Making music in a time of isolation

As the world shuts down and the Oregon Symphony faces a stark financial crisis, musicians create a series of mini-concerts from home


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


AS AN ODD AND NERVOUS QUIET SETTLED over greater Portland and most other places from coast to coast in the past several days, small islands of sound broke the spell, scattered here and there like grace notes or staccato exclamations. They were counter-ripples against a tide of silence, little bursts of defiant pleasure, sounding carefully yet emphatically: Even in a time of plague, the music would not die.

These small musical uprisings were especially compelling considering the Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s announcement last Friday that it was suspending its current season, which was to run into June, and laying off its 76 contracted musicians, along with 19 staff members and two conductors. The situation, symphony President and CEO Scott Showalter told The Oregonian/Oregon Live, is dire. “We need emergency funds now,” he told reporter Nathan Rizzo. “What we’re staring down between now and the end of June is a $5 million loss.” Showalter had written to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Rizzo added, urging state economic support for the orchestra as the coronavirus crisis takes its toll, and the symphony is actively seeking private funds as well. The danger of collapse, it seems, is very real. And the orchestra is not alone. Across Oregon and the nation, cultural groups of all sorts are staring nervously into what seems a daunting economic abyss.

An invitation to the neighborhood: come close, stay apart, join us at a distance as we make some music.

So on Friday through Sunday, in what was not quite a coincidence, a large handful of those recently furloughed symphony musicians went small. In Portland and its surrounds, seven musical mini-events took place, on musicians’ porches and in their yards, at neutral neighborhood gathering spots where listeners and players alike could keep their social distance and yet also be together, sharing something both sophisticated and elemental: the joy of music.

In a time of isolation, they were not alone. Radios and podcasts and boom boxes were also playing in every corner of the country, of course, and people were clicking on their online music feeds or digging deep into their CD collections. Maybe here and there a few people suddenly working from home via computer and feeling itchy about it were idly plunking at a piano or guitar they hadn’t touched in ages. But as wonderful, and even essential, as canned music is, music lives and breathes most essentially in real time and real space, with real people making it and real people listening to it in the moment. In greater Portland, the symphony and its musicians are at the core of much of the live-music scene, not just with their classical subscriptions and special concerts, but also as the seed of any number of smaller and adventurous musical groups in which symphony musicians, supported financially by their orchestra salaries, bring ambitious contemporary and chamber programming to the public.

Symphony string players Sarah Kwak and Vali Phillips, striding up the street of their cul-de-sac, ready to bring the music to the neighborhood.

And so, the weekend’s mini-concerts, performed by members of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra – highly skilled professionals whose lives are built around public performance, and in these cases who are also members of Classical Up Close, a springtime series in which symphony musicians gather in small chamber ensembles to take their music out of the concert halls and into places where people ordinarily gather for other things: firehouses and churches and cafés and clubhouses and schools and libraries and medical centers and grocery stores. This season, which has now been canceled, would have been Classical Up Close’s eighth, says Sarah Kwak, who is the Oregon Symphony’s concertmaster and also executive director and and board president of Classical Up Close, and it’s been a rewarding run for everyone involved – “not just as a way for audiences to be connected with the symphony, but also for the musicians to be heard.” Talented instrumentalists who are ordinarily parts of their symphony sections have a chance to tackle solo and small-ensemble scores. Audience members get to ask questions after performances – “we have a Phil Donahue question-and-answer with a microphone in the audience, which is really fun” – and from season to season, Kwak says, the questions have become more detailed and sophisticated: “We’ve developed a relationship with a lot of people.”

The idea is to take the music to the people, to democratize it in unexpected places with easy accessibility and the surprise of face-to-face encounters, away from all the formalism and fear factor associated in many people’s minds with the concert hall.

Until, of course, even those places are shut down.

***

Music in the streets: gathering loosely outside cellist Kenneth Finch and violinist Lynne Finch’s house for a sunny-day concert.

THE STRING OF MINI-CONCERTS CAME TOGETHER not quite accidentally, but as an improvisationally logical outcome of the spring Classical Up Close series, which eventually, because of a statewide ban on public gatherings, had to be canceled: In an accidental way, this series of seven concerts has taken the place of them. “It was Classical From Afar,” Kwak joked on Monday. “A neighbor actually asked me if Vali and I would be interested in playing just for the neighborhood, in the cul-de-sac.” Vali is her husband, Vali Phillips, also a violinist in the Oregon Symphony. They agreed to a Saturday performance, and then discovered that another married musical couple, cellists Marilyn de Oliveira and Trevor Fitzpatrick, were planning their own neighborhood performance on Friday. So Kwak put out the word to other symphony musicians: “OK. Anyone else who wants to … and it ended up there were seven groups.”

Crowds have ranged from a well-scattered handful to more than a hundred, and the response at all of the concerts has been enthusiastic, says photographer Joe Cantrell, whose photographs and determination to document all seven concerts are the driving forces behind this story. “There was a courage, a nobility, a special poignancy to this artistic response to the looming threat,” says Cantrell, a longtime intimate of the city’s music circles who is also a committee member for the Classical Up Close series. “We know the sledgehammer of exponential disease spread is likely to be in our immediate future, so everybody, and it was everybody except family units, kept safe distance from each other. I did not hear one cough or sneeze at any of the events.” Symphony musicians Ken and Lynne Finch’s “Mozart in the yard” concert in the Bethany neighborhood on Friday received about 350 thank-you messages on the Nextdoor social media site.

***

Cellists Marilyn de Oliveira and Trevor Fitzpatrick, playing from their porch: Music in shades of purple and blue.

