been sold, and the venue, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, couldn’t add a second performance if they wanted to split the audience in half.

Powell called his counterpart at Portland Baroque Orchestra (where he also used to work), which also had a concert coming up that weekend. “I was just going to call you,” PBO’s executive director Abigail McKee replied. With news arriving of concert cancellations around the country, the orchestra had just decided to livestream their Friday performance and had secured portable video equipment and a videographer. Would Cappella Romana like to use them for their Saturday show?

Powell leapt at the offer, canceling Saturday’s live performance. PBO in turn made the same offer to yet another Portland music group, Big Mouth Society, for its Sunday afternoon concert. All three wound up livestreaming their shows for the first time, and all declared the unexpected streaming experiment a resounding success. A week later, Portland taiko/dance ensemble Unit Souzou also livestreamed a show, by which time circumstances had changed in this rapidly evolving crisis.

With other Portland performing arts organizations also now planning to livestream events during the crisis, this month’s streaming experiments offer lessons pertinent long after 2020’s virus crisis and Great Culture Cancel have passed.

Livestreaming concerts is nothing new. Orchestras and venues around the world, some universities like the University of Oregon, and even whole festivals like Pickathon routinely or at least occasionally stream concerts live. Major orchestras in Philadelphia and Berlin, among others, offered streams of concerts that same weekend, and many classical organizations offer streaming content to subscribers. As in sports, music groups worry that making live (vs. later on-demand streams) performances available at home will decrease ticket sales for live performances. And it may be harder to capture the full sonic glory of large ensembles of unamplified acoustic instruments and voices.

But by mid-March, PBO, Big Mouth, Unit Souzou and Cappella Romana had little choice. Fortunately, PBO, which had been taking videos for its own purposes for years, already had an experienced videographer, Adam Lansky, and a mobile hotspot that fits into a backpack to stream the recording to the internet. “We decided that if we can get this technology together, it would be bad stewardship to not share it with the community,” during the unfolding crisis, said PBO director of patron loyalty Rachael Smith. All four groups feature regulars from other cities, and for that first weekend, with all the musicians in town and the show rehearsed, “we wanted to make sure people got to experience the music.” 

Portland Baroque Orchestra livestream March 2020. Photo by Rick Simpson.
Portland Baroque Orchestra livestreamed its March 2020 concert amid coronavirus concerns. Photo by Rick Simpson.

PBO executive director McKee conceived the idea of a live streaming series. But the ensemble had never streamed a concert without a live audience also present. For the musicians, that presented advantages (the single camera could move around the stage and take closeups) and disadvantages (absence of that magic feedback performers get from PBO’s typically packed shows). But after some initial awkwardness when the opening piece’s stirring final flourish was met with silence until the few PBO staffers clapped, the band settled in, even hamming it up during the intentionally goofy section of a theatrical concerto.

Like PBO, Cappella decided to make its live stream free to anyone, after weighing whether to make it available only to subscribers or ticket purchasers. “I felt that at this moment, the right thing to do was to share it with everyone ,” Powell said, “because this crisis was affecting everyone.”

Like the other groups, they decided to follow standard concert protocol, including bows, soloist acknowledgements and a curtain speech by the director, even sans live audience. They also moved the performance to St. Mary’s Cathedral, which provided better lighting and acoustics for the recording. Powell himself strung 100 feet of ethernet cable from the church office into the cathedral.

Big Mouth’s Sunday afternoon show was a little different, in that it had been planned all along for an intimate audience of at most 50, who were able to attend in person, with the group moving chairs far enough apart to keep the requisite safe distance. But knowing that many ticket buyers might not be able to make it to the show, they decided to offer purchasers a link to the hastily arranged live stream. Being a much younger and smaller organization than the others, and committed to paying all the musicians, “we couldn’t afford to not recoup some of costs,” of paying for the video crew (even at a 50 percent discount), said Big Mouth’s Emily Lau. The group tells buyers to pay what they can anyway, and “if we offer everything for free to everyone, then the people who gave so generously might feel that it was unfair.”

