oregon symphony the orchestra world

I’m scared…

I’ve been in my position with the Oregon Symphony since 1995. Twenty-five years. Nothing has happened during that time which has made me so worried about the future of my workplace than this current epidemic. SARS-Co-V2 (the virus itself), and COVID-19 (the illness caused by the virus) have caused an upheaval of the music and entertainment industry unrivaled since World War II. Only the aftermath of 9/11 comes even remotely close in the context of most living memories.

Why am I scared? The orchestra has no revenue coming in, and stands to lose nearly $5M by June if things don’t change and we can get back to giving concerts. Many of my colleagues teach extensively – they can rely on that income stream to help pay for essentials – but I don’t have an established studio. My extra income comes from – wait for it – playing additional concerts outside of the orchestra. Within the orchestra there is a collection of smaller ensembles that have sprung up, among them 45th Parallel Universe, Pyxis Quartet, Arnica Quartet, Mousai Remix, Arcturus Quintet, and the outreach concert series Classical Up Close. Planned concerts for many of these groups have also been canceled or postponed. In other sorts of work stoppages – strikes or lockouts – it is common for musicians to see temporary work in other ensembles. That’s not possible in this case – all performing organizations in our time zone are also under the same restrictions, and their concerts and tours have also been canceled. Rules on claiming unemployment have been relaxed, and that offers some relief, but there’s little I can do to make up the difference at this point. And on top of all of this, I don’t know if the orchestra I eventually return to will be anything like the one that ceased giving concerts three days ago. So much is unknown. It’s a Rumsfeldian situation where the known unknowns outnumber the known by a wide margin, and the unknown unknowns lurk beyond my ability to foresee.

But even more importantly I’m unable to do what I love, which is to play live concerts for people. It’s a helpless feeling. What I most want to do in situations like this is to play music in order to give comfort, and also gain reassurance. I remember playing a concert very shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and how much solace we were able to give our audience and ourselves. That’s just not possible now, because those concerts held everyone in the same communal space, providing fellowship. Our current predicament is isolating, frustrating, and demoralizing. But not insurmountable – there are some options available to smaller ensembles which I’ll get to in a bit.

For the time being, the staff and orchestra is being paid, and health insurance is being maintained. But I don’t know how long that can last. Our orchestra earns around 50 percent of its budget through earned income – that is by selling tickets to people who are paying to sit in the concert hall with thousands of other like-minded people. When people are not allowed to congregate in public groups larger than 250 people, then we have a serious problem. We can’t deliver take-out concerts. I mean, we could live stream concerts, but we couldn’t reasonably be required to charge for those streams, could we? Could we charge the median price for a live concert ticket? People don’t even want to watch 30 second ads or see banner advertising in order to view ‘free’ content – which is never free to produce. Far from it. Our entire business model is a large number of people paying to have a shared communal experience of great symphonic music in the same room. And the way orchestras and other non-profits use cash flow is different than other businesses, too. We are earning and fundraising all during the season, in many cases using revenue from sales of the following season’s concerts to fund the current one. So losing four weeks (at a minimum) of concert income is a devastating blow.

I want to circle around to the topic of streaming concerts. I’ve long been a fan of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall streaming platform. The site live streams concerts several times each month, then archives them permanently for future viewing. It uses a tiered model where one can buy a ticket for a single concert, or a weekly, monthly, season-length pass. I sometimes buy a one month subscription to do study before performances of less-familiar repertoire, and then binge on the archives until my pass runs out. It’s a great way to see one of the great orchestras of the world outside of traveling to Berlin and hoping to get a rare available ticket. It is, however, just not the same as a live performance. An ensemble relies not just on itself, but on that peculiar synergy between itself and its audience, a tension of watching and being watched – not remotely – with all the terror and exultation that can bring for performer and audience member alike.

