Along with its terrible human toll, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the performing arts. Cancellation announcements are now so routine that the Seattle Chamber Music Society’s (SCMS) decision to proceed with a 2020 Summer Festival comes as a welcome respite.
Since “normal” live concerts in a closed venue remain off-limits, SCMS has designed a plan to present its usual 12 concerts as a virtual festival July 6-31. All of the programs will consist of fresh performances to be recorded live, either in Seattle or remotely, and then presented via streaming.
“Over a couple of days in early March, it seemed performances were getting canceled by the hour,” recalled SCMS artistic director and violinist James Ehnes during a recent phone conversation from his home near Tampa, Florida. “And the news continues to be so heartbreaking. I decided with my colleagues that we had to get creative and find a way to make music. Fortunately, we have a strong and healthy organization and were able to forge ahead.” With a current annual budget of $1.3 million, the SCMS has managed to stay in the black every year since it was established in 1982.
Working with SCMS executive director Connie Cooper, Ehnes reached out to the artists originally scheduled to perform to determine who could feasibly travel to Seattle. Half of the roster of 40 performers — from Seattle and around the world — lined up for the virtual festival plan to be on location to record performances in SCMS’s new home in downtown Seattle. The Center for Chamber Music at Sixth Avenue and Union Street, which includes an intimate 60-seat concert salon, was to have been unveiled to the public this spring.
What about health risks? SCMS will work with the University of Washington’s Virology laboratory to have the musicians tested for coronavirus when they arrive in, and before they leave, Seattle. They will observe social-distancing guidelines as they perform onstage in the salon. SCMS also plans to limit the number of people in the space — including the production team and one or two staff — to the absolute minimum.
The remaining musicians are not yet comfortable with traveling or are temporarily restricted from entry into the U.S. They plan to record their performances remotely, as soloists or duos. These contributions will arrive from locations across the U.S. and Europe as well as from Canada and South Korea. Comprising about one-third of the festival’s content, they will be interspersed with music performed in the SCMS salon.
“Everyone’s video background from the pieces done remotely will be a little different — some in a local concert hall, some in their living room,” Ehnes explained. “One of the great draws of chamber music is its intimacy. We want to use the virtual festival as an opportunity to allow our audiences to get to know our musicians and how these programs were put together. It will be a real peek behind the curtain.”
That also gives an intriguingly unpredictable dimension to a festival that normally follows a very familiar pattern. Flutist Marina Piccinini, one of the remote performers performing as a duo — with her husband, pianist Andreas Haefliger — will additionally give the world premiere of this year’s SCMS commission by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Aaron Jay Kernis. It’s a piece for solo flute titled “Siren” and pits the instrument’s ancient associations alongside its aggressive potential.
Speaking from her home in the Central Swiss Alps, Piccinini explained that “Siren” challenges the cliché of the flute as a source of merely tame, “pretty” sounds. “Aaron explores the double-sided nature of the instrument, which is like the Greek myth of the Sirens themselves — seductive yet at the same time dangerous.”
“I was so pleased that SCMS decided to pull through with the festival and not just get by with recycled streams,” Piccinini said. “As artists, we are supposed to be at the edge of creative thinking.”
Charging a fee to access the festival content admittedly entails a risk, given how used to the abundance of free streams people are these days. For the festival, individual concert programs are $15 each, and all 12 concerts can be viewed with a $100 subscription if purchased by June 30 ($125 beginning July 1).
Yet the cost to “attend” is much less than what a regular evening with SCMS would cost.
None of the events can be sold out (as often happens at the festival’s live concerts). And in theory, they are accessible almost anywhere on the globe. SCMS will also save on renting performance space at Benaroya Hall and having to provide a staff for some 500 patrons at each concert.
Ehnes points out that people in the music business are struggling with the status of online offerings in general. “In almost all circumstances, this has been seen as supplementary to the ‘real’ product — even as the technical ability to document concerts has improved. But in this lockdown, we realize this is the only product we have. With that in mind, thinking of these virtual concerts as the primary product is an interesting challenge.”
Violinist Augustin Hadelich, a Seattle favorite who is based in New York City, is among those who agreed to travel here and plans to play in all three concerts in the final week of July (including a joint performance with Ehnes).
“I’ve played the festival every summer since 2009 and am so happy to be able to see my friends again,” Hadelich says, even though he knows the tight-knit community that usually develops will be smaller and more restricted.
Facing the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic, Ehnes has been moved by the musicians’ willingness to rally. “We’ve been able to put together a mix of programs I’d be proud to present under any circumstances. This has become an opportunity to bring our music to a wider audience and also to provide encouragement to the arts world that there are paths forward.”
Seattle Chamber Music Festival’s 2020 Virtual Summer Festival. July 6-31 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; each concert will be streamed at 7 p.m. $15 for individual concert programs; $100 for all 12 concerts if purchased by June 30 ($125 beginning July 1). Tickets provide on-demand access through Aug. 10. 206-283-8808; seattlechambermusic.org/concert_series/2020-virtual-summer-festival.