Unit Souzou had an extra week to prepare for its March 21 livestream concert, Otherness/Togetherness, featuring the company’s taiko ensemble, violinist Joe Kye, and installation artist Horatio Law. But that meant that the group’s guest performers were unable to fly in from California, making it a little easier to cancel the performance than it had been for the other organizations a week earlier. But they chose not to.

“I was getting emails from ticket buyers who’d started feeling the jitters and were getting nervous,” Artistic Director Michelle Fujii recalled. “Our collaborators were asking, ‘how are you gonna respond?’ Even before the official ban was announced, we didn’t want to put anyone at any kind of risk by having a gathering with people who didn’t know each other.”

But Fujii had another reason to go on with the show. She and others in her community started hearing about and even experiencing anti-Asian racism in response to the virus crisis, from the US President’s references to “Chinese flu” to subtler expressions, like avoiding a conference because it was being held in a US Chinatown, or even worrying about attending a show featuring Asian performers. She decided this concert — which fortuitously focused on the concepts of “otherness” and “togetherness” — provided an artistic vehicle to combat the rising tide of racism, which has since expanded along with the infection count. (Fujii discussed this in her interview with ArtsWatch’s Marty Hughely.)

“We wanted to do this show because we felt it was a relevant narrative and a place for people to take a breath,” she said. “Instead of binge watching TV shows, they could see something live and in response to what’s happening now. It became an opportunity for a counter narrative to speak as Asian Americans and tell our stories during this time. It was important to bring forward the othering, but also for us to witness and understand that this is happening so we can find models for this togetherness.”

Should they charge audiences to watch? Even without professional videography, producing the show was expensive. “We’re full time artists,” Fujii noted, and Unit Souzou is a small, family operation that relies on ticket sales and teaching to cover costs. As classes fell victim to virus prevention, Fujii offered students the option to donate their tuition fees, take them as a credit or a refund. Heartened that 40 percent were able to take the donation option, she accordingly made access to the livestream available free, with a donation appreciated but not expected.

Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe and their taiko-theater troupe Unit Souzou reflect on otherness and identity. Photo: Intisar Abioto and New Expressive Works.

Some adjustments were necessary. Guest violinist Kye was hosting elderly relatives and didn’t want to risk bringing home a virus, so he performed from home — another advantage of streaming. Unit Souzou substituted relevant earlier works for the previously planned pieces featuring the California guest artists unable to travel. To avoid too many static broad shots, they used smaller ensembles in different areas of the NEW Expressive works stage area, permitting closeups. And the program modeled social distancing by using floor tape to keep performers the recommended six feet apart, except for the married couple of Fujii and Toru Watanabe. They spent the first two hours sanitizing the already-cleaned space.

Enthusiastic Responses

Musicians at all three first-weekend shows uniformly told their respective directors how happy they were to have been a part of these admitted experiments, to make music with their friends and colleagues, and to provide entertaining, uplifting or even consoling music to audiences who especially needed it.

The biggest initial challenge was the silence across from the stage, more like a dress rehearsal than a concert. “It was a little strange at first to not have an audience there,” Smith admitted, “a challenge to not have that vibrant energy in the hall.”

But at all the concerts, the musicians quickly adapted. “It was one of the most intense emotional and spiritual experiences of my life,” said Powell, who also sang in Cappella Romana’s show. “We felt the gravity of the performance — that it was meaning something for people. Even without a live audience in front of us, the singers were talking about how we were all together in this critical moment and doing something important together. You can really feel that.”

Cappella Romana Tchaikovsky livestream March 2020.
Cappella Romana’s Tchaikovsky ‘Divine Liturgy’ livestream, March 2020.

Even though the performers couldn’t know it at the time, the virtual audiences were responding in kind. PBO’s stream garnered more than 2,000 views worldwide, and Smith received numerous email responses, all positive, some praising the excellent audio and video quality, others noting how nice it was to be able to enjoy a concert from the comfort of their couches, most noting the importance of hearing freshly made music at a time of such isolation and confusion, “a kind of antidote to feeling stir-crazy,” wrote ArtsWatch contributor Brian Libby in a review of PBO and Cappella Romana’s streaming shows. “The ability to imagine being in one of those churches, hearing the music in person and seeing the players in person, was stronger precisely because I couldn’t be there. I wanted to be there all the more because it was off-limits.… The more we feel isolated in our quarantined surroundings, the more it may be possible to visualize and imagine ourselves being connected.” 

