Music 2020: Streaming through the shutdown

When the pandemic struck it seemed music news would dry up. But musicians found new ways to connect.

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When the pandemic struck last spring, leaving shuttered venues and canceled tours and performances in its wake, it seemed unlikely that there’d be much news to report about music. Nevertheless, musicians persisted, using their creativity to find though new ways to connect to listeners. As you’ve read in our unabated music coverage, many Oregon musicians and institutions regained their balance after the staggering blows of winter and spring, turning to online presentations–including several embedded in this year-end news wrap–to keep the music flowing. Thanks internet! Remember, we paid for it.


LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR


For me, regular video offerings by 45th Parallel, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra (and its Great Arts. Period program that gives other music presenters access to its advanced streaming tech) and more initially kept me feeling connected to our homegrown music scene, albeit at a distance. They were soon joined by Third Angle New Music (whose John Luther Adams show last month might have been my favorite music streaming event of the year), Chamber Music Northwest, and others as the year unfolded. Here, you can watch this year’s version of PBO’s annual Messiah, albeit reduced (to singers, string quartet and organ) and distanced like so much else this year.

A big surprise: sound quality, as in PBO and Third Angle’s streams, has often surpassed my expectations based on pre-pandemic live streams. And technology has allowed musicians to collaborate in real time, bypassing the latency problem that had for so long left distanced musicians unable to stay on the same beat. Several solutions have emerged around the world, with one of the first devised by 45th Parallel’s Danny Rosenberg.

The streams weren’t all just video. Along with its cool Soundwalks (which Gary Ferrington previewed for ArtsWatch), Third Angle even has its own podcast. This fall also saw the debut of Con Fuoco: A Podcast about Classical Music and its Future hosted by conductor and violinist Daniel Cho, who’s Conducting Fellow of the Eugene Symphony and Assistant Conductor of the Oregon Mozart Players and Eugene Opera. Search for it in your podcast player of choice. It joins Portlander Casey Bozell’s Keep Classical Weird podcast, which we told you about in our previous news roundup. And as Tom Manoff told us in his ArtsWatch interview with Brian McWhorter, the OrchestraNext conductor is doing a podcast with Oregon musicians.

Others have used social media platforms for recurring audio features. We told you earlier about the Eugene Symphony’s efforts, and that city’s Delgani Quartet violinist and Executive Director Wyatt True is on Facebook every Monday and Thursday talking to quartet musicians from around the world, including some we’ve seen recently in Oregon, like the Cypress, Dali, and Harlem quartets.

But it was an old-school audio medium, radio, that really did more to keep Oregon classical (which includes contemporary classical) music humming. As OAW Music Editor Matthew Andrews noted, All Classical Portland radio has become an essential resource, especially with live performance in abeyance. Under the leadership of Suzanne Nance, All Classical has become much more than a jukebox for endlessly recycled Ye Olde Classics, thanks to a growing lineup of original programming, much of it focused on new and Oregon music. To invaluable offerings like Club Mod, Played in Oregon, On Deck, and Thursdays@3, the just-concluded Fall into the Arts radio festival of local performances, and continuing Where We Live and Oregon Symphony showcases have kept Oregon classical music on our airwaves and, thanks to its internet streams, in our speakers and headphones.

One of those moments involved Portland composer, singer and ArtsWatch contributor Damien Geter’s delightful new string quartet, Neo-Soul, which the station commissioned for its Fall into the Arts Series. And he’s been onscreen with Portland Opera, Resonance Ensemble and elsewhere, plus providing offstage advice to various groups. 

It’s hard for an artist to have a breakout year when so much is shutting down, but Geter has pulled it off. We’ve noted many of his accomplishments—so many that he’s been too busy to write for ArtsWatch in various stories over the past year—and he’s ending on a high note. In fact, one of my favorite performances of the year involved the Washington Chorus (run by erstwhile Portlander and PHAME executive director Stephen Marc Beaudoin) singing Geter’s Cantata For A More Hopeful Tomorrow, a new work it commissioned from him. It accompanied a film about a couple separated by the coronavirus, and you can see and hear it by clicking on the link above. 

This spring, Resonance Ensemble will premiere a movement from Geter’s An African American Requiem, one of its three Commissions for Now world premieres addressing this moment.

