Driven by hunger to reassure classical music fans after months of lockdown, a safety-adapted, online-only but truly live version of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will perform Sept. 26 on the big stage at Skyview Concert Hall.
“Throughout history, music has proven to be a powerful antidote to anxiety, fear and depression,” said orchestra executive director and lead clarinetist Igor Shakhman. “Right now our audience needs us more than ever.”
Musicians need their audience too, Shakhman said, and the orchestra is excited to return to live performance after many months of hiatus. Coronavirus precautions, however, have forced changes to what live performance can consist of during this difficult, distanced time.
No audience will be in the auditorium during the live-streamed performance. The orchestra will be reduced from a standard 70 musicians to just 15, who will be physically distanced from one another and properly masked up onstage.
Because coronavirus’ favorite mode of transmission is human breath, all lung-powered, air-expelling instruments — all brass and woodwinds, including Shakhman’s own clarinet — have been excluded. This concert will feature string instruments only — violins, violas, cellos, bass and harp — plus harpsichord and piano.
Concertgoers can still look forward to a top-quality classical concert experience, Shakhman said. The orchestra has hired a sophisticated multimedia crew including a “streaming engineer” who will coordinate nine high-definition cameras and state-of-the-art sound for a flowing, intimate, powerful experience, he said. The goal is a smooth stream with excellent sound, Shakhman said.
Salvador Brotons, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s beloved maestro, has not been able to travel from his home in Spain to work with the group in many months, Shakhman said. In this concert, the orchestra will be led by frequent guest conductor Ken Selden of Portland State University.
The event’s emcee is Steve Bass, the president of Oregon Public Broadcasting and another Vancouver Symphony Orchestra clarinetist who’s been sidelined for this concert. A pre-concert show will feature podcaster Ashley Hall and host Greg Scholl.
Some pieces in the program were chosen to resonate with the current struggle for racial justice, Shakhman said.
“We will feature two outstanding African American composers who are mostly overlooked,” he said. “We want to stand together with the people fighting for social justice and equity and inclusion.”
George Walker (1922-2018) may be overlooked today, but he was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music. He was famous in the 1950s and 1960s as an internationally touring concert pianist and prolific composer. The piece featured in this concert, “Lyric for Strings,” was composed when he was just 18 years old.
Also on the program is “Serenade” by William Grant Still (1895-1978), who logged many firsts as a Black American musician. Still was the first Black maestro to conduct a major symphony orchestra and the first Black composer to have a major orchestra perform his work. Although he composed a popular song for the 1939 World’s Fair, he was not allowed to attend the fair without police protection except on “Negro Day.” A few years later, Still quit a job arranging a movie scores for Twentieth Century Fox because of racism.
Also on the program are works by Antonio Vivaldi, Edward Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Dmitri Shostakovich, whose Chamber Symphony was composed “in memory of victims of fascism and war,” Shakhman said.
Because it’s a semi-pro outfit that pays its musicians per performance, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra has weathered the pandemic better than fully professional groups that have been forced to furlough or lay off full-time employees. But the orchestra still spent a chaotic spring and summer making and unmaking 2020-2021 concert season plans in accordance with changing government guidance and pandemic predictions, Shakhman said.
Meanwhile, two key members of the group who are physicians — Michael Liu, pianist, and David Smith, a member of the board of directors — dug into the science of coronavirus transmission. They eventually joined a conference call with Shakhman and his friend bassoonist Adam Schwalje, who is also a doctor and research fellow with the National Institutes of Health. Based at the University of Iowa medical school, Schwalje recently co-authored a review of the available scientific literature about coronavirus risk and how it relates to wind instruments.
His conclusions weren’t encouraging, Liu said. While it’s been well publicized that coronavirus-laden breath droplets tend to fall within 6 feet, science has been slower to catch up with more troubling data about aerosol transmission — in which much tinier particles can stay airborne longer and travel farther.
“The infected particles are very light. They stay in the air. That means it’s incredibly contagious,” Shakhman said. And, because woodwind and brass musicians push out those particles with much greater force than your standard civilian, the result is “a very elevated amount of aerosol transmission” overall, he said.
“After learning this, it became clear as day that we shouldn’t be doing any wind or brass instruments — or any singing,” Shakhman said. “Another amazing thing we learned: masks are incredibly efficient,” he added. “When you are breathing and talking normally, aerosol emission is minimal. Just putting on a mask solves many problems.”
With that limitation in mind, the orchestra approached Clark County Public Health, which approved a reduced orchestra of no more than 15 masked, separated, non-wind musicians, and Vancouver Public Schools, which approved letting the concert happen upon Skyview’s spacious and well-ventilated stage.
But no audience will be there. Playing passionate music for a bunch of cameras in an empty auditorium will be pretty strange, Shakhman said, but the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra is eager to try it.
“The world in general feels like it’s in pain,” he said. “Our hearts are broken for people who have lost loved ones or lost their jobs. We as an organization are trying to provide a little bit of a sense of normalcy and hope and inspiration to everybody.”