Powell choked up as he read aloud notes he received from viewers. “Many people are missing their places of worship due to the coronavirus precautions,” read one. “This may offer some solace. As someone who has Sjögren’s and no longer has tears, I literally cried tears of joy within the first minutes of hearing this truly glorious music. It was miraculous!’

“To isolate myself from the students and colleagues is difficult,” read another, “but with so many wonderful performing art coalitions offering free performances online, I hope we will all get through this and not feel so alone. Thank you for your efforts, beautiful voices, and true conviction to help make this world a better place and ease its suffering through music.” It probably helped that Tchaikovsky’s music offered prayers (sung in English) to “the sick and suffering.” Big Mouth and Unit Souzou received similarly enthusiastic audience feedback.

Some viewers made donations. Even though Cappella Romana didn’t ask, a viewer posted a donation link in the comments section, producing more than 100 donations totaling over $5,000 during the stream, covering the cost of the production. Cappella left the video online for on demand streaming, and at press time it had received more than 57,000 views.

Changes and Challenges

It’s a little ironic that all three groups who streamed shows that first weekend play some of the oldest music available in Oregon, from as far back as medieval times, yet have been so forward-looking in using technology. Of course as with any experiment, glitches happened, with musicians occasionally looking directly at the moving camera, or sound sometimes not synching properly with image. In PBO’s stream, one viewer even noticed that McKee, who’d forgotten to bring her dress shoes amid all the scramble, was wearing running shoes visible during her between-piece announcements. Somehow it added to the charm.

None of the groups made any provision for how to fill the intermission, such as a promo video, so viewers at PBO’s concert were treated to 15 minutes of a photo of Artistic Director Monica Huggett with the word “Intermission” scrawled on it. These touches merely underscored how the group was doing its best under unusual circumstances, and in my case at least, made me root for them all the more.

Portland Baroque Orchestra and Suzanne Nance. Photo by Rick Simpson.
Portland Baroque Orchestra and Suzanne Nance in March’s livestream. Photo by Rick Simpson.

Unit Souzou also smacked into some tech issues, mainly balancing voices with loud drums, especially in the closing number. That one was also a singalong, and despite the performers’ enthusiasm, that’s hard to pull off in an empty studio. I wasn’t able to get the stream to work on my Mac, but it was fine on other platforms (iPad and Windows).  

“In lots of ways, we were still trying to work with the live performance format,” even though no audience was present, Fujii explained, and they didn’t use professional videography. “Some of it may not have translated. That’s the test — can we still have integrity with the things we can bring from home?” 

Yet as with the other groups experimenting this month with livestreaming, Unit Souzou’s audience appreciated “that we were embracing the imperfections, instead of waiting for the perfect scenario of having everything in place,” Fujii said. “How instead of finding reasons not to do things, we’re motivating people by finding ways to go forward. We’re getting numbed into immobility by this crisis, and it’s like we gave [viewers] permission to to move ahead without knowing it all.”

As with all avowed experiments, these live-streamed shows produced abundant lessons for future performances. For instance, Powell advises using high bandwidth internet connections, while Fujii laments in retrospect that Unit Suzou wasn’t able to engage professional video and sound operators, or have someone present to pass on in-the-moment audience feedback — another livestreaming asset not available in a live setting — to the performers, maybe at intermission, so they could adjust on the fly.  

Gazing Downstream

All four organizations, like so many others, are now pondering how this crisis-inspired turn to livestreaming might change their programming when the immediate crisis finally subsides. Certainly the crisis accelerated their own interest in streaming, which has been on most musicians’ agendas for years now. All plan to incorporate it in future programming and are thinking about how to make the performance better suit a different medium. 

Streaming does offer some advantages. Smith cites the ability for audience members to see intricate finger work and expressive faces and bodies up close, no long bathroom lines, and of course accessibility for people who are homebound because of medical or weather conditions or, lately, quarantine. 

