Classical reinvention

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Rochester’s distinctive cultural sector has been transformed by COVID-19. An earlier Rochester Beacon story addressed the challenge confronting the community’s many museums. Rochester’s world-class musicians face the same challenges and more. Yet as Erik Behr, the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal oboe, notes: “Creative people, with some money behind them, can do amazing things.”

Aspiring artists must confront an unpleasant fact: Only a few get rich in the business. Most career musicians cobble together multiple gigs to assemble a full-time salary. The average salary for a full-time RPO musician is just over $41,000 for a 38-week season. During the season, many maintain a studio with private students or teach at one of the local colleges. Some get an opportunity to play concerts with the Society for Chamber Music in Rochester or other performing groups.

Grace Browning

The 38-week RPO season allows many to participate in one or more of the many music festivals held around the country each summer. Except this one.

Grace Browning, the RPO’s principal harpist, had a busy summer planned in New Mexico as a member of the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra with a schedule that included performances like Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Wagner’s “Tristan Und Isolde.” But it was not to be. The entire season was canceled on May 11.

She also was slated to participate in the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Yet all of its 45 concerts, scheduled from July 19 to Aug. 24, also were canceled. 

The Living Room Series

What’s a harpist to do?

“Nothing” isn’t in. Browning’s vocabulary. Along with violinist Willa Finck, Browning proposed a livestream from RPO musicians on Facebook and YouTube. They approached Rob Simonds, principal second violin, to host the first of the series. Set in his living room (“my stage,” says Simonds, the Living Room Series was launched.)

Rob Simonds on his living room stage.

The informal and virtual settings permitted the performers to introduce themselves to the audience with a level of intimacy that is impossible from the stage of Kodak Hall. Browning hosted Episode 2.  Wes (trumpet) and Shannon (violin) Nance recruited daughters Brianna and Bridget to join their living room offeringViolinist Thomas Rodgers’ contribution came from his family home in Indiana, accompanied by his father (also a professional musician). Bassist Jeff Campbell included wife Charlene on piano, daughters Lydia and Louisa on vocals, son Nelson on trombone and Jackson and Westin on bass. 

Living Room outdoors on Aug. 8

As the weather improved, the Living Room moved outside. Browning, Finck and cellist Ben Krug initiated the outdoor series, with sponsorship from M&T Bank and Rochester Regional Health. My wife and I joined the small audience on Aug. 8—a wonderful performance of the Brahms String Sextet No. 1, hosted in the backyard of RPO violist Mark Anderson.  With the help of friends, the technology of the series now included three cameras and improved audio. Browning added video director to her list of assignments, watching the score & directing the three cameras. 

With a view of the Liberty Pole demonstrations from her Sibley Square apartment, Browning encouraged the RPO to participate in a Black Lives Matter rally at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park.

RPO plays Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” at Black Lives Matter rally.

Yings guide Bowdoin Festival

Rochester musicians play leadership roles in various summer festivals. The Ying Quartet’s Phillip and David Ying became the artistic directors of the Bowdoin International Music Festival in 2014. Begun in 1964, the six-week annual festival provides outstanding student musicians an opportunity to interact with professional musicians and their peers at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME. The 2019 season invited 284 students (of 1,185 applicants) from 35 states and 15 countries to work with 47 faculty and 30 guest artists in nearly 2,000 lessons and classes. The festival’s 71 concerts, some livestreamed to 50 states and 94 countries, reached an estimated 54,000 people. 

Recorded on July 18, 2020.

COVID-19 made a reprise of 2019 impossible—the intimacy of individual lessons, small group master classes and small ensemble rehearsals would have exposed students, faculty and audience to infection risk. The festival responded by refunding student tuition and reducing the performance schedule significantly. Having invested in livestreaming over the previous three seasons, the festival was able to stream some prerecorded content plus new content from musicians who were able to play together such as the Ying Quartet. With continued support from selected sponsors, the festival also offered master classes at no charge and was able to pay participating faculty. In addition, the festival was able to do a “composition project” that enabled student composers to create works for faculty fellows, interacting remotely. “We did enough to achieve our goals of continuing our mission and maintaining a connection,” Phillip Ying says.

Sun Valley Music Festival Reimagined: Juliana Athayde and Erik Behr

Juliana Athayde and Erik Behr

The RPO’s concertmaster, Juliana Athayde, and principal oboe Behr perform the same roles for the Sun Valley Music Festival in Idaho. RPO violinist Perrin Yang is also a member of the festival orchestra. 

A prominent second home community for the well-heeled from the Bay Area and Seattle, Sun Valley was hit early with COVID-19 and festival organizers swiftly pivoted to virtual performances. They resolved to offer virtual performances for every night with previously scheduled in-person concerts, 14 in all. Behr reports that with a “go big or go home” attitude “with wallets to support it,” the festival mounted “a more extravagant online effort than any orchestra in the country.”

