Looking Back 2020: Reports from the orchestra seats

A review of our favorite ArtsWatch music stories from The Longest Year in History

What the hell happened this year?


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


To begin, I’d like to share a bit of MTV Generation perspective with my younger readers, those who may have never known (for instance) a pre-9/11 world. When everything shut down this spring and it all started getting extra weird, I sat dazed in my kitchen, staring out on empty streets and clear skies, and decided to ask around–how much weirder is this than 2001-03? Or, to go a bit further back, how much weirder than “the end of history” in 1989-91, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed and tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and Iraq and Panama, and the New Cold War started?

Naomi Klein will tell you that a disoriented state of helpless confusion is exactly the point of such times (“shock and awe” indeed), while Rebecca Solnit continues to remind us that these times are also opportunities for human communities to come together in solidarity and mutual aid. But regardless of catastrophe’s many and varied uses, it’s mainly just exhausting for us normal humans who must suffer history (and its end) in our daily lives.

In my March column “The Apocalypse will be livestreamed,” I had this to say about it:

It’s been a busy two weeks since last we spoke, dear reader: schools closed, concerts canceled, tours derailed, musicians laid off, stay-home orders issued, force majeure clauses invoked. We’ve been comparing notes with our fellow Gen X-ers and other overthirties, folks who experienced 9/11 and its aftermath as adults, and we’ve all reached the same conclusion–this is weirder by far.

Cut to December, and–spoiler alert–it didn’t get less weird. We here at ArtsWatch, as journalists covering an arts world heavily impacted by public health restrictions, had an almost front-row seat. What I mean is that the real front-line was and still is occupied by health-care workers and first-responders and teachers and all manner of protesters–so ours is not exactly a front-row seat, but still somewhere close to the stage. Call it orchestra seats…or, perhaps, the splash zone.

Reports from the orchestra seats

While protesters were out getting tear-gassed and kidnapped and occasionally murdered by federal agents, Oregon musicians were mostly staying the hell inside. There’s no blame in that: I spent the whole year inside too. And the bright spot there (call it the Solnit Region) is a newfound sense of digitally-enhanced interpersonal connectivity. It’s always been fun to joke about being on social media with the Big Names in Local New Music–laughing with Fear No Music’s Monica Ohuchi and Kenji Bunch goofing around with their kids (when they’re not playing Adolphus Hailstork, that is); guffawing at Third Angle captain Sarah Tiedemann’s acerbic political commentary; weeping over Oregon Symphony violist Charles Noble’s laments–but that immediacy has become quite a bit more tangible, more urgent, more poignant. The online version of all these people, and their artistic endeavors, has become the only version we get.

And that cuts both ways: it’s one of those “get to but have to” things, like baking your own bread and existentialist freedom. If you want to experience a live concert featuring, say, Pink Martini and its cadre of chanteuses cancelling 2020 with a fond “fuck off!”–well, you don’t have to live in Oregon to do that, but you do still have to pay for it. You can’t go hear Cappella Romana in their natural habitat–Church–or watch any of their various Divine Liturgy concerts, but you can listen to their absurdly successful, virtual-sacred-space-dwelling, futurist-audiophiliac Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia album, and for a little while longer you can still watch their Christmas movie:

But when everything happened, we started by lamenting the cancellations, the tentative reschedulings that turned into “a dream deferred.” You can read Martha Daghlian’s now-bittersweet preview of a Rose Bond show that never happened right here, highlighting one facet of the highly-anticipated Oregon Symphony concert that was supposed to close Caroline Shaw’s Portland Spring Residency. Damien Geter’s An African American Requiem got the same treatment: it got moved to January 2021 and then to May of two-thousand-and-goddamn-twenty-two. I thought it was bad enough waiting since summer 2019 for what was supposed to be the premiere this May. Can a local composer get a break?

Same goes for Portland Opera’s scuttled season, a balance of warhorses and dark horses–and I know I wasn’t the only one worrying about whether our big local institutions (like PO) would collapse “like a flan in a cupboard” and take the rest of our delicate musical ecosystem with them. You can read former PO General Director Christopher Mattaliano’s guest-spot, arguing for a trickle-down model of arts philanthropy, right here. And you can read all about two of our favorite Oregonian arts activists, the folks who actually pay the bills, in David Bates’ interview with Ronni Lacroute and Bob Hicks’ remembrance of Arlene Schnitzer.

However much fun it is to grief the Medicis, it’s important to recognize that Mattaliano is absolutely right. These big-for-Portland-but-actually-mid-sized institutions (and their sponsors) are absolutely essential, not least because–borrowing Mattaliano’s metaphor–they “anchor” the musical community. In concrete terms, that means that in normal times your violin teacher can afford to give you a student rate, and also spend time rehearsing new music by living (and therefore broke) composers, and also maybe have some downtime to just get high and watch The Mandalorian–all partly because the symphony has already paid her rent.

