Chamber Music Northwest features in-person performances at summer festival

Husband and wife team Soovin Kim and Gloria Chien are putting on their first summer festival as artistic directors for Chamber Music Northwest.

Joanna Rae Photogra / courtesy of Chamber Music Northwest

The staff and board at Chamber Music Northwest decided to take a risk back in February when they committed to holding their summer festival concerts in person. That risk paid off as the festival has coincided with Oregon lifting its mask mandate and ending most restrictions put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The concerts from the four-week festival will also be available online for a limited time. We talk with Chamber Music Northwest’s new artistic directors Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim about what it’s been like to welcome audiences back to live performances.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. There are two new Artistic Directors of Chamber Music Northwest. The group’s main event is an annual summer festival in Portland. It’s usually a month of concerts at auditoriums at Reed College and Portland State University, along with open rehearsals and other events sprinkled around the city. But of course that wasn’t to be. The pandemic forced the festival to pivot quickly and it was an all online affair in 2020. This year is different. Chamber Music Northwest and its new Directors, the Pianist, Gloria Chien, and the Violinist, Soovin Kim, decided that the 2021 festival would happen in person. It started last week with a theme: Reflect and Rejoice. Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Gloria Chien: Hello! Thank you so much for having us.

Soovin Kim: Hello, Dave.

Miller: Thanks very much for joining us. So last year was your first festival as Artistic Directors, but as I mentioned, it was not normal at all. You ended up creating a virtual festival with performances from previous years and then some new ones that people could watch all online. Gloria first, what were you looking for in putting the virtual festival together?

Chien: Well, actually we officially started in the fall. Last summer was David Shifrin’s very last summer. We had to pivot online really quickly. But I think we had a beautiful virtual summer festival. When Soovin and I came on board in the fall, we quickly talked to a lot of people that are experts in putting on audio and video and put together really beautiful year-round concert series that actually were recorded from all around the world, which turned out to be a really beautiful season for us. We have videos from England, from Germany, from all over the country. All kinds of different musicians that are just so eager to play. But we cannot be more thrilled to be live this summer. The first week has just been, I think, overwhelmed with joy from everyone.

Miller: Soovin Kim, how did you all decide to make this year’s event an in person one? That’s a decision that not every festival like yours or artistic organization made back this past winter.

Kim: Oh my goodness, you are giving me flashbacks to our entire year of back and forth meetings as all organizations have been doing this year. We all blow with the wind, the winds of the CDC and the pandemic. Right? So we finally decided, it was probably about four months ago, that it looked like, it still was impossible at the time, but it looked like it might be possible to have an in person festival, that we might be able to have a small audience, although we were also prepared to have no audience but have the musicians live. All along, we knew we needed to be flexible. We needed to be flexible with the number of concerts, our audience numbers, how many tickets can we put on sale, even which musicians can get here, because we had a couple of musicians who could not travel and we had to replace them at the last minute. So we really just had to be flexible with everything. As it turns out, as we got closer and closer to this summer and things were changing every week in a positive direction, we are so thankful that we decided to do this. It was a scramble because normally we might be preparing for a summer festival for eight or nine months and we had to cram it all into four months. But here we are. And so far it’s been really kind of magical.

Miller: Let’s hear some music. This is from last week. It is with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra, it’s the end of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

[Music…]

Miller: That is the East Coast Chamber Orchestra playing the end of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings last week as part of the Chamber Music Northwest Festival. Obviously we can hear the audience there. The one guy so eager to yell bravo before anyone else starts clapping. Gloria Chien, what was it like to have an audience there of, I imagine, serious music lovers who had been starved for that kind of experience for close to a year and a half.

Chien: Oh, it was magical. I mean, everything you can think of, for the musicians too, we haven’t heard applause for more than a year and for the audience, to be right there with you. I mean the whole experience was magical. The East Coast Chamber Orchestra is a 15 member string ensemble, all from the very top string quartets and orchestras from around the country. They’re celebrating their 20th anniversary season. This is the first time they’ve gotten together. I think everybody was just so grateful and in all and to have this whole time together. The first time we heard them in the hall, we were in tears. I think many audience members as well, which I think you can hear in that ending. The energy is just absolutely palpable in that hall, even though we had a limited audience of around 100 or 150, it sounded like it was 1000 people inside the auditorium. I think that just all around, everyone is just overjoyed. We’re just so excited and grateful to be back to have this live music.

