Music is becoming an antidote to COVID-19 and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra takes the challenge of keeping its traditions in a radically changing world. When the pandemic hit us in early 2020, organizations all around the world have been evaluating their mission and aligning it with changed circumstances. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the performing arts, as the pandemic took away the very basis of their existence – their audience. Having been thrust into leadership just when the world began to shift, VSO President and CEO Angela Elster led the orchestra in steadfastly committing to their mission of creating, curating, and connecting irresistible musical experiences for their audiences in whatever form. Thus was born TheConcertHall.ca, the VSO’s new virtual home for a virtual season. Listen in as Douglas Nelson quizzes Angela about the genesis of this virtual solution as well as her other brilliant initiatives inside the organization.
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Vancouver Symphony Orchestra With Angela Elster
Our guest on the show is Angela Elster. She’s the President and CEO of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. We’re thrilled to have her on to talk about the role of COVID, the arts and building community. Welcome, Angela.
Thank you so much for having me on. I’m thrilled.
Angela, you became the President and CEO of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra earlier this year 2020, prior to the pandemic starting. Was there another opening act you had planned for your role with VSO than managing through a pandemic?
I was appointed CEO of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music on January 15th, 2020. I presented my 100-day plan to the board of directors and on March 15th, 2020, we closed. We talk about creativity at its best. We had to go into our most creative and thought-provoking, reflective and innovative mode immediately.
You’ve come up with some innovative solutions, which is one of the reasons why we wanted to have you on the show and we’ll get there as we go through the conversation. A lot of the organizations that we work with have been evaluating their mission or thinking about the impact of the pandemic on their mission. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the performing arts. Audiences can’t come in and sit in the auditorium or symphony hall and hear the music. How have you worked with your board, team, and orchestra to keep the VSO relevant as we move through the pandemic?
It’s a matter of ensuring that we remain committed to our mission. Our mission is to create, curate, and connect irresistible musical experiences. Those three words create, curate and connect were our shining beacon. We needed to think about how we could create, curate and connect in new ways. We did that almost immediately. Once the health authority put the bans in place, we had one day left on the Orpheum stage. For the first time in 102 years, we continued music-making through live streaming and live-streamed Beethoven’s 5th and 6th Symphony as we were in the middle of our Beethovenfest. It also meant taking those three keywords, creating, curating and connecting to our board, staff, musicians, patrons, donors, corporate sponsors, community.
I would imagine that there was some pressure or some thought, maybe not the first thought, on the part of the board of, if we can’t have people in the symphony hall, we should go dark. We should go to the ground, hold onto what we have, wait and see what happens. Was that a conversation around the board table and how did you move past that?
It was a conversation around the board table and the senior leadership team. In the end, we all agreed that music and the arts are extraordinarily important at a time of crisis. In my view, and I’ve said this repeatedly, I began to recognize that music was becoming the antidote to COVID-19. We saw that almost immediately throughout Europe and then North America. The 7:00 PM tribute to the frontline workers for the most part was a musical tribute. That’s what gave us the energy and the commitment to keep the music going as well as it’s what we do. It’s in our DNA. The musicians of the VSO, the staff, the board and the leadership team, this is what we do and to stop in the middle of a pandemic was not an option for us.
As the new CEO of the organization, you know you’re going to move forward. You have that conversation with your board. How did you keep your management team and the rest of the staff motivated and pushing forward in the face of what must have felt like a calamity in terms of not being able to be on the stage?
The first thing that we did is we went into action to keep everyone safe.
You had the conversation with your board for moving forward, how did you rally your management team and the orchestra itself which must have been a very difficult time?
It was certainly a challenging time. The first strategy that we put in place was to ensure the musicians and the staff were safe. We quickly went into remote working mode and remote learning mode. The school was in the middle of its Spring break, everyone was sent home and we set up a digital education platform. We did the same thing at the VSO. All staff began to work remotely. We then broadened that circle of communication to those stakeholders who are central to the success and the thriving of the VSO and the VSO School of Music.
From then on, it was government relations seeking some sustainability funding. When the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy was put in place, we had a lifeline to continue our work. We immediately pivoted, as many organizations did, to digital projects both on the education and on the performance side. A digital project’s working group was assembled by musicians and staff. Musicians led this over the course of the summer with twenty VSO at home projects that we then disseminated virtually free of charge to our community. That community grew through the province nationally and internationally.