But not every violinist in town works for the symphony, and in any case unemployment is going to run out before concert halls open again, so we’re going to have to find another way to Think Local. Stay tuned, dear reader, because nobody has the answers to that one yet.

The mothers of invention

But it wasn’t all bad this year. Necessity being the mother of invention, this was also a time for creative problem solving. Can’t stage an opera indoors? Fine, we’ll do it in wine country–even if it means singing songs about fire trials while wine country blazes. You can read Charles Rose’s coverage of The Magic Flute outdoors right here.

What, your opera with Third Angle got delayed to next year? No problem, just make a sweet vintage black-n-white concert movie:

Can’t get all your off-duty Oregon Symphony musicians in one place? And furthermore can’t really play online together because of internet lag-time? No problem there either, just get your buddy to invent a digital servant to synch everything up for you. You can watch about 1000 hours of 45th Parallel Universe’s Portland Social Distance Ensemble, often using “Kevin” for coordination, right here on the tube.

An easier route is just to play on your porch or in the yard or even out in the street. ArtsWatch photojournalist Joe Cantrell captured several symphony musicians doing just that, and you can see all that right here and right here. The illustrious and ever-daring Resonance Ensemble, not content to just start an Open Letter campaign (which you can read about here), has lately been spotted singing under bridges and overpasses. But the streets were mostly quiet (until they suddenly weren’t), with buskers and other outdoorsy musicians finding their usual venues empty and their usual audiences quarantined. Check out K.B. Dixon’s look back right here.

Mostly, though, we went online. Senior Editor Brett Campbell captured the beginning of the transition in his perfectly-titled Covideo–then kept at it all year, closing with perhaps the most exhaustive year-end review I’ve ever had the pleasure of editing. Start reading that right here. And I have to share two of my favorites from Brett’s torrent of 2020 writing, one from Before and one from After: his pre-PDX Jazz profile on Terry Riley, and his loving remembrance of Bruce Browne.

In March, David Bates spoke to Aquilon Music Festival founder Anton Belov, and you can read about Belov’s online karaoke parties right here. More recently, Eugene’s Music Today Festival also went virtual; you can read Gary Ferrington’s take on that right here.

Starting in April, online music distributor Bandcamp showed their True Colors by waiving all artist fees on the first Friday of every month, supporting a culture that badly needed to get off the road and into the studio. Check out Robert Ham’s series Now Hear This, a monthly roundup of Bandcamp releases by Oregon musicians.

The Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival went online too, and that ended up being kind of okay. No drive to McMinnville, for one thing, and the much-bemoaned inequities between followers of Bacchus and Asterion became a non-issue. And the best part of WVCMF is usually the chance to interview living composers, as you can read in Angela Allen’s three-part series featuring interviews with Gabriela Lena Frank and Daniel Bernard Roumain.

In a perfect storm of covidifficulties, music overlapped with education as schools closed and zoom executives cackled bankwards. The myriad problems of remote learning highlighted the myriad problems we already had with traditional education (to say nothing of childcare and all the other “women’s work” that continued to go unpaid and unappreciated this year). But this pedagogical predicament also represented an opportunity for creativity, as you can read in this pair of stories by ArtsWatch coast correspondent Lori Tobias: “Helping the bands play on” and “Striving to hit the low notes.”

Black music matters

My biggest regret of 2020 is not covering more music by Black Oregonians–an inexcusable lapse that ends with this terrible year (if you’d like to write for us in 2021, please email me at music@orartswatch.org and we’ll discuss mundane stuff like word counts, areas of interest, pay rates, etc.) We are happy to have had the privilege of speaking earlier this year with Damien Geter, an occasional ArtsWatch contributor and one of the most important musicians in Oregon’s classical culture. By courtesy of PSU’s student-run journal Subito and its new Editor-in-Chief, Charles Rose, we were able to publish the entire three-part interview here on ArtsWatch this summer. Read that here, here, and here.

One line from that interview stood out: “Black music is the centerpiece of American culture.” It’s easy to overlook the profundity of that statement, because of course Black music is the centerpiece of American culture. But it’s important to remind ourselves of this, and not least because of the sad history of stolen Black culture, from Solomon Linda to Stephen Foster to Chuck Berry to Led Zeppelin and on and on and on.

Now situate that in the broader history of stolen labor and stolen lives, and then fast forward to this summer, when even a deadly pandemic couldn’t stop police from killing Black people on the street and in their own homes. It got so bad, it brought soccer moms and retired Navy veterans and people in wheelchairs out on the streets to demand we Do Something About It. Because yeah, you’re goddamn right Black Lives Matter.

As we stumble the rest of our way through winter into whatever light awaits us next year, let’s try not to forget it.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot: ¡adios, 2020! And a very Happy New Year to you all!

Want to support Black lives in Oregon? You can sign Resonance Ensemble’s open letter to the mayor and governor right here, and you can start learning more about racial injustice and police reform with Campaign Zero‘s #8cantwait campaign and the original Black Lives Matter.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

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