Looking at the landscape of professional music groups, the big band/jazz orchestra is almost the worst possible combination of performers to have during a pandemic caused by an airborne virus. Over the past months I’ve looked on with envy as symphony orchestras were able to program music without their brass and/or woodwind sections. If we were to do that, we would have a piano trio, and the core idea of the jazz orchestra/big band would cease to exist. But actually, reducing to duos, trios and other chamber jazz groups was something that was done by almost all professional jazz orchestras during the early stages of the pandemic. Discovering (or rediscovering) the chamber music possibilities within the larger ensemble could definitely be considered a first positive development to come out of the crisis.
This article is based on a presentation I gave at an online conference of the Association of Finnish Symphony Orchestras in November 2020. Besides the pandemic response of the UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra, which I witnessed first-hand, I gathered information about the pandemic response of other European jazz orchestras/big bands for comparison. To keep the amount of information manageable, I sent a list of questions to other full-time professional jazz orchestra/big bands in Europe. I gathered some information from free-lance professional jazz orchestras as well as semi-professional and amateur groups, but my focus was on the orchestras with full-time staff. This also gave us at UMO clear metrics for comparison to our pandemic response.
I received excellent information from the Danish Radio Big Band, The Frankfurt Radio Big Band (HR Big Band) and the NDR Big Band in Hamburg, I asked about how the orchestras responded during the first phase of the pandemic (Lockdown 1), after things opened up again (Summer/Autumn), what is happening now (Lockdown 2) as well as strategies for the future. I combined and compared this information with our experiences here in Helsinki with UMO. This information can hopefully be used to help plot a positive path forward during this second year of the pandemic and beyond.
Lockdown 1 (March – May 2020)
As the first wave of lockdowns spread across Europe in March and April, the HR Big Band and UMO were fairly quick to respond with “Home-Recordings”, featuring orchestra musicians performing ensemble music remotely, using mobile recording equipment. UMO asked several guests to be part of its recordings, artists whose scheduled concerts were cancelled an/or who will be working with the orchestra in the future. This was a steep learning curve for both organizations and two orchestra members played a large role in making these recordings possible and successful, Oliver Leicht in Frankfurt and Markus Ketola here in Helsinki. Many other groups and musicians were also fairly quick to respond with home recordings, and the “Quarantine Big Band Helsinki” deserves special mention for the outstanding production and performance quality of their videos.
Because some orchestra members were not able to take part in the home recordings for various reasons, other tasks were delegated. This included curating special Spotify and playlists for followers of UMO, and the Danish Radio Big Band had its members curate Facebook and YouTube Playlists.
As the lockdown went on NDR, HR and UMO started to feature chamber jazz ensembles in socially distanced situations. NDR and UMO recorded the performances for later broadcast and social media (NDR “Together Alone” and UMO: “UMO Goes Duo”) and HR presented live-stream concerts every evening at 19:00. The concert series was called Stage@Seven and was by far the most impressive as far as the production quality was concerned. Of course, the HR Big Band works at the radio and television studios of the Hessischer Rundfunk, the public radio and television stations or the state of Hessen. That means they had easy access to top level sound and video technicians and infrastructure. The length of the live-stream concerts was about 30 minutes, perfect for the online viewing habits of today. The nightly live streams alternated between various members and small ensembles from both the HR Radio Symphony Orchestra and HR Big Band for an extremely wide-ranging variety of music. This live stream series continued over the entire summer.
All three orchestras included local freelance musicians on the recordings and live streams to help support the local freelance scenes.
The HR Big Band was also one of the very first (if not the first) big band to perform as a full ensemble again, as part of the aforementioned Stage@Seven live stream series. Once again, the infrastructure of the radio/television studio made this possible. The “HR Sendesaal” or concert hall at the radio/television station is large enough for a full symphony orchestra, so the HR Big Band was able to set up with enough distance between individual musicians, and with headphones (audio monitors) and video monitors. The video monitors were important to be able to see the conductor because the orchestra was set up in a circle with all wind instrument players facing outwards. As mentioned, the HR Big Band could rely on top professional infrastructure, including real-time graphics on screen and a television moderator to address the audience and announce the program.