To construct composite recordings from musicians scattered about the country, the festival designated a dozen satellite recording locations (including Rochester) and shipped a “recording studio in a box” not just to the sites but also the homes of many performers. As Athyade and Behr were playing a number of pieces with New York City-based pianist Orion Weiss, the festival brought Weiss to Rochester to record. 

A top-notch technical team, including skilled California-based video directors, wove the various recordings together into a harmonious whole.

To mimic the “live, in-person” performance character of the music, each concert streamed only once. The end product is not available for download or on an on-demand platform. There was a live audience for the final streamed product—lawn admission to the festival was free by registration. The spacious lawn was divided into socially-distanced 2, 4 or 6-person pods and could accommodate 1,000.

The venerable Chautauqua Institution adapts

One of New York’s cultural jewels, the Chautauqua Institution occupies 750 acres on the shores of Chautauqua Lake near Jamestown. Operating since 1874, its nine-week summer season typically draws as many as 100,000 to attend live theater, opera, lectures and musical events over the summer. About 7,500 people are in residence on any day during the season.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York State on Pause executive order called a halt to in-person programming. Nearly all of Chautauqua’s unique mix of lectures and debates about social challenges, public policy and the role of all forms of spirituality were retained but converted from live to virtual events. With interstate travel and in-person performances severely restricted, the institution also resolved to make nearly all content available online through the Chautauqua Assembly portal. Available through a subscription to (free 90-day trial period, then $4 a month), the rich and rewarding content of the Chautauqua Institution is available to anyone.

Most of what was scheduled for the Chautauqua Assembly speaker series could be shifted to a virtual format with little difficulty. The variety here is impressive, including speeches or conversations with thought leaders like the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus on the Supreme Court, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on education or retired Sen. Barbara Mikulski on women’s suffrage; plus, panels and speakers exploring climate change or the interplay between art and democracy. Chautauqua’s traditional focus on spirituality also was shifted online, including discussions with prominent religious leaders plus meditation in Christian, Sufi, Yoga, Dharma and Zen traditions. 

Arts programming wasn’t so easily converted. Nearly the entire schedule came suddenly down. Deborah Sunya Moore, Chautauqua’s head of arts programming, had to transform or replace over 100 performances. 

Like the Sun Valley Music Festival, Chautauqua shipped studio kits around the country to facilitate quality remote recording and livestream. Moore also tapped musicians who either live within driving distance or spend their summers at the institution, as do many members of the Chautauqua Symphony. She tapped the Eastman School of Music’s Ying Quartet for a concert in August, for example.

She and her staff resolved that replicating the traditional two-hour physical concerts would be a mistake and resolved to limit the online events to one hour, typically 40 minutes of music followed by 20 minutes of conversation. 

Full opera productions were out of the question—talk about aerosols! Instead of planned productions of Puccini’s “Tosca” and the contemporary “Thumbprint” by Kamala Sankaram, the institution hosted virtual “sing-ins” with 20 upcoming vocalists. 

The weekly Cocktails, Concerts and Conversations featured a number of artists, including Ilya Kaler, concertmaster of the RPO from 1996 to 2001.

Ilya Kaler

Master classes with Renee Fleming, Susan Graham and other stars were also featured over the summer.

Sample more of Moore’s miraculous summer season. 

Creative solutions in performance

Musicians love to play together—even physical distancing on a stage can make those subtle cues they exchange harder to read. Given variable delays in electronic connections, it isn’t possible to actually record “together.” The RPO’s wonderful cello section recorded “Home on the Range” by sequentially layering the parts on top of one another. 

RPO cellists perform “Home on the Range”

Even more ambitious, 61 RPO musicians recorded Jeff Tyzik’s “A Call to Worship” (part of his “Pleasant Valley Suite”) by the same means—each instrumentalist played with a prior recording heard through an earpiece or headset. Four of the Sun Valley Music Festival’s concerts employed the same approach with its 100-strong orchestra.

RPO musicians record Jeff Tyzik’s “Pleasant Valley Suite.”

What does the future hold?

The world of music performance has been dramatically altered by COVID-19. Some of these changes are irreversible; others may not be, depending on the path of the virus. 

Free streaming has been a rational, near-term response to the need of performers like the RPO and presenters like the festivals to stay relevant. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the fear whenever an event is canceled. 

Streaming brings significant advantages, however, by opening both time and geography to presenters, performers and students. Performances need not occur at a single point in time or be limited to a predetermined list of eligible viewers. 

How can the new order be monetized?

Performers must be paid, however, The RPO is experimenting with a form of pay per event, similar to how individual concerts are charged. 

  • “RPO at Home: Philharmonics” concerts are priced at $10 each or $9 each when purchased as a series. Purchasing a pass allows access to the concert for up to 45 days after the original broadcast. The concerts are recorded in the Hochstein School of Music Performance Hall. 
  • “RPO at Home: Chamber Ensemble” concerts are smaller events priced for streaming at $5. Weather permitting, a limited outdoor audience can purchase tickets for $40 each. 

