Regional Orchestras 2: Blazing New Pathways In Washington, Oregon

Salvador Brotons has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony since 1991. (Photo by Paul Quackenbush)

Editor’s Note: This is the second report in a two-part series about regional orchestras in America’s Northwest.

PERSPECTIVE — A lot of attention has been directed to the out-migration from cities like San Francisco in recent years. This phenomenon is turning out to be more complex than the cliché of “urban exodus” offered by pandemic-related stories. All of that redistributed energy has to flow somewhere — and with it the impetus to improve the cultural institutions of the destination cities.

Like Boise, Vancouver in southwest Washington State presents another striking example of a smaller city that has become a magnet by offering increased affordability along with a less-stressful lifestyle. Vancouver’s leaders want to establish the city’s identity as not just a bedroom community to Portland but a desirable alternative on its own merits.

Vancouver and the surrounding region rank among the fastest-growing areas in the state. This newfound attractiveness is stimulating a fresh sense of promise and ambition for the arts. As the city’s largest performing arts organization, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra USA has been a presence for decades.

Developing from a chamber orchestra initially organized in the early 1970s, the VSO officially dates its founding to 1978 and has had only two music directors in the decades since: Walt Cleland, a transplant from Nebraska who shaped the VSO’s profile during its first dozen years, and Salvador Brotons, his long-reigning successor. A Barcelona native, Brotons took over as music director in 1991.

Craig Morris was soloist in trumpet concertos by Haydn and Penderecki. (Quackenbush)

But the ensemble, whose core numbers about 70 per-service musicians, is on the cusp of becoming a cultural flagship of Vancouver’s efforts to rebrand itself. In an ambitious initiative to enhance the orchestra’s visibility in the community, the VSO is collaborating with city leaders to launch a three-day summer festival in early August. The Vancouver USA Music and Arts Festival will focus on American and also local themes. The orchestra has announced repertoire that mixes works from the canon with music by such contemporaries as Adolphus Hailstork and Valerie Coleman. Gerard Schwarz, a conductor familiar to Pacific Northwest audiences from his long tenure as Seattle Symphony’s music director, will be among the featured guests.

“The idea is to start an all-encompassing arts festival in the summer that will include a wide spectrum of art,” explained VSO chief executive officer Igor Shakhman, who is also the orchestra’s principal clarinet. That means a mix of free and ticketed events covering orchestral, pops, chamber, jazz, and film performances, along with exhibits celebrating local artists and participation from the local food community.

It’s also a declaration of resilience for the orchestra, Shakhman said. “We want to make a strong statement for the community that the arts exist, especially coming out of the pandemic. This could dramatically change the entire artistic landscape, just when Vancouver finds itself in a unique place with its rapid growth.”

The physical landscape of the city has been changing as well, thanks to the much-touted development of Vancouver’s waterfront along the Columbia River, with Portland beckoning on the other side. Though the VSO’s main venue is the 1,150-seat Skyview Concert Hall — which has decent acoustics but a deficit of charm — the main stage for the festival performances will be the Esther Short Park, a brief walk from the waterfront, in the heart of downtown Vancouver. According to Shakhman, “We (and the City of Vancouver) will be expanding the current stage to make it more suitable for a world-class event. There will be a secondary stage near the main stage where various local arts organizations will perform during the daytime plus at least two auxiliary stages downtown for pop-up performances. We’ll also use the waterfront for some pop-up performances and after-hour activities.”

This undertaking is made possible by a $600,000 grant awarded to the VSO by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust  — not affiliated with the conservative media mogul but a charitable organization based in Vancouver that has played an especially vital role supporting arts organizations in the Pacific Northwest during the pandemic. The grant, which will be spread over three years, is the largest amount of money that the orchestra has ever received, according to Shakhman. “Because they believe in our organization, they were happy to take a leap of faith.”

The VSO learned crucial lessons about survival in the aftermath of the Great Recession in 2008 that helped it steer a course through the pandemic. In fact, the organization nearly folded in 2011 following the loss of several major supporters. The annual budget plummeted from nearly $800,000 to about $275,000, and the staff was cut from six to one full-time employee — the CEO position that Shakhman, who had joined the VSO as principal clarinet in 2008 and who had in the meantime become orchestra manager, was asked to fill.

Broton and the Vancouver Symphony at the end of a concert in November 2022. (Quackenbush)

Shakhman shepherded a community fundraising campaign, and the VSO made a sharp U-turn; the current budget, he said, is “a little over $1 million.” The symphony consulted with arts administrator Michael Kaiser, who “completely reimagined and revamped our entire operation,” Shakhman said. “So, by the time the pandemic was raging, we were the only Washington orchestra besides Seattle Symphony that kept on playing. We had the infrastructure in place to pivot to livestream concerts instead of just putting recorded performances online.”

I attended a live concert in November — one of five main classical programs over the season and one of 40 or so events overall in which the VSO is engaged — and was impressed by the level of playing and, above all, by the abounding enjoyment the musicians displayed.