Kim: I’m tearing up, I’m tearing up again right now just hearing, hearing it and several of the musicians, as Gloria said, these are a lot of the greatest young musicians. Well, we’re calling ourselves young right now, but young musicians of their generation and several of them as they were leaving said this was really one of the greatest weeks of their life.

Miller: Let’s hear another piece from last week with that same orchestra of the East Coast Chamber Orchestra with the two of you playing as well, with them, Gloria on piano, Soovin on violin. This is from the end of Mendelssohn’s Concerto for Piano, Violin and Strings.

[Music…]

Miller: Soovin Kim, we heard a little bit of what you said that the performers were in tears. The audience was maybe as well. What was it like for you to play last week in front of people?

Kim: Oh, that’s a great question. Actually it was wonderful on one hand, very disorienting on another. Because what we do, it takes a lifetime of training and we learn and practice and practice performing, which is very different from practicing in a room. And just we spend our whole lives trying to find that balance of where is our head, where is our heart, where is our body and how we’re reacting to the situation and when you are so out of practice with that, it was disorienting. So we’re really finding ourselves. Our first rehearsal, actually, that Gloria and I did with Echo, it was just strange to hear other people play in the same room at the same time.

Miller: Do you think that the same was true on some level for the audience, that they had to figure out how to be an audience again, to be around other people and to be watching something unfold in front of them?

Kim: I think being around other people certainly, because it’s a new thing for all of us. What we found though is, in our experience and even audience members as well have been saying, it comes back quickly. It’s like riding a bike and not having ridden for a while. But it does come back quickly.

Miller: Gloria, my understanding is that you’re starting concerts with short pieces, are they even written on the program or some other way to get people back to the world of music again? What are you doing?

Chien: We’ve designed this summer, starting with every program with a prelude that we’re calling them preludes. As our theme this summer, Reflect and Rejoice, it’s just a short piece where we can have some time to reflect. We ask that, it’s usually quite a meditative piece, reflective piece, just collectively to think about everything we’ve been through this whole year. We asked everyone not to applaud right after, to just feel that energy together and actually, the East Coast Chamber Orchestra instead of playing, they hummed the Bach Chorale and I thought that was just the most magical sound to have in that hall.

Miller: 15 string players humming. Could they carry a tune well?

Chien: Oh yeah, and it was so intimate, so special.

Miller: What was the effect on the audience? It sounds – it does sound very intimate.

Chien: Yes. Actually, I’ve heard from many people, they were very thankful. They didn’t know they needed this time. They didn’t realize they needed that moment to just have that time to reflect and to meditate and to acknowledge our collective experience. I think that’s a very special gesture that we are incorporating this summer.

Kim: There was something odd when we thought about starting with something incredibly joyful, and were incredibly excited as we were thinking about the programming this summer. So we wanted to warm us all up into it.

Miller: It’s impossible to talk with the two of you for our first conversation without talking about the last year and a half and the strangeness and the trauma and how you’re processing that. Looking forward, you’re following the footsteps of David Shifrin, who was the Artistic Director of this festival for 40 years. What are your hopes for what you’ll do in the coming years and where you will take chamber music in the Northwest?

Kim: Well, first and foremost, it’s an incredible honor and it’s daunting to be following David. Not just what he’s done in Portland, but really worldwide with his leadership. What we really, what we feel is so important for an organization, especially one that has such a big role in a community as Chamber Music Northwest has, is to serve the community, is to try to understand its needs and and how it can just make the biggest difference in people’s lives, how it can move and inspire the most people. That is different in each community. So much of our job until now has been trying to learn more about Portland and what we’ve learned from Portlanders is that Portland is changing very, very rapidly. The organization and what we’re doing, the kinds of presentations we’re doing, has to also remain nimble and adapt. A big part of what we will do is invest ourselves in music education and especially for younger people and when I say younger people, not 20 and 30 year olds, but really young students and try to make music really, classical music, which is what we do, part of the culture of growing up in Portland.

Miller: Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim, thanks so much for joining us today. Congratulations.

Chien & Kim: Thank you!

Miller: Thank you Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim. They are the Artistic Directors of Chamber Music Northwest. We’re going to go out with a recording from 10 years ago, 2011 from the Festival, Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Amy Yang and Pei-Yao Wang on piano and Candy Chiu and John Corkill on percussion. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC, today. I’m Dave Miller. We’ll be back tomorrow.

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