The Chautauqua Institution is experiencing some considerable success with its subscription model, which starts with a 90-day free trial. Subsequently priced at $3.99 a month, the institution offers tremendous breadth and depth of content at an affordable price. With 10,000 subscribers already, the new model is off to a good start.

The Sun Valley Music Festival has long been heavily supported through philanthropy. With a strong and loyal base of contributors, the festival was able to respond to the COVID challenge very effectively. 

Musicians who depend on touring to earn a living have been particularly affected by COVID. Although members of the Ying Quartet have appointments at the Eastman School, they earn a portion of their income through touring. Canceled travel this year includes performances in Colorado, Mexico, Cape Cod and Maine as well as two tentative China tours. Grounded for the time being, they are exploring the idea of performing all 16 Beethoven string quartets. Might there be a sponsorship possibility here? 

Is it live or is it Memorex?

The audio tape manufacturer Memorex ran an advertising campaign featuring Ella Fitzgerald that suggested that its recordings were just as good as live. Ubiquitous streaming revisits that question, although the question isn’t audio quality but performance quality. How do we balance the excitement and risk of live performance against the near-perfection that can be achieved in the recording studio?

The Sun Valley Music Festival preserved the fiction of a live event by making the performances available only once. The Chautauqua Institution made the opposite decision, weaving a marvelous tapestry of live and recorded music, and placing it on its portal for all to enjoy. 

There is room for both perspectives; finances will drive the conclusion.

Expanding beyond the summer season

Through its online portal, the Chautauqua Assembly, the Chautauqua Institution is expanding its programming beyond the six-week summer season. A 10-day residency with Winton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Septet begins next Wednesday and will be streamed over the CHQ portal.

Similarly, the Bowdoin Festival is exploring how its education offerings can continue through the year. 

Might online actually be better for some purposes?

Renee Fleming

Most musicians are evangelists—they love to share their love of music and their instrument. Teachers and students have been forced to online instruction by COVID-19 and some have found that it has advantages. As an example, many members of the Eastman School faculty are providing lessons to students living in Asia and unable to return to Rochester. 

The online master class may actually have advantages. Chautauqua’s Moore reports very high student satisfaction from the online master classes offered. Recorded vocal coaching from the likes of Graham and  Fleming can be very effective for the participants and for those who can observe.

Challenging as these events are for performers, access to great recorded music has expanded tremendously for music consumers. Live music is different, to be sure, and can’t be replaced with great video and audio streams. But musicians have been reinventing themselves since the day of wandering minstrels and are quite capable of responding to these new challenges.

The RPO’s ‘Fire Drill’

Leaving Kodak Hall on Friday, March 6, the audience and nearly 300 participants in Benjamin Britten’s massive and deeply moving “The War Requiem” were unaware that this would be the last concert in that hallowed hall until … when?

Barbara Brown

Barbara Brown, director of Education for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, had spent that week confirming the details of the RPO’s popular education concerts. Morning concerts were scheduled for the following Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, promising a cavalcade of yellow school buses filled with 8,000 schoolchildren.

On Saturday, Brown received a phone call from RPO president Curt Long—”just a ‘heads-up’ (and probably nothing to worry about), but there was a possibility that the university might not allow the concerts to go forward.” By Monday, it was confirmed—the governor had declared a state of emergency over the weekend and the university wasn’t taking any chances. The orchestra could play—but the children couldn’t attend.

Brown nearly ran to catch the end of the rehearsal and share the news, then sent emails to teachers to halt the cavalcade. 

Canceling wasn’t considered. One of the highlights of the year for the RPO, the orchestra resolved to keep its promise to the children over livestream. The now-online concert was rescheduled for Friday, March 13, five days away. 

Kodak Hall had only a single camera. Brown and her colleagues knew that a static view would bore a young audience raised on the internet. Fortunately, a special events company was familiar with the space and eager to help with additional cameras and the knowledge required to “orchestrate” the concert.

Stephania Romaniuk and Herb Smith.

But what about the program? Titled “Get Out the Vote” (with women’s suffrage and the upcoming election in mind), they had planned a competition between the trumpet and clarinet, with the children voting for their favorite at the end of the concert. A brainstorm of flamboyant trumpeter Herb Smith (and the concert’s conductor), the script was rewritten and the “vote” was taken using online polling software. 

Churchville students vote.

Art submitted by the children was employed as a background; a planned sing-along was led by an Eastman School student. 

A resounding success, there were 250 logins from 80 schools, some from distant states. 

“It really was the BEST day,” Brown says.  “The entire RPO family came together to create a magical moment.” 

For nearly every participating school, March 13 was the last day of in-person classes.

Kent Gardner is Rochester Beacon opinion editor.

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