When it became clear early on and the pandemic in March, April, May 2020 timeline that you weren’t going to be back on the stage anytime soon, how did your donors respond?
We are grateful to our donors. Our donors responded with generosity. Their loyalty is unbelievable. It’s tangible right now at this particular point in time. Not only donors who’ve been long-term donors and high-level donors continued their commitment but corporate sponsors who had had concerts get canceled. Our concert series evaporated on March 15th, 2020. They maintained their sponsorships and were part of our re-thinking, our re-imagined season for 2021. I can also say, between the middle of March to the end of June 2020, which is the end of our year at the VSO, 1,000 new donors emerged and that’s deeply touching and we are filled with gratitude.
That is an amazing response. It’s something that flies in the face of what conventional media thinks is happening in the sector but it does match what we’ve seen in some other places where donors are saying this is important to me and despite what’s happening in the world around us, whether it’s economically or because of the pandemic or both, they’re putting their money where their hearts are. It sounds like you’ve done a good job of engaging people in that process.
One of the silver linings of this pandemic has been people are closer to their hearts, so to speak, making choices that are values-driven. I see that in organizations, families and individuals. The relationship is important and it’s heightened. I think we were all feeling fragile through this pandemic, and that gives us pause to reflect on what’s most important to us.
As the new leader of the organization, how are you able to put the importance of that emotional connection and also the mission of your organization in front of donors and letting them know that this is something that they could make a difference by supporting VSO?Create, curate, and connect irresistible musical experiences. #VancouverSymphonyOrchestra Click To Tweet
We were authentic and honest about the fact that in a blink, 40% to 50% of our annual revenue just disappeared. We were also honest about the fact that we’re committed to keeping the music alive. I’ve got to say, a huge and heartfelt thank you to the musicians of the VSO who took time throughout the pandemic to phone donors and thank them. That personal connection was new. The VSO at-home projects, which I mentioned, which the musicians created and drove, it helped donors and the general public get to know a little bit about the musicians. What do they care about? What’s their family like? Do they have a dog? What do they care about? “That’s a beautiful living room you’re sitting in.” We’ve got to see behind the curtain a little bit and that personal interaction made such a difference.
You are putting a human face on these performers that are normally only visible from your seat, looking at them on the stage. Among the things I wanted to talk to you about was looking at your principles for your strategic plan. You have artistic excellence, we’d expect nothing less but the second one jumped out at me, it’s risk-taking. Tell me how you view risk-taking as the leader of a very significant arts organization.
It’s interesting to note that prior to the pandemic, we had been developing this strategic plan, a cascade of choice led by our new chair, Etienne Bruson, who is from Deloitte. They’ve used a similar framework. Risk-taking emerged as a core strategy, value and central to the future of symphony orchestras, generally speaking. The risk-taking was framed as, what can we do to walk our talk. We talk about accessibility and affordability. We immediately, prior to COVID, launched our first Symphony at Sunset at Sunset Beach where 15,000-plus people enjoyed an evening of music.
We continued our Deer Lake concerts with about 10,000 audience members. We launched Day of Music with 100 artists and organizations from all over the Lower Mainland and twelve hours of free music with another 15,000 participants. We connected with the community. We launched our Indigenous Council which is core to helping us move truth and reconciliation forward in a peaceful and meaningful way. This future orchestra that we had imagined became real and it’s because of community engagement. It’s this deep desire to connect with the community and to be relevant.
One of the things that you have done very deliberately is to put the lens of important social issues through the mission of your organization. That is true in the case of the VSO Indigenous Council. Can you talk a little bit about where that came from and how that operates or how you’re going to operationalize that going forward?
Indigenous Council was created as part of our connecting to the community’s strategy. We felt that we needed to find a way to authentically move forward. Arts organizations were beginning to ask themselves important and sometimes hard questions. We didn’t want to take a tokenism approach. The Council came together with representatives from Squamish Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh Nations and Urban Elder Metis Youth. We began a conversation on a monthly basis in those days in person around where do we find our points of intersection. It wasn’t about teaching, for example, musicians of the VSO, traditional songs, and it wasn’t about us, as a VSO teaching a stringed instrument. It was about where do we find our resonance? Where do we find a place that aligns? We found many.
