Exclusive interview: Igor Shakhman, Executive Director, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra USA

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Unlike many organizations, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra United States did not pack his instruments and returned home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet after being limited for a year and a half to broadcast their concerts, the musicians at the VSO were excited to return to in-person performances last month for the start of their 2021-2022 season.

Then the Delta variant launched a new adjustable wrench in the works.

Regional classical music institution survives pandemic

Dr Igor Shakhman, general manager and principal clarinetist of the VSO, explained to me how the orchestra had to adapt quickly and what the pandemic era looked like for a mid-sized orchestra – with an annual budget of just over ‘a million dollars – in a relatively small town.

“The orchestra presents about 40 events each year,” Shakhman told me, “including classical and pop concerts, a chamber music series, jazz events, a lecture series, concerts in the park, a gala and a few others.

“About a year before the pandemic, the orchestra was on an upward trajectory. In 2019, we received a grant to hire a development manager and start a three-year development program. Everything started to improve, the organization grew, the audience grew.

“And then all of a sudden the pandemic struck. Almost all performing arts organizations in our region have closed, along with a majority of orchestras across the country.

“We made the decision to continue and move to a virtual platform. In all fairness, we had a little advantage, because in our room, a few years ago, we installed two high definition screens, one on each side of the stage, with 10 high definition cameras spread all over the room. So we had projections during the concerts so that people could see the conductor, close-ups of the musicians, and from different angles.

“[We already had] state-of-the-art production engineer and recording equipment – all we had to do was add a streaming engineer who would combine them in real time. So we decided to keep all of our concert dates, just change the lineup, and broadcast live. And we made the decision to offer a live experience, no recording [the concerts], just broadcast live.

“[As a result] we increased our online audience, we had audience members in the majority of US states and in Europe, Russia, Ukraine, New Zealand and Australia. PBS News Hour even included us in their history.

Delta variant strikes

“When we started planning our return to concerts this season in September, we decided not to start with Mahler or Bruckner but with a Schubert Symphony that uses fairly standard instrumentation… Inspired by our streaming success, we decided to broadcast it at the same time. We got it all planned out, people were excited, the audience was excited.

“And then, as we all know, the Delta variant came along… Our venue, Skyview Auditorium, is managed by the Vancouver School District. It’s an acoustically spectacular venue, every seat is a premium sound experience which is why we use it – many other arts organizations in the region use it for this reason as well. [But] all of a sudden, the cases started to increase, and the [school district] made the decision not to allow outside groups do live performances at Skyview. They told me about three weeks before the [September] concerts. “

Shakhman made a point of stressing that he fully understood the district’s decision.

“I want to be part of the solution, so no hard feelings, no complaints at all! [But] it takes a year to put on a performance, so it was incredibly difficult, especially since our organization only has a very small administrative team of four people.

Igor Shakhman (photo credit: Paul Quackenbush)

“None of the Vancouver sites were available, so I looked at Portland across the river. Portland’5 Centers for the Arts is a performing arts complex with five theaters, one of which was available. It was an incredible challenge to organize everything in two weeks [for streaming etc.]. [But] the Portland’5 team and our team worked [together] very good, and with two weeks of work, we presented a very successful concert experience.

I asked him if the VSO audience was following the orchestra across the river.

” They did it. The Saturday concert was at night, and in fact the first time an orchestra had played in downtown Portland since the pandemic … so people were still a little worried about going to a downtown concert at night. . On Saturday attendance was lighter in person but still strong in streaming – but Sunday afternoon there was [excellent] in-person and online presence.

Creative places

“But it’s not over, because [Skyview] is still not available for our October 23-24 “Kodály’s Dances of Galánta” concerts, and none of the Portland theaters were available [either]. So I looked around – and there’s a beautiful new place that’s unusual and unorthodox: the Ilani Casino Resort, built a few years ago. It is a beautiful place. So I called them and they were available. They opened recently and focus on national acts… it’s a large room that can accommodate 3,000 people and more. It is equipped for streaming and for projection.

“As I walked in I was just stunned the air was so clean – they don’t allow smoking inside – fantastic food options… and the auditorium looked great, the stage was already built. A lot of people in the industry complain that the classical music orchestral experience is too worn out, too predictable, so I thought this might be something unusual, surprising and interesting.

“And another bonus: the Cowlitz Indian tribe that owns the casino has an arts and culture fund and they support our orchestra and have given us grants in the past, so this turns out to be a natural progression.

“Again, the logistics are completely different from what we had with the Portland theater, and still intense. [But] it comes together and we’re excited [for our October concerts]. “

Keeping Musicians Safe During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Of course, the pandemic is not over. So I asked Shakhman how the VSO keeps its musicians safe.

“We have two doctors on our board, very knowledgeable people, and we [consulted with] a national expert from the University of Iowa and has studied all about COVID. We have of course followed the guidelines of the CDC and the government but we have also implemented our own guidelines. So for last year’s streaming we only sat the strings, not the winds or the brass, we sat everyone six feet apart – luckily our scene allowed that – we did check-ins at each rehearsal to ask about symptoms etc and people figured out everyone was coming up with everything. If someone was not feeling well, we would tell them to stay home. Fortunately it was a success.

“Now we demand that everyone be vaccinated, and for anyone with special needs [and can’t be vaccinated] we ask them to test negative within 48 hours, and everyone is still wearing masks. Winds and brass need to be 100% vaccinated, and we always maintain the distance as much as we can. “

A passion for administration

Shakhman’s enthusiasm for managing the orchestra and solving seemingly insurmountable problems was evident in our conversation. But he is not only a director, he is also the principal clarinetist of the VSO and has had an interesting career as a performer.

“I’m from Ukraine. I studied at the Moscow Conservatory,” he told me. “I came to America, took part in the Aspen Music Festival and got my doctorate from there. ‘University of Colorado At one point I lived in New York and auditioned and got a job with the touring Broadway production of Oklahoma!. [It was on that tour that] I discovered Portland and fell in love with it. I auditioned for the VSO, got the job, and became the principal clarinetist.

“A year after starting my term, I got a call from New York to go on tour with violin on the roof with Topol. In the midst of this experience, something happened that made me so interested and excited [about] administration. About nine months after the start of the tour, Topol got injured … and within a few weeks, the production managers [had] hiring Harvey Fierstein to replace Topol, and I was amazed how quickly everything changed, all the marketing messages, everything, and I was so impressed… and yet every show was sold out. And I was talking to our production team… and I said I wanted to be a part of that, of the administration, it’s just exciting!

“After the 18 month tour, I started looking for opportunities to enter administration. A [management] opened position with my orchestra, and I applied and got, and in 2011, shortly after I started my job, I became an executive director, a position where I could actually influence the direction of the organization, and that was so exciting to me and still is!

“In my heart, I am a musician, my training is that of clarinetist and I love music, that’s what I am. But administration is actually my passion. I like to communicate with our audience. Since I started my tenure as Executive Director, working with the Board of Directors and our Music Director [Maestro Salvador Brotons], I started to bring stars, like Gerard Schwarz and Orli Shaham… And hear the audience respond. People no longer have to go to New York to see an amazing artist. For me it’s just exciting – despite the challenges, for me it’s a game, a thrill! “

For information and tickets for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra USA’s “Kodály’s Dances of Galánta” concerts from October 23-24 and the remainder of its 2021-2022 season, visit his website. In addition, the VSO 2021 Final of the Young Artists Competition will take place on October 17 at 1 p.m. Congratulation to the nine finalists!

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