Summer & Early Autumn 2020
After the most stringent lockdown rules were relaxed over the summer, the Orchestras returned to more or less “normal” work in July (DRBB) and August (HR, NDR & UMO).
The biggest changes involved how the bands were set up for rehearsals and concerts, obviously more distance was needed between individual musicians and sections. Because of this distance, monitors and headphones became a necessary addition to rehearsals with all of the orchestras. The DR, NDR and HR Big Bands also had to use alternate rehearsal locations because their normal rehearsal venues were not large enough to accommodate the social distancing rules in place at that time.
For concerts with audience, limits on the size of the audience and socially distanced seating, as well as face mask requirements went into effect. Also, controlled entrance to and exit from concert venues was implemented. Other changes to the presentation of concerts were to eliminate the intermission and make the total length of the one set concert 70 to 80 minutes. These changes have been received very positively from both the performing musicians and audience members. The starting times of many concerts have also been moved up to 19:00 (from 20:00 in most cases). This change has also been positively received by performers as well as audience members. Hopefully these will be some of the positive things we can take with us from the current situation.
At the same time as concerts were beginning to take place again (August/September), the reality of travel restrictions and quarantine rules started to become apparent as the difficulties facing internationally active artists increased as Summer turned into Autumn.
All of the Orchestras have depended on foreign guest artists in the past, and all four Orchestra have foreign chief conductors. The biggest difficulties were faced by the HR and DR Big Bands, as their chief conductors live in the USA. For NDR and UMO, although their chief conductors are based in Europe, quarantine rules and travel restrictions have made things obviously more challenging. The HR BB has used more local and national conductors and chief conductor Jim McNeely has only been in Frankfurt once so far this season. DR BB chief conductor Miho Hazama is a Japanese national living in the USA, and this was her reply:
„I can’t plan ahead because of travel restrictions. Since I’m not a citizen, I can’t go back to the US once I enter Europe; I have to quarantine for 14 days out of the Schengen area. This is a big time loss to me. Also, flexibility of travel in Europe as a passenger from the US is very limited at this point. I am hoping that the restrictions are going to get better for business travels very soon.“
These problems also affected UMO Artistic Partner and guest conductor Guillermo Klein, who is an Argentinian national living in the USA. In addition, because of cancellations, travel restrictions and quarantine rules, I ended up staying in Helsinki from August to December, something that was definitely not the original plan for UMO’s chief conductor.
But this extended residency in Helsinki gave me a wonderful opportunity to work on a much deeper and more intense level with the musicians of UMO. I see this as something positive that we should take with us into the future.
Because institutionalized jazz orchestras work with different conductors on stylistically diverse music on a weekly basis, often an identifiable ensemble sound is difficult to develop. Having conductors and orchestras work for longer periods of time together could lead to better artistic results and also be a solution for continued future difficulties in international travel due to restrictions and quarantine rules.
The multiple cancellations of international guests that UMO experienced in the Autumn combined with restrictions on live events also opened up the possibility for UMO to do more educational work, specifically the eight days of jazz composition and arranging masterclasses that we presented in November. These online masterclasses allowed 16 students from 9 countries studying at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz, Austria to have their music played by UMO. The students were connected to the orchestra’s rehearsal venue at Helsinki’s Cable Factory via video link so that the students and orchestra members were able to directly discuss the music. Members of the orchestra gave very valuable suggestions for improvement and the students had the opportunity to ask experienced, professional jazz musicians direct questions about their compositions and arrangements. In addition, the masterclasses were live streamed to an audience of over 3,000 viewers world-wide. Theses live streamed masterclasses as well as streamed concerts were made possible by the accelerated digitalization process that UMO implemented during the summer and autumn of 2020, in direct response to the pandemic. This digitalization process would have certainly taken much longer without the pandemic as accelerant.