Those living, breathing, sitting in auditorium seats people don’t just spend money on concert tickets. According to the 2017 Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 [pdf] study by RACC/Americans for the Arts, the economic contribution of non-profit audiences to the Greater Portland Metro area was nearly $116M. Add to that the spending of the arts organizations themselves and you get just over $330M. Not to mention local government revenue of $13.6M. Something like $25 per person [pdf] is spent outside of the cost of a symphony ticket every time a concertgoer comes downtown to the Schnitz to see a show. That’s money that restaurants won’t make when the hall is dark – and the Oregon Symphony plays 110 concerts each season.

So, what can I do, as a performer in this situation? I, and many of my colleagues will set out to see what we can do together – in smaller ensembles – to provide music for ourselves and our vital audience. We don’t know what that will look like yet, but as soon as I do, I will write about it here. It’s so important. Meanwhile, our heroic senior management team and staff are working around the clock to try to secure additional funding, take care of myriad ticketing concerns such as refunds, exchanges, etc. People in the audience see next to nothing of them, except for when President Scott Showalter comes to the front of the stage before each concert, but the orchestra could not do anything without their dedicated support and passion for the music and the institution.

The morning that we had our management/players meeting on the morning the governor’s ban went into effect, one of our flutists went over to the symphony’s offices and played an impromptu concert for the staff. I was told that it was so appreciated – I know the power that music has when life seems out of control. It takes us out of ourselves. Out of our headspace in which we so often get stuck. It performs this strange alchemy of taking fear and turning it into hope, or at least into cathartic tears. That’s what we musicians can do. Make art. We’ll try to bring it to you as best we can under the constraints in which we find ourselves. But here’s the most important question:

What can YOU do?

What is going to save the Oregon Symphony is you getting on the phone or computer and calling (this is the single most powerful point of contact – one call is worth at least 10 emails), emailing, or flooding the Twitter accounts of the following elected officials who have the power to grant or seek emergency funding:

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler – 503-823-4120; @tedwheeler

Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly – 503-823-4682; @ChloeEudalyPDX

Oregon Governor Kate Brown – 503-378-4582; @oregongovbrown

US Rep (1st District) Suzanne Bonamici – DC office: 202-225-0855; Beaverton office: 503-469-6010; @RepBonamici

US Rep (3rd District) Earl Blumenauer – DC office: 202-225-4811; Portland office: 503-231-2300; @BlumenauerMedia

Senator Ron Wyden – DC office: 202-224-5244; Portland office: 503-326-7525; @RonWyden

Senator Jeff Merkley – DC office: 202-224-3753; Portland office: 503-326-3386; @SenJeffMerkley

soloists & recitals the orchestra world

performer bios suck


I was just reading an editorial by David Lister from The Independent wherein he decries the amount of useless information that he sees in performer bios in concert programs. And I totally agree. He asks why these bios are so horrible for the average person.

I would answer that it is  because they aren’t intended for the average person. They’re written by publicists, both for other publicists and for presenters. Lister is right on the money about what most people want to know about performers: how old are they, what instrument do they play on, do they have a family, where do they live. A listing of the twenty orchestras they played with last year and the twenty that they’re playing with this year is hugely irrelevant to anyone, unless they’re following the performer around the globe and want to know where to route their around-the-world ticket to next. Most performers omit where they studied and who they studied with. I can understand their wanting to distance themselves from the student realm, but for the knowledgeable listener, knowing the pedigree of a performer can be very instructive. If I know a violinist studied with Ivan Galamian and Dorthy DeLay, then I have a very good idea of their interpretive foundation. If a cellist has studied with Heinrich Schiff instead of Janos Starker, that also gives me some insight into what I’m about to hear, or what I’ve just heard.