WE ARE A SOCIAL SPECIES, and in times of crises we like to gather in groups for comfort and connection. In this particular crisis, of course, that’s exactly what we’re not supposed to do. Isolation is our best bet, even if it goes against all of our human impulses. It’s a simple concept, yet difficult to bring home. Schools and workplaces and the sorts of cultural spaces where we mingle so we can feel like more than just ourselves – theaters, concert halls, museums and galleries, restaurants and cafés and bars, sports arenas, amusement arcades, even parks – have been shut down, and yet the instinct to gather remains nigh unto irresistible. Over the weekend, as spring break arrived, the highways leading to the Oregon Coast from Portland and the heavily populated Willamette Valley were jammed bumper to bumper with cars. Mayors up and down the coast, in towns whose economies ordinarily thrive on tourism, were demanding that the urban invaders turn around and head home: The threat of spreading the pandemic in their sparsely populated areas, they feared, was too great, and might overwhelm their emergency and health-care systems. On Monday morning, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown gave legal teeth to isolation steps that previously had been recommendations: With some exceptions, stay home, or face consequences.

Violinist Greg Ewer: full concentration outdoors on Sunday afternoon.

With rules of human engagement rapidly tightening, even the sort of half-impromptu, half-planned neighborhood gatherings that grew out of the canceled Oregon Symphony and Classical Up Close concerts becomes less likely. Yes, they were socially distanced. The musicians were concerned about that, and took precautions. It is, after all, difficult for musicians, let alone audiences, to stay a full two yards apart from one another. “Val and I are married so we’re not keeping six feet apart,” Kwak said. “The audience has been really good about staying a safe distance.” Yet as restrictions become more strict, the definition of “safe distance” shifts.

Will the mini-concerts repeat themselves? “I don’t think so,” Kwak says. The logistics are too difficult; the dangers are too real. Live-streaming and other long-distance forms of sharing are much more likely. In the meantime, the itch is there. “All of us are sequestered inside,” Kwak adds, speaking over that old-fashioned instrument of connection in isolation, the telephone. “Performing is what we do. We’re just so anxious to get out and play for people.”

The pandemic is not forever.

In some form or another, the music will return.

In some form or another, the music is still here.


FRIDAY: MARILYN DE OLIVEIRA AND TREVOR FITZPATRICK


Cellist de Oliveira, wearing shades on a bright sunny day, took to her porch in the first of the weekend’s mini-concerts to perform for the neighborhood.
Fitzpatrick, de Oliveira’s husband and fellow cellist in the Oregon Symphony, concentrates on the score.
A little distance.
Daughter Isla, cocooning at home with her musician parents, joins them on the porch for the neighborhood concert.

FRIDAY: AN AFTERNOON IN THE FINCHES’ YARD


Making music in the Finch family’s front yard on a sunny afternoon: Oregon Symphony cellist Kenneth Finch and violinist Lynne Finch (left), violinist Peter Frajola (right), and violinist Ryan Lee (back to camera).
Kenneth Finch concentrates on the score.
Lynne Finch, playing among the blossoms.
While the musicians space themselves around the sidewalk, the audience distances itself in pairs.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON: ANTOINETTE GAN


The Oregon Symphony cellist performed from home for her neighbors in Portland’s West Hills, between Multnomah Village and Hillsdale.
Splendor in the grass: On a sunny day, neighbors relax in Gan’s yard and listen to the music. Acoustics from beneath the overhang were excellent, photographer Joe Cantrell reports.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON: VALI PHILLIPS AND SARAH KWAK


A long way from the concert hall, and close to home: music in the cul-de-sac.

SUNDAY AFTERNOON: COLIN CORNER


The Oregon Symphony’s principal bassist leans into a little Bach outside his home.

SUNDAY AFTERNOON: GREG EWER


The symphony violinist, up close at home …
… and at a social distance.

SUNDAY AFTERNOON: ERIN FURBEE, PETER FRAJOLA, ROBERT TAYLOR

Small audience, wide view: The symphony musicians play to a micro-crowd in Northeast Portland.

CODA


After a lawn concert well-played, taking their un-curtain call. From left: violinists Ryan Lee, Sam Park, Peter Frajola; cellist Ken Finch; violinist Lynne Finch.

6 Responses.

  1. Linda Hamilton says:

    Bravo! Brava! You all give us hope and faith in the goodness of human beings and the power of music. Thank you!

  2. Robyn Gastineau says:

    Our Oregon Symphony musicians are the best. Thank you for bringing such beauty to our community. I urge everyone to support this important organization through these challenging times.

  3. Scott Ellison says:

    Colin Corner the bassist is fantastic!

  4. Charlie Hales says:

    What a wonderful demonstration of the value and integrity of our Oregon Symphony musicians! What a hopeful note in a dark and difficult time!

    If you could look in our front window, you’d see a standing ovation in the Hales home. Encore!

  5. Denise Kuehner says:

    I’m a cellist int he South Bend Symphony (Indiana) and am so inspired by what you re doing. It’s 36 degrees out here so we can’t do this but I applaud you. I had the opportunity to hear your orchestra play Firebird in October. You have a wonderful orchestra. The friend I was visiting got us tickets and next time we are there we’ll plan to go again. Our little metropolitan orchestra is giving us a % of our pay for our last three concerts. I hope your orchestra is helping you insole way as well.

  6. Robert Hermanson says:

    What a glorious contribution by some of the musicians of our outstanding Oregon Symphony Orchestra. You are the greatest. By bringing music into an otherwise isolated world, you provide joy and inspiration to all of us. Thank you so very very much.

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