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Just as Oregon radio and audio have evolved over the year, so too has video quality — crucial since that’s how we’re experiencing music in the pandemic era. Even when it’s just musicians playing in an otherwise empty concert hall, multiple cameras (sometimes mobile) add visual interest and make us feel more like we’re really there — and in more and better seats than most of us could afford otherwise. 

Third Angle’s Adams concert, for example, combined video of musicians playing live with spectacular Alaskan landscape imagery to accompany one of the composer’s many great Alaska-inspired works. And Portland choir In Mulieribus included enchanting, drone-abetted original film of natural landscapes (by erstwhile Oregonian Ben DeMarco) to complement its opulent Christmas concert, Visions of Mystery.

Even the humble lower-fi streams originating in musicians’ home studios, some resembling converted spare bedrooms, add a kind of charm and sense of intimacy and connection to our local musicians that we can’t get from seeing them onstage. As you’ll see in some of the videos embedded here, some presenters have gone even further. I expect to see more development on this front until, and probably even after, actual live performances resume. Check, for example, the San Francisco Symphony’s recent Throughline production.

It’s not just classical organizations. Oregon Koto Kai presented its fall concert online. And in another of my favorites this year, Portland Taiko took video to another level, working with Portland musician No No Boy to create a fascinating story about immigration and generations of Japanese Oregonians that beautifully integrated history and music performance.

Oregon jazz master, composer, beloved educator, and social justice advocate Darrell Grant took a characteristically innovative approach to video with last weekend’s The Cool Spot, “a cocktail of live jazz and theater; stay for the commentary, company, and conversation steeped in an innovative mixology of the 50’s, 60’s, and present.” The good-natured, two-hour, black and white variety show swirled Grant’s swinging, exuberant straight-ahead jazz with sly dance instruction, humor, a Paul Robeson tribute featuring the immortal singer and social activist’s words and images, Susannah Mars, jazz-enhanced poetry by Oregon poet laureate (and Grant collaborator) Anis Mojgani, and a most welcome addition to the mix (and we do mean mix): Portland actor Vin Shambry. And, in typically generous Grant fashion, it all went to benefit Stone Soup, a Corvallis-based non-profit that fights food insecurity.

Speaking of generosity and need, as you check out these streams, please remember that although there’s no charge to watch, the musicians and producers who made them still need to pay their rent, so please consider donating to any of the organizations that bring you music you enjoy. Just because we can stream them for free, don’t take them for granted: they won’t continue without our support. And consider buying recordings, whether CDs (the Oregon Symphony and Cappella Romana in particular have some compelling, sonically superb recent offerings) or downloads through artist-friendly platforms like Bandcamp.

If streaming was the biggest story in Oregon music (or at least that segment of it we cover regularly), and the continuing suspended animation that accelerated it the next-biggest, then the increasing emphasis on social justice has to be up there near the top of 2020’s musical developments. As we’ve frequently chronicled here, FearNoMusic and Resonance Ensemble led the way, emphasizing music that spoke to today’s concerns about racial and social equality, and programming music by composers denied opportunities because of their race or gender. Ensembles like Big Mouth Society and even youth orchestras like Metropolitan Youth Symphony and Portland Youth Philharmonic (whose players represent a much more diverse demographic than their elders) also showed substantial commitment to worthy causes. The Oregon Symphony, in the midst of a leadership transition, made solid steps in that direction too. It’s something folk and pop music fans take for granted, but has been too rare in classical music.

The shutdown impeded or obscured the effects of other institutional leadership changes — at CMNW, the Oregon Bach Festival, Portland Symphonic Choir, among others — with more coming as the venerable Monica Huggett moves on from PBO, which she led to prominence for the past couple decades. And even in the streams that belatedly started flowing after music presenters picked themselves up and pivoted from the shock of the shutdowns, we saw a welcome continuation of the trend toward programming Oregon and Northwest music we’ve noted over the past few years — though still not enough to match our homegrown creative potential.

You can see more news about developments in Oregon music in the other Music Notes we’ve posted through the year, and in OAW Music Editor Matthew Andrews’s year-end ruminations. And now, here’s our final occasional roundup of recent happenings in Oregon music this year.

