It all began so quietly.

In February, things were already starting to look promising for July’s annual Summer Festival of the Seattle Chamber Music Society. Executive director Connie Cooper remembers the subscription sales were posting “good numbers.” SCMS had just moved into their brand-new Center for Chamber Music in downtown Seattle in mid-March, when it became increasingly clear that “change was in the air,” as Cooper puts it.

“But we thought that in a couple of months, we would be past all this,” she says of the coronavirus.

By early April, festival leaders were engaging in serious talks, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and it became obvious that the intimate concerts in the 536-seat Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall would no longer be possible in July.

They decided to go virtual, with some of the musicians coming into Seattle, and strict COVID safety guidelines in place.

Seattle Chamber Music Society tries a bold experiment, presenting its entire summer festival virtually

The original concept was to stage the concerts in the new Center for Chamber Music, livestreaming them to the screens of subscribers. But on the first day of the 12 concerts, July 6, it became clear that the internet platform they were using was “just not robust enough to support the videos,” Cooper says. “They did not meet our timeline or quality standards. We moved to Vimeo, another platform.”

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Festival staffers also realized that trying to present the filmed concerts in “real time” was too complicated. They decided on a one-week delay, giving them time to create intermission features and interviews between the musical selections. Every concert would be streamed a week after the musicians had performed it in the Center for Chamber Music; viewers can access the concerts on demand through Aug. 17.

Connie Cooper, Seattle Chamber Music Society’s executive director, and James Ehnes, its artistic director. (Courtesy of Seattle Chamber Music Society)
Connie Cooper, Seattle Chamber Music Society’s executive director, and James Ehnes, its artistic director. (Courtesy of Seattle Chamber Music Society)

“Is this live music? It’s not livestreamed in the moment, but the musicians view it as live, because there are no stops and starts as there are in a recording session; everything is played straight through,” Cooper says.

Subscriptions to all the concerts online cost $125 per household; single concerts are $15. Halfway through the festival, there have been 7,052 views of the streamed concerts by more than 700 subscribers from 38 states and 16 countries.

“We’ve found that a core group of about 300-400 people watch the videos in the first 24 hours, and that people continue to watch and rewatch the videos, bringing the total view count up to over 1,000 per video after a four-day or five-day period,” said Seneca Garber, director of marketing and communications for the festival. “On every release date there is typically 600-plus views, and on ‘off days,’ we don’t see a dramatic drop-off.”

On average, viewers watched 43% of the video at a time, but Garber attributes this comparatively low figure to viewers taking an “intermission”: stopping and then later restarting the videos.

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“We are still seeing people subscribe to the series,” Garber adds. “I think it is in large part because they can watch previous concerts.”

Up in the San Juan Islands, the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival was undergoing the same levels of angst, as the June 1 “go/don’t go” deadline for its festival artists approached. Artistic director Aloysia Friedmann and her “kitchen cabinet” of advisers met frequently.

“The easiest solution was ‘we cancel, we give up’,” Friedmann remembers. “That’s not me.” 

They found the platform OurConcerts.live, where they’re livestreaming their concerts. And thanks to board members and supporters, they were able to pay half their artists’ fees for the year and find a video producer/director.

The Orcas Festival concert livestreams may be viewed up to 24 hours after each performance. The 12-evening concert series is scheduled for through Aug. 8 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. A festival pass (all concerts) is $120; single tickets are $20.

A final bonus concert on Aug. 14 will feature live music from Orcas by a dozen festival artists (including Friedmann and her pianist husband, Jon Kimura Parker).

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“Luckily we have such gifted and willing musicians, and so many camera enthusiasts and specialists in technology,” Friedmann says. 

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Seattle Chamber Music Society’s Summer Festival: Concerts, recorded a week in advance of viewing, stream online on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays through Aug. 17. Among the featured artists: the Ehnes Quartet, violinist Augustin Hadelich, pianist Boris Giltburg. $125 for all 12 concerts, $15 per individual concert; seattlechambermusic.org.

Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival: Through Aug. 8, live broadcasts of Beethoven quartets by the Miró String Quartet on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 5:30 p.m. Tickets via OurConcerts.live: $20 for individual concerts, $90 for tickets to six of the concerts, $120 for access to the complete series, which also includes an “OICMF Encore Evening” livestreamed concert on Aug. 14. Info: oicmf.org.

Olympic Music Festival Virtual Salon Concerts: Aug. 2- Sept. 6, with 5 p.m. concerts on Sundays, and 7 p.m. talks on Wednesdays, streamed for free at olympicmusicfestival.org. Performers are artistic director/pianist Julio Elizalde, violinist Stella Chen and cellist Matthew Zalkind.

Icicle Creek Virtual Chamber Music Festival: Two remaining concerts, at 5 p.m. July 31, and 5 p.m. Aug. 1. Livestreamed from Canyon Wren Recital Hall in Leavenworth, with pianist Oksana Ejokina, violinist Hoorig Poochikian and others playing Mozart, Grieg, Poulenc, Enescu and more; free “tickets” at icicle.org.