No Hall? No Problem! Pacific Symphony Doubles Down on Online Presence

Screen capture by Peter Lefevre

Concertmaster Dennis Kim and pianist Hye-Young Kim performing from their home.

In March, the Metropolitan Opera streamed videos of its celebrated, vilified 2011 Robert Lepage-directed Ring Cycle. I watched about five minutes and it was like watching a circus through a keyhole. Such is life during the pandemic. With performing arts venues gathering cobwebs, we take what we can get, and in the absence of live performance, streaming video has become the de facto alternative.

Its limitations are obvious, given the choice between, say, hearing a concert in a hall and hearing the same concert on your computer. Your tinny, tiny, plastic, flat-screened, buffering-at-the-worst-time computer.

Predictable carping aside, it’s not all grim. Videos keep musicians and audiences connected, the format compels a new and different level of creativity, some platforms allow for interacting with the performers, and the world’s musicians are now that much closer to us. In the absence of the ideal it’s sufficient—masks, gloves, Purell, and all.

Like most other performing arts organizations, the Pacific Symphony has taken a deep dive into streaming videos, recently launching an online initiative called Pacific Symphony: At-Home-Together Online which provides free digital content: at-home performances by the symphony’s musicians, watch parties, concert highlights, educational materials. It’s by necessity, not by choice, but the general consensus among the symphony’s leadership is that the organization will emerge stronger for it.

“This too shall pass,” says the symphony’s music director Carl St.Clair. “We will emerge probably more creative than before. The one thing about this is regardless of whether it’s the biggest or smallest orchestra, or if it’s regional, urban, national, or international, this is a great equalizer. We’re all in the same frame of mind, thinking and creating and borrowing from this group and that group. Basically it’s put everybody on the same two knees.”

For St.Clair, the increased online presence is an opportunity to stay connected with the extended symphony family until the doors open again.

“A lot of what we’re doing now is the same thing I do with family and my wife when I’m traveling,” he says. “I keep in touch with them because they’re important to my life, they ARE my life, and I stay in touch any way I can: Skype, Facetiming, telephoning, sending notes, writing emails, sending flowers, bringing home gifts. Right now I’m not able to be with the audience and orchestra musicians, and we do the same thing when separated with loved ones, stay in contact in any way we can.

“With the symphony musicians, they’re putting together all these wonderful creative short little musical messages, but basically they’re staying in touch with our family members: audiences, colleagues, staff, board members, anyone who’s part of our family. We sometimes speak in unison, like with the Beethoven 7th collage [symphony members played the final movement online, from their homes, in Zoom-like mosaic form], or through the small, short, less-than-five-minute vignettes, but we’re basically saying ‘We care, we’re OK, we love you all, we need each other, and we can’t wait to get back.’ And when that moment happens, it will be jubilation and celebration in a way we haven’t seen since the Leonard Bernstein concert on Christmas Day after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That kind of reuniting. It will have that same historical flavor and flair to it.”

In the meantime, the symphony is making the hard decisions that arts organizations around the world are having to make.

“You can only imagine the end of this season,” St.Clair says. “Otello, Conrad Tao, the whole Beethoven festival. The number of regretful and rueful cancelation notices we had to make, with singers and soloists and musicians, was very difficult.”

How difficult? Ask Eileen Jeanette, the symphony’s senior vice president of artistic planning and production, who had the unenviable task of having to make the phone calls.

“I dismantled an entire opera in 45 minutes,” she says. “It was the worst day of my professional life. It took a year to build, and 45 minutes to tear it down. I’d really like to not have to do that anymore.”

As the orchestra adapts to the current landscape, there’s a strong sense of uniformity between the administration, the musicians, and the musicians union. A $2.1 million forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan to the symphony made by the Small Business Association has taken some of the financial squeeze off, and on May 5, the symphony announced a short-term labor agreement extending through September to address how to move forward in view of the cancelled concerts. The agreement includes provisions for the orchestra to create new educational content for the symphony’s school programs, and allows for some unreleased materials to be made public.