Although Brotons commutes from his home in Barcelona (he had resided locally until 1998), his rapport with the VSO is completely engaged, grounded in mutual respect. He evoked images of old-school gravitas in what was mostly classical fare, with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture to open and the Fifth Symphony as the anchor, with weighty, considered phrasing. But the collaboration with Craig Morris, the marvelous soloist in Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto and Penderecki’s Trumpet Concertino, crackled with a fresh energy whose spritzy aftertaste added zest to the Fifth’s brass-fueled heroism. 

The VSO’s programming also makes room for new discoveries. The season opener included the Florence Price Piano Concerto, and Brotons, who is also a prolific composer, will unveil his own Fourth Symphony (“Sacra”) in the final program of the season in May

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Boise Philharmonic obviously differ dramatically in their respective contexts. While Idaho’s main orchestra serves a much larger geographical range (but with far less population density), the VSO has carved out a niche within a major metropolitan area and coexists with two large orchestras to the north (Seattle Symphony) and immediate south (Oregon Symphony).

The Eugene Symphony combines aspects of both situations. Located in Oregon’s second-largest city along the busy I-5 corridor and less than a two-hour drive from Portland, it’s the main orchestra for the rest of the state. With a core of 58 contracted musicians, the Eugene Symphony has the largest budget ($3.32 million) of the three regional orchestras discussed in this two-part report; the Boise Phil is next in size, while the VSO operates on the most modest scale among the three, with a small staff and no permanent endowment.

The Eugene Symphony and Chorus performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony under music director Francesco Leece-Chong. (Amanda L. Smith Photography)

The variety of natural beauty within easy access of Track Town USA — as Eugene is also known — is reminiscent of Boise. (An excursion to the nearby Cascades Raptor Center is recommended if you visit.) The surrounding environment of forests and mountains inspired the arresting design of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, an arts complex that is surprisingly large for a city of this size (fewer than 200,000). It provides the Eugene Symphony with a major concert venue, the 2,448-seat Silva Hall, whose signature basket-weave ceiling presents an unusual visual motif.

As one of the Hult’s four resident companies, the Eugene Symphony is able to take advantage of a special endowment from the city for ambitious projects that “wouldn’t be possible within our standard operating budget,” according to Francesco Lecce-Chong, the orchestra’s music director since 2017. 

For example, Eugene Symphony had a special “color organ” built to realize Scriabin’s vision for Prometheus: Poem of Fire, and it is two-thirds of the way through a project presenting Tristan und Isolde in concert format, one act each season. (The Los Angeles Philharmonic recently performed each act as a separate concert.) Coupled with an introductory script by Lecce-Chong, these concerts mark the first performance of Wagner’s opera in Oregon in half a century.

Lecce-Chong, 34, likes to dream big and brings a sweeping, multifaceted vision to his role. I wasn’t able to catch this season’s Tristan concert (Act 2) but came away from Eugene Symphony’s nearly sold-out December concert deeply impressed by the conviction of these musicians.

Composer Gabriella Smith in conversation with conductor Francesco Leece-Chong. (Amanda L. Smith Photography)

Their first concert since the pandemic to include the full Eugene Symphony Chorus, it centered around an account of Beethoven’s Ninth that offered a welcome balance of grandeur and grace. Lecce-Chong showed a marked penchant for flowing tempos that rendered the slow movement a river of melody. In the pause after the chorus’ sudden modulation in “steht vor Gott,” a member of the audience loudly blurted out “Wow!” — an exhilarating reaction that seemed shared by all.

The generous program not only included a Beethoven rarity with the miniature cantata Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage but also gave a taste of the enthusiasm for new music that Lecce-Chong has been making a priority. He began with Gabriella Smith’s Field Guide, a brief but mesmerizing sonic collage inspired by the Berkeley-born composer’s field recordings of bird song. Both Smith and Angelica Négron are in focus this season with residencies that will culminate in performances of their first symphonies.

Lecce-Chong said that he’s been eager to explore “what the symphony can be in the 21st-century.” Smith’s first symphony, ONE, is a co-commission with the Santa Rosa Symphony, which Lucce-Chong also helms.

“The pandemic galvanized us to do better what we knew we should have been doing, finding better ways to connect with our audiences and create an experience that makes people continue to want to come back,” he said. “As a music director, I’m trying to fine tune this idea of not just presenting familiar music but also giving the audience something that they don’t know or expect when they come to a concert.”

Lecce-Chong has been the Eugene Symphony’s music director since 2017. (Amanda L. Smith Photography)

The articulate and charismatic Lecce-Chong is an ideal match for Eugene, with its well-educated and art-loving audience. The city is home to the University of Oregon and the summer-based Oregon Bach Festival. The Eugene Symphony boasts an enviable track record of supporting remarkable young conductors who have gone on to great things: Marin Alsop, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, and Giancarlo Guerrero all launched their careers here.

“Even though it’s a regional orchestra,” said Lecce-Chong, “the musicians approach their work with the same seriousness as a full-time orchestra by showing up prepared and holding each other accountable. Every musician who plays in the Eugene Symphony considers it a very important part of their life. And the support of the community has been consistent and integral as well. That’s why this organization has been able to purposely go out there and take risks.”