Streaming might also permit more donations, sponsorships and other financial rewards. And it might also bring new — and possibly younger, screen savvy — audiences. Unit Souzou, Cappella and Big Mouth tour nationally and even internationally, and streaming provides a way to reach their wider audiences beyond Portland. 

“We had 800 viewers,” Suzou said, far more than New Expressive works could hold for even several performances. “We got geographic representation from throughout the US and even some international. Livestream does offer that opportunity to reach that wider geographic area. I got a lot more diverse people getting in touch with us.”

PBO analytics revealed 40 percent of the streaming audience were under age 45 — unusual for a classical music concert. Powell mused that streaming might be “kind of a gateway drug for young adults” that will introduce them to uncommon music they might not otherwise take a chance on. This would be even likelier, I suspect, if organizations charged less for a stream than a full price concert ticket, maybe even a dollar, making up in volume what they’re losing in per ticket cost from audience members who choose to stream rather catch a show live.

PBO and Cappella both want to figure out ways to make the performance more visually engaging on screen. Lau wonders about producing two separate concerts, one live, one streamed.

The Broken Consort livestream March 2020.
The Broken Consort livestream March 2020.

The lessons that all three groups learned will continue to pay off in future streaming ventures — and not all of them are technical. “My advice to artists is to cultivate friendships,” Lau said, noting the inter-organizational teamwork that made last weekend’s streams possible. “Organizations and artists should talk to each other all the time, not just when we need them. We’re not competing.”

Unit Souzou’s takeaways have immediate application, as they’re reprising — and now, revising — Otherness/Togetherness for summer and fall performances. “When we do emerge from the coronavirus crisis, we’re going to emerge into a new world,” Fujii predicted. A group that does a lot of site specific work might encounter challenges presenting in crowded spaces. “We’re now imagining how audiences might be able to witness performances, and not in traditional ways. I wouldn’t just want to replicate live performance into digital view. Now we have more time to develop it.” 

The crisis also literally reawakened an earlier idea that Fujii had shelved years ago. A few days before the show, she woke up remembering what she’s calling the Korekara Project, which aims to facilitate online collaboration among artists. In a time when physical collaboration might become more fraught, it seems timelier than ever.

As successful as these emergency streaming shows turned out, all involved acknowledge that streaming will never entirely replace the experience of live music. Smith noted that longtime patrons missed seeing fellow audience members — the social experience of concerts. “The experience of in person concerts is so special that if they have the option, I think most people are going to always want to attend in person,” she said.

Powell says even younger audience members on Cappella Romana tours regard live concerts — like museum visits and theater — as a solution to today’s screen-saturated stress. “You can put your phones away, be present, and have a real experience,” he said. “That desire to see something real and not mediated by a screen is a meaningful lesson all of us can learn. There’s nothing like seeing a real living human being in front of you.” 

For now, the experiment has paid immediate dividends. Portland Baroque Orchestra is offering single-camera livestreaming and support to other Portland-area arts organizations. (Smith invites interested groups to email livestream@pbo.org.)

Portland Baroque Orchestra livestream March 2020.
Behind the scenes at Portland Baroque Orchestra’s March livestream.

And livestreaming will continue elsewhere. Worldwide, classical music organizations are turning to livestreaming and other online alternatives to keep the music playing. In Oregon, Artslandia has launched an online happy hour and other livestreaming ventures on its Facebook page. On Wednesday, April 1, Oregon Symphony violist Charles Noble will give a solo recital there, with donations benefiting the orchestra. Alberta Rose Theater has started its own streaming series, available by subscription or single-concert on demand tickets.

While all their physical dance parties are canceled, DJ Anjali and The Incredible Kid will livestream Global Bass/Bhangra dance parties every Saturday night. Consult ArtsWatch Music Editor Matthew Andrews’s recent list for more links to Oregon livestreams. Other groups are doubtless contemplating or even diving into livestreaming now — please let our readers know about any you hear about in the comments section below.

“It was a risk but I’m really glad we did it,” Powell said of the streaming experiment, echoing similar statements made by everyone interviewed for this story. “I really hope that patrons of the arts and donors at every level will recognize that this is important and continue to support the organizations we love.”

Where to watch streamed performances

Part of this story originally appeared in The Oregonian/OregonLive.

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