“Because of the agreement we reached with the musicians, we can now use symphony archives,” Jeanette says. “Where we have footage for those concerts, under certain circumstances we can use them to keep donors and subscribers engaged with the art form even in a digital form. We’re excited, it’s opening a ton of opportunities. We’re re-aligning ourselves, turning into a digital production company during a time when we can’t perform. Luckily our musicians are happy to be participants.

“We’re trying to incorporate it all. We’re trying to settle into something, but conductors don’t live on a computer, and musicians don’t either. During this weird time everyone has a hole in their heart from not seeing live performances. It’s crazy. I’ve watched the Met Gala, Andrea Bocelli at the Duomo in Milan, the Lady Gaga thing, and they make me feel better, but it isn’t the same.”

John Forsyte, the symphony’s president, is quick to agree that live concerts are irreplaceable, but is a firm advocate for a strong digital presence, pandemic or not.

“I don’t think there’s any substitute for the live experience on so many levels,” he says. “You can’t replace the sonic power and beauty of a live experience, nor can we replace the social benefits of being together communally to experience the majesty of the art form, but in the media context, especially curated interactive content, it can be powerful.

“It’s been paradoxically a silver lining. The individual artistry of the orchestra is coming forward, which makes me happy, even though we struggle so much with the loss of live orchestral music. And the larger frame is how this catapults our digital capability in our educational and community engagement realms. Prior to this moment, our strategic plan prioritized our virtual education initiative. Our highest education priority was to expand our footprint and impact through media. Hundreds of schools don’t have access to what we offer, and what we learn may unleash a very beneficial outcome to forward our distance learning objectives. This is a really useful moment to experiment and get feedback from the educational community and from parents who are at home with children.”

In other words, the pandemic is accelerating a process that had been in the works already.

“[Streaming video] is something we’ve been working hard on for awhile,” says Alexey Bonca, the symphony’s public relations and social media manager. “We really think we can take the symphony in an exciting new direction. The news is bad today and we’re trying to see what we can make out of it.

“We’re seeing increased engagement across the board. I manage Facebook, Instagram, the symphony blog, and we’re seeing video views increase 30 percent. YouTube views have increased 58 percent, which is phenomenal. We’re seeing levels of engagement online we’ve never seen before, and it’s wonderful to see how clear it is that the audience online needs this music, needs it in their life. The whole online digital initiative will keep us engaged with audiences and connect us to new people that we’re hoping to serve after the pandemic. All arts organizations across the country are taking a big hit right now, but in the long run this will make us stronger, more flexible, and agile enough to deal with issues as they come up.”

At the center of the initiative are the musicians, of course, who are using this opportunity to create in new ways. For some, like principal flutist Ben Smolen, it’s an easy step in the right direction.

“I’m one of the younger members of the orchestra,” he says, “and I grew up with social media. Facebook was started during my first year of college, and I sort of came into the music world being a part of the social media generation.

“Social media is the de facto primary way of interaction with audiences now. Because it’s not live, it’s not ideal, but it also opens up a lot of opportunities. You can’t interact in as direct a way in a concert hall as you can on Facebook. A couple weeks ago I hosted an Instagram takeover of the Symphony’s account. I live in Long Beach, and a lot of other symphony musicians do too, so I went to one of their houses. We stood in a balcony and a courtyard and played a duet, filmed it, threw it up on Instagram. Later, we did an ‘Ask Me Anything’ Q-and-A, and people submitted stuff, tuned in. It was really fun and connected with people in a way I didn’t expect, and I found that really gratifying, because you realize audience members have questions, but haven’t had a forum to ask them.

“My personal hope is that we take this unfortunate position where we can’t perform live, and we create a digital marketplace and ways to connect other than concerts, and once we get back to whatever normal looks like, we enhance our concerts with what we’ve already developed during this time. This is great to hash out those ideas of how to connect with people and what our values are, and what is our best format to connect with audiences.”

Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at palefevre@gmail.com.