This photo got to me. First time I’ve cried since our season was suspended. Missing all of my friends and colleagues, including our hardworking and passionate staff and management team, and our stage crew brothers and sisters. Hope it’s not too long until we can talk to each other face to face again, and to make music.
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:
It’s 2020! Now, there is some debate as to whether the new decade starts this year or next, but humans like round numbers, so I’m going with 2020 for the new decade, (and it’s a random Roman’s fault that we have this conundrum, anyway). Will this one roar or suck? Who knows! Not me. But this past decade was an interesting one for me, I’ll say.
Between 2010 and 2020, I lost both of my parents, got divorced, got remarried, bought a house, and broke my collarbone. It was a real Dickens sort of situation, the best of times and the worst of times, all rolled into one.
Musically, it was a less mixed bag. I literally played so much music that I cannot even begin to remember all of it. But here are some things that come to mind from each year.
In September 2010, I played my first concert with 45th Parallel, and took the show on the road with cowboy shirts to Pendleton, Oregon. It’s fun to look back at how young we were – and to think that the organization has grown into 45th Parallel Universe, and I’m one of the musician board members. Crazy!
In May 2011, the Oregon Symphony made its first trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City. It was an amazing trip, see my blog post here, and was a huge publicity boon for the orchestra. In fact, our concert there made Alex Ross’ performances of the decade list in the New Yorker as well!
In August 2012, I played my first concerts with the Methow Valley Chamber Music Festival. I got to meet and play with some remarkable musicians, and to enjoy the spectacular scenery of the area. It was also my first two rehearsal Debussy quartet. Yikes!
In September 2013, the then Third Angle String Quartet played Georg Friedrich Haas’ Third Quartet – which is played from memory in total darkness – for the first time at the OMSI planetarium. It was a formative musical experience for me in my first full season with the group. We’ve gone on to play it several more times, most recently in Astoria this year as the Pyxis Quartet.
March 2014 brought a performance of the three string quartets of the great British composer Benjamin Britten at the Community Music Center. Three masterpieces, all played in one sitting. Exhausting, but also exhilarating!
April 2015 featured a performance at the Alberta Rose Theater of Third Angle New Music with renowned author and critic Alex Ross. Works of Cage, John Luther Adams, Henry Cowell, Steve Reich, and Lou Harrison. Alex Ross has long been a hero of mine, and it was fantastic to share the stage with him.
2016 had a lot going for it, but tops of that year for me was the US premiere of James MacMillan’s European Requiem at the Oregon Bach Festival, as well as a chamber orchestra concert under his direction that same week. The Requiem is and was a stunning masterpiece, and one that should be programmed in Oregon again soon. Hint, hint…
2017 brought the emergence of the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music, and Third Angle and soprano Tony Arnold were the first artists to be invited to work with her slate of young composers. Musically, it was incredibly challenging and rewarding, but emotionally it was earth-shaking. What a joy it was to be involved with this project!
2018 came with a collaboration with the Oregon Symphony Artist-in-Residence for that time period, percussionist Colin Currie. A string quartet of OSO musicians joined him for a mini tour to the University of Oregon and Oregon State University to play two works with him by Martland and Daugherty, as well as the String Quartet No. 2 by Quincy Porter.
And, finally, 2019. There was so much to love about the projects I did in this year, but for me my first traversal of Crumb’s monumental and phantasmagorical Black Angels with the Pyxis Quartet (for the local micro-festival Makrokosmos) has to win the prize. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it again!
Well, let’s see what the next ten years bring! Avanti!