Orchestral Maneuvers

The Oregon Symphony joined most other orchestras in canceling its entire 2020-21 season. But on its website, you can see and hear symphony musicians performing in its children’s classical series–Symphony Storytime, Lullabye Project–and Essential Sounds, dedicated to essential workers. The beleaguered orchestra’s YouTube channel hosts other recordings by its musicians. And you can hear recordings of the orchestra and conversations with outgoing music director Carlos Kalmar in All Classical Portland’s eight-part series, Commemorating Carlos: An Oregon Symphony Retrospective, airing the first Saturday of each month through June.

The orchestra must be cheered by its recently announced 2021 Grammy nominations (including Best Orchestral Performance and Producer of the Year) for its Aspects of America CD. 

Other Oregon orchestras are trying to keep their audiences engaged. Bend’s Central Oregon Symphony joined cinematographer Bradley Lanphear, producer/director Evan Sigvaldsen, and award-winning composer Chris Thomas to feature majestic Oregon landscapes in a new short film, Imagine Symphony Live, which follows a young child as he discovers the visual beauty of orchestral music via “an immersive journey throughout Oregon — forest, desert, mountains, lake, and city center.”

Portland Columbia Symphony also canceled its 2020-21 season, substituting streams of chamber music featuring its musicians, including so far the Chehalem String Quartet, PCSO Wind Quintet and some brassy holiday players.

Eugene Symphony‘s Symphony Soundwaves gives everyone a one-time free streaming opportunity of its recent performances (including its multimedia-enhanced Color of Sound show), also available on demand to subscribers. The orchestra also made its multimedia Four Seasons of the McKenzie River stream available for free on demand. If you watch it, please abide by ESO’s request for donations to agencies (United Way’s Wildfire Response Fund and McKenzie River Trust) helping the victims of last September’s fires in the same area.

And the symphony is teaming up with Eugene/Springfield NAACP for a scholarship available to ten regional BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students, as part of Eugene Symphony’s new Private Lesson Program available to regional students who lack the opportunity to take private lessons.

With school disrupted, young Oregonians have suffered disproportionately from the shutdowns. But they also tend to be more resilient than many of their elders. As we’ve chronicled in recent stories about Metropolitan Youth Symphony and Portland Youth Philharmonic, Oregon’s youth music programs have pivoted to online teaching and performance, and so have the Eugene-Springfield Youth Orchestras, with two Virtual Winter Concerts that just popped up online featuring music by Faure, Stravinsky, Beethoven and more.

And next month, PYP joins Portland Piano International for its biennial Piano Concerto Competition, online of course.

Speaking of pianists, Corvallis-OSU Piano International announced its new Wider Visions series. And you can see past videos from its Re-Imaginings: A Virtual Piano Festival and World Pianists Series.

Festival Reboots

The Oregon Bach Festival rebounded from the Covid cancellation of its 50th annual summer festival with another world premiere commissioned from Grammy-winning Los Angeles-based composer Richard Danielpour, whose first OBF commission, 2018’s The Passion of Yeshua, premiered at last year’s Oregon Bach Festival. A recording released on Naxos last March just scored a 2021 Grammy nomination.

Sensitively performed by acclaimed New York-based pianist Simone Dinnerstein, Danielpour’s new Bach- and insomnia-influenced (though at Schubertian ‘heavenly length’) composition, An American Mosaic, commemorates Americans affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The heartfelt, near-hourlong set of 15 miniatures has already garnered 10,000 views in its first week online, where it’s available for free viewing through December 31.

“Because there was so much sadness in me as I was writing this, it gave me a way to let it out,” Danielpour told the University of Oregon’s Ed Dorsch in a fascinating story about his epic new work. “I want this to be a comfort to people when it is performed. The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually end. While it’s going on, we all need to be comforted. I’m using this work to embrace every person I can who has been heroic through this crisis and has prevailed.”

The festival’s Chamber Music @ Beall series also announced a partnership with New York’s esteemed Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center to bring a quartet of virtual concerts (streamable at this webpage) featuring many musicians familiar to Oregon audiences from their appearances at Chamber Music Northwest, which has essentially been Lincoln Center West thanks to longtime, now-retired CMNW artistic director David Shifrin

The festival also continues its partnership with Eugene’s KWAX radio, airing more performances from its extensive vault of live recordings, including two this month. And if you want to see what one of the three candidates for the festival’s Artistic Director job can do, check out Julian Wachner conducting a complete performance of Handel’s Messiah, and his conversation on Facebook with listeners. 