Late Autumn & Winter 2020-2021 (Lockdown 2)
Germany is back in full lockdown, so both HR and NDR have rescheduled their larger events for later in 2021 and are performing only live stream concerts without audience and of course, UMO is also affected by the restrictions in Helsinki. Our upcoming concerts will be presented as live stream events without audience. The chief conductors of the HR and DR Big Bands (Jim McNeely and Miho Hazama) are currently not travelling from the USA to Europe, so conducting duties with both of those groups have been assigned to local and regional conductors.
The HR Big Band has been very active and successful in creating new concert formats that feature younger, as well as less well-known local and national artists. These live streamed concert formats are called “HR-Big Band Invites” and “Act Local – Fokus RheinMain”.
The 2021 UMO concert schedule will have a very strong focus on Finland, with projects featuring Finnish guest artists Aki Rissanen, Jimi Tenor, Anna-Maria Helsing, Mirja Mäkelä, Nina Mya, Aili Ikonen, Ringa Manner, Mikko Pettinen, and the Pink Twins. There are also concerts planned that will feature established as well as up and coming Finnish composers.
Looking to the future
In the past, jazz orchestras needed big name guest artists to sell tickets and fill large concert halls. Since the number of audience members will be limited for the foreseeable future, this removes that pressure as part of the programming equation. This presents opportunities for more local, national and regional artists. It also presents opportunities to present projects that are artistically interesting but that appeal to a limited audience.
This is a very pointed quote from the NDR Orchestra management regarding their current programming concept:
“No more international soloists.”
Looking back just 7 months, is it really necessary to fly a guest artist from Brazil to Finland for three days with just one 60-minute concert? I know this was how we did things for decades, and I was a part of that culture until the pandemic. Sustainability is certainly a topic that the music and arts industry need to address in the post-pandemic world.
We definitely still want to have international artists, but when we do maybe it should be more meaningful. We are already planning that when we have a top international (or intercontinental) guest artist, we will have them stay for longer periods of time, which will benefit not only UMO, but the entire local jazz scene. The Jazz Finland Residency program is an excellent move in this direction, and even though it was conceived prior to the pandemic its relevance has grown as a blueprint for the post-pandemic world. We see strengthened partnerships with educational institutions and other European jazz orchestras/big bands as something positive that will come out of this crisis. If someone is going to travel from Brazil to Europe in the future to work with UMO, why not also have them do a week of teaching at a University or Conservatory and then a week with another European jazz orchestra/big band. The costs can be shared, the pace for the artist is more humane, the cultural and artistic exchange is deeper and more meaningful, and the environmental impact is lessened.
For a least the next year the situation will remain tense, with an imminent danger of lockdowns and last-minute cancellations. Programming concepts will continue to evolve, and recorded as well as live streaming events will play an important role for all jazz musicians and ensembles. I hope that change can occur and that we can take some of the positive developments that have come out of this crisis and build upon them in the future.
To reiterate, here is a list of some of the positive developments that could be possible in the post-pandemic jazz and jazz orchestral world, as well as a list of links to some of the topics discussed in this article:
- New concert lengths and formats.
- More focus on local, national and regional artistic collaborations.
- More intense collaborations between conductors/composers/arrangers and orchestras.
- Longer residencies for visiting artists.
- More high-quality performances available to a world-wide audience via recorded and live-stream events.
- Better sustainability with less frequent travel for guest artists and conductors.
- Accelerated digitalization processes.
- Potentially stronger partnerships between orchestras and educational institutions.
- Potentially stronger partnerships between European jazz orchestras/big bands.
- Potentially stronger partnerships between institutions and the free-lance scene.
Artistic Director and Chief Conductor
UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra
Photo by Jazz Podium
HR Big Band: “Home Office”
UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra: “Home Recordings”
Quarantine Big Band Helsinki
NDR Big Band: “Together Alone”
HR Big Band: “Stage@Seven” (small ensembles)
UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra: “UMO Goes Duo”
HR Big Band: “Stage@Seven” (full big band)
UMO Helsinki Jazz Orchestra: “Ellington’s Nutcracker”