With widespread social distancing measures in place due to the COVID-19 outbreak, classical music performances have shifted from concert halls to virtual platforms. Piano Cleveland, a local organization that supports performing artists through education, competitions and outreach programming, has launched The Quarantine Concerts.
The series was created in an effort to help curb the financial impact of the current lockdown on performers who rely on concerts as their main source of income—and give active concertgoers the opportunity to experience live piano music from their homes.
The financial impact on freelance performers
Piano Cleveland, formerly known as the Cleveland International Piano Competition, rebranded this year to better highlight its mission of supporting local artists. However, many community-based events that were planned for spring 2020 have been canceled or postponed.
Yaron Kohlberg, acclaimed Israeli pianist and Piano Cleveland’s president, serves as presenter of The Quarantine concerts. He said discussions in the office led to the organization developing the virtual concerts to help support artists.
“Unfortunately, we had to cancel a lot of our upcoming events, and we had to sort of reorganize our plans because many freelance musicians... their income is basically these concerts,” Kohlberg said. “So now, as there are no concerts, there is no income.”
By participating in the live-streamed concerts, performers can earn money through a donation-based system. Viewers can click on a button during the streaming video to offer financial support to the artists.
He said 2,000 people tuned in to the first week’s Quarantine Concert. They've raised $10,000 in donations so far.
He said Piano Cleveland’s team initially reached out to musicians they’ve collaborated with primarily through their outreach programming.
Emily Shelley, Piano Cleveland’s Education and Outreach Coordinator, gave a testimonial during the March 26 Quarantine Concert. She said she was in West Virginia two weeks ago when she learned her first in-person performance was canceled.
“Since then, as the severity of the crisis has come to light, I have been going through my calendar week by week and month by month erasing gigs one after another,” Shelley said.
Mackenzie Brauns, Principal Bassoon of the Mansfield Symphony Orchestra, Youngstown Symphony Orchestra and the Columbus Indiana Philharmonic, also shared her experience during the live-streamed event.
Brauns said she, too, learned of her first COVID-19-related concert cancellation in West Virginia as she was checking into a hotel.
“As I was sitting in my hotel room, I think I got another five or so cancellations for work in the next month within an hour,” Brauns said. “And then since then, I’ve had pretty much all of my work canceled for the next two months. Seeing as how I make 90 percent of my income freelancing, this has been pretty devastating.”
Adjusting the performance setting
Kohlberg said he and the organizers first planned to broadcast the live concerts from the Steinway Piano Gallery in Cleveland. However, with Gov. Mike DeWine’s “Stay at Home” order enacted March 22, performances shifted to broadcasting live from the musicians’ homes.
“This way, [we] also give our different audiences an opportunity to continue listening to music because many of our audiences are regular concert goers,” Kohlberg said.
Kohlberg’s own solo Quarantine Concert performance took place March 26th, the second week of the concert series.
“It was quite an interesting experience, actually,” Kohlberg said. “Suddenly playing for no audience but knowing that you’re performing for a lot of people, but that the audience is not physically there.”
Kohlberg said performing virtually for viewers around the world who are watching in their homes feels different than just playing for himself.
“It also feels different from a concert because you finish the piece, and nobody’s clapping,” Kohlberg said.
Building community in Cleveland and engaging international music lovers
When Kohlberg joined Piano Cleveland in 2018, he saw a need for the organization to become more well-known around the city and establish Cleveland as a premier piano destination globally.
“This means presenting concerts in different parts of the city, bringing piano to different facets of the community, investing in education, as well as in our national and international connections around the world,” Kohlberg said.
Piano Cleveland supports artists through four major programs and events, including the Cleveland International Piano Competition, the CIPC Young Artists Competition and Institute, the CIPC Concert Series, and education and outreach programming.
The Cleveland International Piano Competition is for 18 to 32-year-old artists from around the world. It takes place over 15 days and concludes with two sold-out performances at Severance Hall that feature the four finalists performing with The Cleveland Orchestra.
Given the uncertainty of federal and state-mandated coronavirus lockdown orders, Kohlberg said he is in discussion with the organization’s directors to determine the status of this year’s competition. An announcement will be forthcoming.
A large piece of Piano Cleveland’s rebranding was to create a new identity that would allow it to continue presenting this event “in addition to innovative concerts and programs that bring piano to all Cleveland audiences,” according to its website.
Kohlberg said his international connections have allowed Piano Cleveland’s Quarantine Concerts to attract global audiences in its first two weeks, part of the organization’s mission to bring global recognition to Cleveland’s pianists and performers.
Kohlberg has performed on stages around the world and won 10 international prizes. As a performer, he fuses classical music with new arrangements of popular and world music.
He was awarded the second prize at the 2007 Cleveland International Piano Competition, 11 years before joining the organization as president.
Providing listeners the therapeutic benefits of music
Kohlberg said he is reaching out to Piano Cleveland collaborators from all ages on a regular basis to book them for The Quarantine Concerts. He said these are artists who have introduced the power of music to different parts of the local community.
Marshall Griffith, a jazz and classical pianist, composer and music educator who serves as the director of music for The Temple Tifereth Israel in Beachwood, gave a testimonial during the second Quarantine Concert.
“One of the things I miss more than anything is that I’m not going to any of the senior centers that I often do for Piano Cleveland,” Griffith said. “Those places, music isn’t a luxury. You go to those places, and you’re part of what music is, which is ‘need’ not ‘want.’ People desperately need to hear beautiful music. Nothing makes people feel more at peace.”
Performers do have to get used to playing without an audience, Kohlberg said. The feedback he has received so far from participants is that they are part of something special.
Kohlberg said that while nothing can replace a live performance at a concert hall, technology has allowed audiences and musicians to get as close to the concert experience as possible.
“This is I think the perfect time for that, especially considering the fact that people have so many concerns, and nobody really knows exactly what is happening,” Kohlberg said. “I think that listening to some music, especially knowing that at least some parts of it are live, gives people some kind of comfort.”
Supporting local classical artists
The Quarantine Concerts are streamed live every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. The performances are also available to watch later on demand.
“We decided that at least for now, I’m going to continue to present this program and play maybe a piece or two in each one of these just as being sort of the anchor, and then introducing the other musicians who are going to play,” Kohlberg said.
Kohlberg said he selects the pieces that are performed based on length, audience familiarity and how well viewers will enjoy them based on additional context provided by Piano Cleveland.
"I invite everybody to attend the concerts Thursday evenings,” Kohlberg said. “Once we get back to normal, participate in activities for Piano Cleveland."
The third performance in The Quarantine Concerts series will take place Thursday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m. All performances are available on the homepage at pianocleveland.org.
Viewers can donate to the Piano Cleveland’s Musicians’ Fund by clicking the donate button on the video during the live-stream performance.