It’s great to see the festival commissioning new music, but how about giving some of that Oregon-raised love — and money — to Oregon composers and performers, instead of New York and LA musicians who already get plenty of attention? Other big time Oregon classical music institutions have finally gotten that message in recent years; it’s time for the biggest to invest more in the creative culture of its own home. 

Speaking of Oregon composers, they comprise a high percentage of Cascadia Composers’ members, and back in late October, when it was (almost) warm enough to enjoy an outdoor concert, two of the organization’s most creative producer/composers, Jennifer Wright and Daniel Brugh, dazzled an audience at Portland’s Keller Fountain. The ever-inventive ARCO-PDX also took stormy Beethoven outside amid a deluge at Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square.

The Sunriver Music Festival named a new executive director, Meagan Iverson, its former operations director who earlier managed the Rogue Valley’s  Crater Performing Arts Center, and is helping with the festival’s search for a new artistic director.

Oregon’s other big summer festival, Chamber Music Northwest, long ago joined the Bach Festival in adding year-round programming, and this year it’s also taken that programming online. Concerts require tickets to pay the performers, but the festival also has some free streaming offerings.

Thanks to fires and viruses, another recent summer fixture, pianist Hunter Noack’s In A Landscape, had to cancel half a hundred concerts and summer crew contracts. However, with help from the Oregon Cultural Trust, the organization responded by: developing a touchless sound system to work with phones; making music videos that reached over 40,000 viewers around the world; and developing a COVID-friendly smartphone app for audiences.

In September and October, Noack loaded up his nine-foot Steinway grand piano and hit the road on his own, without the crew or sound system, to play a series of pop-up concerts in public campgrounds and small town gathering spaces, including distanced events at Playa, Sunriver Music Festival, Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Paulina / East Lake, Wallowa Lake, Cottonwood Canyon State Park, and a general store in Lostine. He played for Santiam Canyon wildfire evacuees, volunteers and first responders at a makeshift community kitchen in Gates, and at Kesey Farm he played a benefit concert for fire-ravaged Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat Center. Next summer, Noack has plans for more than 40 concerts in 20-25 locations throughout Oregon and parts of Washington and California, plus a classical music education partnership with educators from Warm Springs Academy.

Oregon Mandolin Orchestra has also been dropping glittering holiday videos like “Christmas Time is Here” and the one above, feauturing music director Christian McKee’s homemade quarantine quartet: working in his home studio, recorded J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (the famous tune from Cantata No. 147), playing all four parts of a mando-quartet arrangement–first mandolin, second mandolin, mandola and mandocello.

Singing for Social Justice 

As we’ve lamented all year, singing is especially problematic in a situation where death travels by droplets–but Oregon choirs and singers have found ways to bring their voices to us. And many of them have responded to the racial and other social injustices that have become even more evident over the past year. Maybe because words are involved, singers have often put social issues in the foreground.

The Oregon classical vocal group most known for its responsiveness to social issues, Resonance Ensemble, responded to the shutdown by going visual, in a series of safely distanced outdoor performances around Portland, including this one of “Stand By Me,” with soloist Onry and singers from Resonance and Kingdom Sound Gospel Choir, filmed underneath the Ross Island Bridge. In May, Resonance Ensemble and Oregon Symphony will premiere a movement from Geter’s An African American Requiem, one of its three Commissions for Now world premieres addressing this moment.

Portland Symphonic Choir commissioned local vocalist and arranger Dorcas Brown Smith to write a new arrangement of James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, once known as “the Negro National Anthem.” Each member recorded their vocal part individually to present the choir’s second Virtual Choir Project, released on August 28 for Washington D.C.’s March on Washington. Net proceeds from donations received for this special project benefit social justice organization Don’t Shoot Portland. Click here to watch and donate here.

Speaking of contemporary issues, Eugene Concert Choir reissued its video of “If You Fall, I Will Carry You” and dedicated proceeds to the first responders to the fires that devastated the area around its hometown. 

Portland’s Choral Arts Ensemble has also turned to issuing videos of archived performances, one dropped every Monday in December and culminating on the 21st in a new piece — its first new music in ten months. Here’s one featuring one of Oregon’s most renowned composers.

And speaking of singing and social justice, last month the PSU choral programs Bruce Browne so cherished and nourished received a $1 million gift from Greg Hinckley and Mary Chomenko Hinckley to fund a new faculty position to work with undergraduate and graduate students in the school’s Music Education and Choral Conducting programs, and to create new initiatives focused on social and racial justice in the Portland region.