I kind of wish that most bios in programs were more like the informal performer portraits that are often featured now and then in orchestral programs. Just for comparison, here is my bio from the Oregon Symphony musician roster page:

Charles Noble joined the Oregon Symphony as Acting Principal/Assistant Principal violist in 1995. In 1993 he was first-prize winner of the Seattle Ladies Musical Club Competition. He received the 1995 C.D. Jackson Award by a vote of the faculty at the Tanglewood Music Center and the 1995 Israel Dorman String Prize at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Noble is also a founding member of the acclaimed Ethos Quartet.

His solo appearances include two performances of Mozart’s Sinfonie concertante, the West Coast premiere of Joseph Castaldo’s Viola Concerto, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 with OSO Principal violist Joël Belgique, and Bruch’s Romanze for Viola and Orchestra, all with the Oregon Symphony. Other solo appearances include the Cascade Festival of Music, Chico Symphony (Calif.), the Vermont Youth Orchestra, Tacoma Youth Symphony, Tacoma Young Artists Orchestra and the Portland Youth Philharmonic.

As an author Noble has published two articles on audition preparation appearing the The Strad magazine, and his article profiling violist Roberto Díaz appeared in the January 2003 issue. He was one of three American violists invited to tour Japan with the Super World Orchestra, whose roster included members of the Vienna Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra. In December 2000, he was visiting master teacher at the University of Nevada at Reno. In 2002 he was a featured artist performer at the 2002 International Viola Congress in Seattle, Wash., where he and colleague Joël Belgique performed George Benjamin’s Viola, viola.

Noble was a member of the faculty at the 1998 National Youth Orchestra Festival at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, and he is co-founder and a member of the faculty of the Max Aronoff Viola Institute in Seattle, Wash.

During the 2002-2003 season, Noble formed The Four Violas with three colleagues from the Oregon Symphony viola section: Joël Belgique, Mara Lise Gearman and Brian Quincey.

It’s ok – it has a bit of list-iness to it, I’ll admit. But you do learn where I went to school, who my important teachers were, and other musical activities that I’ve done outside the orchestra. Now, here’s my About Me bio from this blog:

I’ve been Assistant principal viola of the Oregon Symphonyviola section since 1995. I’m also a member of the Arnica Quartet and Third Angle New Music, and play occasionally with 45th Parallel. Before that I was a professional student, collecting degrees from the University of Puget Sound, the University of Maryland, and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. At those places (among others), I was lucky enough to study with these amazing teachers and mentors: Joyce Ramée, Joseph DePasquale, Michael Tree, and Roberto Díaz. I joined the faculty of the University of Portland in the Fall of 2014 as adjunct instructor of viola.

In June 2014 I was proud to be appointed to the Board of Directors of All Classical Portland.

I play on a viola made in 1997 by Gabrielle Kundert, of Olney, MD.

I love cycling, wine, beer, whiskey, reading, movies, and cats.

There’s still a bit of a list, but it’s more of a narrative than a pure list. You still know where I went to school and who I studied with, and you also learn that I teach at a university myself, and then that I’m on the board of Allclassical (our awesome classical radio station!), the instrument I play on, with a link to its maker’s website, and then a short list of stuff that I enjoy that lots of other humans enjoy, too.

If I saw performer bios that looked more like my blog bio than my orchestra c.v., it would make concert programs eminently more readable, don’t you think? Audiences are so hungry for this type of information. They want to get a glimpse into the lives of those people on stage who, for a lot of fans, are practically heroes. To be fair, a lot of performers do have social media presences (though often curated by their PR teams rather than being true expressions of their personal interests), and these do give a more rounded view. Cellist Alban Gerhardt has maintained a blog about his travels for quite some time (though it is much less often updated as of late), and Hilary Hahn also kept a wonderful blog before her career became huge and she started her family. But the point is, if we as performers allow a bit of our non-performing persona out into the public, we stand to gain a lot of additional goodwill from our audiences, and build stronger relationships between these two seemingly monolithic (but actually very diverse and interesting) structures—orchestra and audience. That’s why the Oregon Symphony Musicians’ Classical Up Close initiative has proven so successful, in large part.

What do you think?