Unlike many organizations, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra USA didn’t pack up its instruments and go home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, after being restricted for a year and a half to streaming their concerts, the musicians of the VSO were excited to return to in-person performances last month for the start of their 2021-2022 season.
Then the Delta variant threw a new monkey wrench into the works.
A Regional Classical Music Institution Survives the Pandemic
Dr. Igor Shakhman, the VSO’s Executive Director and principal clarinetist, spoke with me about how the orchestra has had to rapidly adapt, and what the pandemic era has been like for a mid-sized orchestra – with an annual budget of a little over $1 million – in a relatively small city.
“The orchestra presents about 40 events each year,” Shakhman told me, “including classical and pops concerts, a chamber music series, jazz events, a speaker series, concerts in the park, a gala, and a few others.
“About a year prior to the pandemic the orchestra was on an upward trajectory. In 2019 we received a grant to hire a development director and start a development program over three years. Everything started to improve, the organization was growing, the audience was growing.
“And then all of a sudden the pandemic struck. Pretty much all performing arts organizations in our area shut down, along with a majority of orchestras around the country.
“We made a decision to keep going and pivot to a virtual platform. In all fairness, we had a little bit of an advantage, because in our hall a few years ago we installed two high-definition screens, one on each side of the stage, with 10 high-definition cameras located all over the hall. So we had projection during the concerts so people could see the conductor, close-ups of the musicians, and different angles.
“[We already had] a production engineer and state-of-the-art recording equipment – all we had to do was add a streaming engineer who would combine them in real time. So we decided to keep all our concert dates, just change the programming, and livestream. And we made a decision to offer a live experience, not recording [the concerts], just livestreamed.
“[As a result] we grew our online audience, we had audience members in the majority of the U.S. states and in Europe, Russia, Ukraine, New Zealand, Australia. PBS News Hour even included us in their story.
The Delta Variant Strikes
“When we started to plan our return to live performances this season in September, we decided to start not with Mahler or Bruckner but with a Schubert symphony that uses pretty standard instrumentation…Inspired by our success in streaming, we decided to stream it at the same time. We planned everything, people were excited, the audience was excited.
“And then, as we all know, the Delta variant came…Our hall, Skyview Auditorium, is run by the Vancouver School District. It’s an acoustically spectacular hall, every seat is a premium sonic experience, that’s why we use it – a lot of other arts organizations in the area use it too for that reason. [But] all of a sudden cases started to rise, and the [school district] made the decision to not allow any outside groups to do live performances at Skyview. They told me about three weeks prior to the [September] concerts.”
Shakhman was at pains to stress that he completely understood the district’s decision.
“I want to be part of the solution, so no hard feelings, no complaining at all! [But] it takes a year to put a performance together, so it was incredibly challenging, especially since our organization has only a very small, four-person administrative team.
“None of the Vancouver venues were available, so I looked in Portland across the river. Portland’5 Centers for the Arts is a performing arts complex that has five theaters, and one was available. It was an incredible challenge to get everything organized in two weeks [for streaming etc.]. [But] the team at Portland’5 and our team worked [together] very well, and with two weeks of work we presented a very successful concert experience.”
I asked him if the VSO’s audience followed the orchestra across the river.
“They did. The Saturday concert was at night, and actually the first time any orchestra played in downtown Portland since the pandemic…so people were still a little bit apprehensive to go to a downtown concert at night. On Saturday attendance was lighter in person but still strong in streaming – but on Sunday afternoon there was [excellent] attendance both in person and online.
“But it’s not over, because [Skyview] is still unavailable for our October 23-24 “Kodály’s Dances of Galánta” concerts, and none of the Portland theaters were available [either]. So I looked around – and there is a new beautiful venue, it’s unusual and unorthodox: the ilani Casino Resort, just built a few years ago. It’s a beautiful place. So I called them and they were available. They opened recently and are focusing on national acts…it’s a large room that holds 3,000 people and more. It’s equipped for streaming and for projection.
“As I walked in I was just stunned, the air was so clean – they don’t allow smoking inside – fantastic food options… and the auditorium looked great, the stage was already built. A lot of people in the industry are complaining that the classical music orchestra experience is too stale, too predictable, so I thought this could be something unusual, surprising, and interesting.
“And another bonus: the Cowlitz Indian Tribe that owns the casino has an arts and culture fund and they are supporters of our orchestra and have given us grants in the past, so this turns out to be a natural progression.
“Again the logistics are completely different from what we had with the theater in Portland, and still intense. [But] it’s coming together and we’re excited [for our October concerts].”
Maintaining Safety for Musicians During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Of course, the pandemic isn’t over. So I asked Shakhman how the VSO keeps its musicians safe.
“We have two physicians on our board, very knowledgeable people, and we also [consulted with] a national expert from the University of Iowa and studied everything about COVID. We of course followed the CDC and government guidelines but we also put in place our own guidelines. So for the streaming last year, we sat only the strings, not winds or brass, we sat everybody six feet apart – fortunately our stage allowed it – had check-ins at every rehearsal asking about symptoms etc., and people understood, everybody was forthcoming with everything. If someone wasn’t feeling well we would tell them to stay home. Fortunately it was a success.
“Now we require everybody to be vaccinated, and for anyone who has special needs [and can’t be vaccinated] we require them to have a negative test within 48 hours, and everybody still wears masks. Winds and brass have to be 100% vaccinated, and we still maintain distance as much as we can.”
A Passion for Administration
Shakhman’s enthusiasm for managing the orchestra and solving seemingly insurmountable problems was evident in our conversation. But he’s not just an administrator, he’s also the VSO’s principal clarinetist, and has had an interesting performing career.
“I’m from Ukraine. I studied at the Moscow Conservatory,” he told me. “I came to America, participated in the Aspen Music Festival, and got my doctorate from the University of Colorado. At some point I lived in New York and auditioned for and got a job with the touring Broadway production of Oklahoma!. [It was on that tour that] I discovered Portland and I fell in love. I auditioned for the VSO, won the position, and became the principal clarinetist.
“A year into my tenure I got a call from New York to go on tour with Fiddler on the Roof with Topol. In the middle of that experience something happened that just made me so interested and excited [about] administration. About nine months into the tour Topol got injured…and in a matter of weeks the production people in charge [had] hired Harvey Fierstein to replace Topol, and I was just stunned how quickly everything got changed, all the marketing messages, everything, and I was just so impressed…and still every show was sold out. And I was talking to our production team…and said I want to be a part of this, of administration, this is just thrilling!
“After the tour of 18 months I started to look for opportunities to get into administration. A [management] job opened with my orchestra, and I applied and got it, and in 2011, shortly after starting my job, I became Executive Director, a position where I could actually influence the direction of the organization, and it was just so thrilling for me and still is!
“In my heart I am a musician, my training is as a clarinetist and I love music, that’s who I am. But administration actually is my passion. I love communicating with our audience. Since I started my tenure as Executive Director, in combination with the Board and our Music Director [Maestro Salvador Brotons], I started to bring stars, like Gerard Schwarz and Orli Shaham…and to hear the audience respond. People don’t need to go to New York anymore to see an incredible artist. To me it’s just thrilling – despite the challenges, to me it’s a game, a thrill!”
For information and tickets to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra USA’s October 23-24 “Kodály’s Dances of Galánta” concerts and the rest of its 2021-2022 season, visit its website. In addition, the VSO’s 2021 Young Artist Competition finals take place October 17 at 1 PM. Congratulations to the nine finalists!