You can hear why the Hinckleys were so impressed in the PSU Chamber Choir’s Take Ten: A Celebratory Retrospective Concert, which dropped this fall.

Cappella Romana also had an extremely productive pandemic year, relatively speaking, with chart-topping new releases of brand new music and really old music, a new record label, films, and more. You’ll be hearing all about it from Mr. Andrews shortly.

Meanwhile, Central Coast Chorale is searching for a new leader to succeed founder and artistic director CQ, who had led the group since 1997, retired last spring 2020.

Wrapping Up

Sculptor Jud Turner with "The Wishing Bench" in Forest Grove.
Sculptor Jud Turner with “The Wishing Bench” in Forest Grove.

Looking a little north, 17 arts organizations across the Seattle area came together to create This is Beethoven, a four-day digital, cross-disciplinary festival that began streaming Dec. 16, when Beethoven’s birthday is traditionally celebrated. And speaking of Seattle, its Boondogglers Theater Company just released a free 5-episode audio drama podcast, Ludwig and the Hammerklavier, joining the world’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary. 

And Washington County’s invaluable Tualatin Valley Creates worked with four large-scale sculptors to create its delightfully whimsical Musical Benches Public Art Collection. Three of the four new works were recently installed in Cedar Mill, Tigard and Forest Grove. Since we’re all taking so much activity outdoors, at least when the weather permits, bring your headphones, plop yourself on one of these musical benches and tune into one of the podcasts and other streams mentioned here.

As this annus horribilis slouches to a close, we have a few more blue notes to share. This summer, as fires raged around Oregon, we learned of the death of one of the state’s finest writers about music. James McQuillen’s incisive insights and graceful prose style distinguished his work for Willamette Week, the Oregonian, and (too seldom, alas) ArtsWatch. He was also a sweet, smart, and funny soul who always made me smile and usually laugh whenever we found ourselves at the same shows. Oregon arts journalism is poorer for his loss.

James McQuillen. Photo by Karl Blume.
James McQuillen. Photo by Karl Blume.

As Bob Hicks wrote, “He did a lot of other things in his life, and had a lot of passions, but music was a constant. … James’s writing was deeply informed, deeply opinionated, often wryly funny, and committed to the possibilities for greatness in the world of sound. He wanted music to be the best that it could be, and was a passionate advocate for its importance and the importance of the people who made it.”

Last month also brought news of the passing of Art Maddox, the composer-pianist who was well known and admired especially in his hometown of Eugene. Stay tuned to ArtsWatch for more about his life from fellow Eugene musical legend Don Latarski, who’s collecting memories of Maddox. And of course, we also lost renowned choral conductor, educator, and ArtsWatch contributor Bruce Browne. Read my remembrance here.

Thanks to everyone for tuning into ArtsWatch and to Oregon musicians. We’re grateful for your attention and support. We’ll keep bringing you the news next year, which we all hope will sound and look brighter than this one. For the past decade, ArtsWatch has been the single best place to find out the most significant happenings in Oregon classical, jazz and other music — and now we’re listing online performances just as we have live shows. Tune into our monthly previews to see what’s streaming. As always, feel free to let us know about other music notes of interest in the comments section below, or by emailing us via our contact form or music@orartswatch.org. And please support your Oregon musicians, presenters, and venues until — and after!– we carefully pick our way through this crisis. 

We’ll leave you with a few miscellaneous links.

  • As classical music finally begins to seriously address its long history of white supremacy, it can’t ignore a related challenge: the class and economic barriers that keep out so many who want to create, perform and enjoy it.
  • The pandemic’s impact on the “urban pleasure economy” poses the “danger of ending up with a two-class system of culture consumption: digital galas, ‘drive-in’ live opera, and digital docenting for the many; the real “live” thing for the few.”
  • “As the pandemic drags on, it has created an existential crisis for [performance] venues and the critical role they play in music scenes and communities across the U.S.”
  • Here’s a nice primer to share with your classical music newbie friends looking for something different to stream during the lockdown.
  • “The canon is racist.” Musicians of color document systemic racism permeating classical music. 
  • To the long list of potential saviors of classical music, add: virtual reality?

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About the author
Senior Editor | Website

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for 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, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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