When Ellen Hwangbo launched a chamber concert series in November 2019 that included a venue just a stone’s throw from the White House, little seemed brazen about it. But within months, American cultural life came to a grinding halt as the nation grappled with an unrelenting pandemic that has yet to loosen its chokehold.
After a short period of shock and adaptation, Constellations Chamber Concerts evolved to an all-virtual format, first presenting soloists stuck at home during lockdowns and then growing increasingly ambitious. On Sunday, November 22, 2020, this tiny local group kicks off its season of free monthly concerts with star-studded performances featuring a signature blend of unexpected pairings that both look forward and harken to the legacies of the past.
The Texas-based Miró Quartet is premiering “Home,” a new piece composed by Pulitzer Prize winner Kevin Puts for its 25th anniversary. Clarinetist Mariam Adam and pianist Andrew von Oeyen are performing together for the first time, with Valerie Coleman’s dramatically jazzy Sonatine (2005) and the Brahms E-flat Major Sonata, Op. 120, No. 2 on the menu.
“As far as the pandemic goes, the interesting thing about being such a small organization is that it gave us an advantage. We don’t have a whole lot of overhead,” said Tom Carter, the group’s secretary and treasurer. “That kind of gave us a flexibility that larger organizations might not have.” It took Constellations only a month to get musicians lined up and to launch its first virtual concert.
Adam and von Oeyen, both California transplants, are playing from the pianist’s apartment in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. The pearly white Sacré-Cœur Basilica that sits atop the historic artist haven of Montmartre serves as the backdrop. George Bizet was born just a block away, and Maurice Ravel’s first apartment is also nearby. Such a personal and unique experience for viewers taps into the concept of “home,” the overarching theme of the Constellations season of monthly concerts, as people beam the world into their living rooms while isolated at home.
Without constantly coming up with new and creative ways to engage a public now limited to digital platforms, small organizations like this would not survive. “It’s kind of morphed over time to be less like trying to imitate the concert experience,” Carter said, now that many people are managing everything from their children’s schooling to professional meetings exclusively in a Web overloaded with livestream options. “We can’t just be like, here’s a video of a performance we did, and expect a lot of people to be interested in that. It’s got to be something you can’t find anywhere else—something that’s educational and inspiring at the same time.” Carter spoke by telephone in place of his wife Hwangbo, who was sick with a cold (the times are such that the family got tested for COVID-19 out of precaution).
Rather than invest in expensive audiovisual equipment that would reduce funds available to pay artists, Carter and Hwangbo simply repurposed their personal camera for the couple’s home studio, got quality software, and let the artists use their own recording equipment.
Concerts are kept short, with about 30 to 40 minutes of music often played by two groups padded with panel discussions with performers and composers, as well as live questions and answers for the audience. In order to make traditional program notes more engaging and personal, Constellations now offers podcasts where a member shares insights into the artists and works.
Programming committee member Toyin Spellman-Diaz voiced the introductory podcast for Sunday’s concert. She is the oboist of Imani Winds, a quintet founded by Coleman of which Adam is a founding member. In turn, Coleman’s Sonatine was inspired by the flutist-composer’s tour of Europe with saxophonist Steve Coleman and Imani Winds members.
Going online, and hence avoiding travel expenses, allows Constellations to affordably feature internationally renowned performers like harpsichordist Nadja Lesaulnier, violinists Gábor Szabó and Randall Goosby, cellist Amanda Gookin, or the Viennese flute-viola-harp trio that includes Eric Lamb, Nora Romanoff-Schwarzberg, and Christoph Bielefeld. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to leverage the contacts we’ve made through this time when we’re all back together,” said Spellman-Diaz.
Hwangbo, a pianist herself, said “part of what has been most inspiring for me is the people who aren’t classical music fans who have been intrigued by our series, including several members of our board, who heard one of our concerts and were excited to get involved!” Writing over email, she added, “I think this is a result of taking the ‘stuffiness’ out of classical music and treating the concert experience as more of a guided tour that makes it more personal and gets the audience engaged.”
Von Oeyen noted that offerings like these make classical music and performers more accessible than ever before, drawing new audiences to the genre. “Because this is not a stage, because the acoustics are not perfect; because it’s an intimate setting, you actually hear different things in the music that you wouldn’t in the concert hall. You hear a more intimate side to these pieces, with all the limitations of the space,” he said. The public now has a view inside the living spaces of performers usually held up as on pedestals as demi-gods of music. The piano might be slightly out of tune. Home decor and family photos in the background provide a glimpse into an otherwise invisible part of the artists’ lives.
Constellations has scored successes with its formula. About 200 to 300 individual screens tune in per broadcast, according to Carter, but some of the recorded material has received many times more views. More than 6,000 have viewed Sandbox Percussion’s August recording of Victor Caccese’s “Bell Patterns,” where quartet members riff off each other’s rhythms and melodies. As part of a separate Gift of Music program, Constellations has distributed monthly concert programs to more than 20 senior facilities.
Fundraising efforts have already yielded nearly $20,000, which Carter said closely matches concert expenses, the bulk of which go toward paying a “meaningful” honorarium to the artists in line with the fledgling organization’s budget. A fundraising virtual trivia night is in the works.
Other initiatives have been put on hold, including an ambitious one to emulate Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic in ways adapted for a new era. Hwangbo and her team are now planning to put performers on a truck that doubles as a stage once the temperatures warm up again in order to bring interactive experiences to sites across the region.
For all the tragedy caused by the virus, the resulting restrictions and limitations have also fueled a new wave of creativity. Classical musicians in particular have found innovative ways to present their work to new audiences, demonstrating their relevance in a painful time. And with so many professionals out of work, collaborations have blossomed.
“Every classical musician has had to become more tech savvy this year than ever before,” Adam said, laughing at the amount of tech lingo now lodged in her vocabulary. “That’s the new reality. You kind of have to embrace it.” The clarinetist, who has hosted virtual masterclasses and clarinet festivals, as well as made online recordings, stressed that creating new pieces and commissions has taken on fresh urgency after “deflating” concert cancellations.
As he stared at a newly empty booking calendar in March, von Oeyen returned to Malibu, where the dream home his brother built for him burned down in wildfires two years ago. He rolled a seven-foot grand piano onto the balcony of the condo he rented as part of what became a series of barefoot concerts overlooking the Pacific Coast for more than 100 neighbors, all respecting social distancing and mask guidelines.
“Those concerts became as important to me as the most important concerts of my career, because they were touching on the fundamental meaning and purpose of music, and they were touching people in the most vital, essential way,” he recalled.
The experience was so gratifying that von Oeyen plans to launch an expanded set of concerts in unusual places once the pandemic fades into the rearview mirror.
Constellations Chamber Concerts is hosting seven monthly shows, each featuring at least two performers or ensembles, available to watch beginning at 3 p.m. ET on November 22, 2020, at constellationsmusic.org.
Podcast program notes by oboist Toyin Spellman-Diaz introducing the first Constellations concert of its virtual 2020–21 season.