The Oregon Symphony
Jason DeSomer / Courtesy of Oregon Symphony


Oregon’s classical music industry returns to the stage and peers into a digital future

By Jerad Walker (OPB)
Aug. 13, 2021 1 p.m.

While challenges and uncertainty loom large, Portland’s musicians and classical institutions are adapting to a brave new world.

Members of the Recording Academy nominated the Oregon Symphony for multiple Grammy Awards late last year. For outgoing music director Carlos Kalmar, it was a fitting swansong, and it was yet another feather in the cap of the ensemble, which is Oregon’s largest arts organization and one of the oldest classical music organizations in the country.


An event like that would normally be cause for celebration, but, at the time, the orchestra was concerned with a much more pressing issue: survival.

“Each year about half of our revenue comes through ticket sales and the other half through annual donations,” Oregon Symphony CEO Scott Showalter says.

With the orchestra on a pandemic-enforced performance hiatus for the past 18 months, Showalter estimates that his organization has lost $15 million in expected earned revenue. The effects of that shortfall have trickled down to staff and the orchestra’s roughly 80 full-time musicians.

“You know that old adage —'the show must go on’ — which is how we’re all trained and brought up to be? It was just not possible,” says timpani player and percussionist Sergio Carreno.

While emergency government funding helped considerably during the pandemic, individual musicians like Carreno faced tremendous economic pressure. During the past year and a half, they’ve weathered layoffs, furloughs and wage cuts. But Carreno believes the measures were necessary.

“That’s the only way to survive,” he says. “We had to take a hit on all levels. If we wanted the institution to continue.”

The interconnected world of classical music

Violinist Shanshan Zeng is a native of Chengdu, China, but she’s called the United States home for over a decade.

“My great-grandma is a violin professor at our local conservatory. So I started learning with her until the year I left for high school here in the United States,” the Portland-based musician recalls.

International artists, who make up a significant part of the classical music talent pool in Oregon, have had their own unique stress points. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, Zeng noticed a rise in anti-Asian hate across the country. The disturbing news reports deeply concerned her family in China and put Zeng and her husband on edge.

“I see so many people’s stories and I think — I think some emotions just got intensified during this year,” she says.

Foreign-born musicians working in the United States have also faced travel restrictions and concerns regarding their immigration status. Because of that, Zeng, who is not a US citizen, elected to avoid travel abroad during the past two years.

“My [immigration] lawyers suggested I don’t risk not being able to come back,” she says. “I think the immigration officers were also like ‘Maybe you don’t get paid enough. You don’t have enough work. Then why are you staying here?’”

Watch Shanshan Zeng perform a duet with her husband Shengnan Li, who is a violinist with the Milwaukee Symphony:


When musicians like Zeng can’t travel freely, it causes other problems in the classical music ecosystem. Chamber music organizations rely heavily on small groups of these touring artists to fill out their live programs.

“We’re dealing with a much higher level of risk,” says Peter Bilotta, Executive Director of Chamber Music Northwest. “In planning to bring national and international artists to Portland, we’re stepping out on a high wire right now and hoping that we’ll actually be able to bring them here in September and that they’ll be able to do concerts.”

The future and the digital frontier

With uncertainty about upcoming venue capacity restrictions, Bilotta says there is also industry-wide pressure to innovate using technology. That means providing high-quality digital content. Chamber Music Northwest streamed its 2021 Summer Concert series online and those who bought tickets can watch the archived shows on-demand anytime.

But that solution has a drawback.

“You have to invest in recording, producing, compensating the artist for the recording and the future streaming of the work,” Bilotta says. “So now you have a performance that’s both live and online but has cost twice as much to produce.”

Oregon Symphony CEO Scott Showalter echoes the concern.

“It’s incredibly expensive and we don’t earn money on that,” Showalter said. “That’s the kind of thing that we are only able to do thanks to donor support.”

While Showalter says the Oregon Symphony’s primary goal is to return to live performance in the fall, he’s quick to point out the urgency for the orchestra to meet audiences where they’re at — even if that’s online.

“We need this like never before during this time of pandemic. People are hungry not just for classical music but for art. And so we’ve made that investment and we will continue to do that even when we come back.”

Musicians like violinist Shanshan Zeng and percussionist Sergio Carreno have been instrumental in the Oregon Symphony’s recent foray into digital content production. They’ve both performed in the orchestra’s Essential Sounds video series.

Carreno, who has also hosted Spanish language online programming for children, said a silver lining of the pandemic is that it forced classical music institutions to think outside the box and move into the digital space with a sense of urgency.

“Connecting with a broader audience, further extending our outreach. All of these are wonderful things. Very positive,” he says.

After all the show must go on.

But Carreno insists that there is no substitute for a full performance hall.

“I want the audience back [and] included in that scenario.”


Tags: Culture, Oregon Symphony, Music