The Tsleil-Waututh Nation invited our early childhood music educators into their community center to work with their little ones and it became a two-way stream. Our musicians were invited to many of the winter and Christmas celebrations in the host nations and instruments began to be played together. We’re working together on a commission at the moment. It’s called Carnival of our Animals and it was an extension of Carnival of the Animals. This was an idea that was born in the council, not formed outside the council. We’re doing a lot together. Certainly, the pandemic has made it more difficult. We have a performance that was canceled. It was supposed to take place on June 11th, 2020 called The Path Forward and we will commit to that Path Forward once we can have audiences again.
That is such a powerful summary of how you can use the importance of your mission to advance other social causes, not by treating them as something separate, but by integrating them into the day-to-day work of your organization. That’s a powerful example for, not artistic organizations or arts organizations, but for any kind of social profit organization to understand how to make those difficult problems in our society a part of your mission rather than treating them as separate or other.
How do we walk this path together?
Walk the path forward together. The next part of your strategic plan that comes after risk-taking is innovation. One of the innovations I’d like you to take a few minutes and talk to us about what it is but more importantly, how you got there. On September 15th, 2020, you launched TheConcertHall.ca. Tell us a little bit about what that is and what’s behind it.
We’re very proud of TheConcertHall.ca. We indeed launched this new virtual home for the VSO this September 2020, and it was after much discussion, thoughtful reflection and realizing that we’re not in this pandemic in the short run. With our wonderful Dr. Bonnie Henry, who we celebrate and are grateful to, we still have, in this province, bans that prevent us from gathering in groups of 50 or larger. We needed to find a way to make music again to come together to rehearse and perform but also to bring music to our community and to new communities. It was decided that the best way, at this particular point in time, was to create a virtual home.
We thought long and hard about how we would move that forward. In the end, there are some guiding principles. One is that it’s a performance hall. Our musicians have been rehearsing, they record and then those recordings are the performances. There’s also our real commitment to learning. There’s a learning component with masterclasses and our education hub. We’ve already recorded concerts for children and families and we’re about to record for education. We’re also open to the idea of inviting others to this space.
One of the very positive elements in my view of this pandemic is that arts organizations have begun to get out of their silos and find creative ways to collaborate. By saying that, while TheConcertHall.ca is the home of the VSO through this virtual season, we’d also love to enjoy that hall with other partners. We’ve been speaking with Ballet BC, Bard on the Beach, Arts Club, Vancouver Opera, Art Gallery and Arts Umbrella. There’s a possibility here to find a hybrid model as we move forward. We do believe and we’re committed to live performance once we’re on the other side of this pandemic, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to have both available to us?
That brings us to another point which I know you’ve thought a lot about, but what does this pandemic tell us about the symphony orchestra of the future? Where is the art form going and as the leader of the organization, what do you need to do to get the organization there?
Symphony orchestras are all about community, ensemble and bringing people together to express beauty, pain, emotion, and feelings through music. That’s historic and elemental to being human. It’s not only a desire but a responsibility of an organization such as the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to continue to be deeply embedded in what community music-making means, what ensemble means, what playing together means. It reflects with our lives on how we do different things and complement one another.
Sometimes, it’s disharmony or harmony but we continue as an ensemble. In my view, I would love to bring this organization to a place where we continue to be relevant, we expand our reach and we are key to the issues that surround us such as improved mental health. It’s serving the aging population, making sure the next generation of music lovers and musicians are supported as they grow. This is about the future. Let’s not look in the rearview mirror, let’s look forward. I believe COVID has catapulted us to that place.
That’s a very optimistic and exciting view of the future. I appreciate you sharing that with us. One of the things that comes to me and come through to all of our audiences is that you have consistently managed to move the organization forward, integrating what the pandemic means but not stopping and also not letting the pandemic dictate everything. There’s a lot of positive choices involved in the journey that you’ve described. I want to come back to your board. How have you been able to engage them in that process? That persistent optimism isn’t always the operating system of boards in the social profit sector.
I have the great fortune of working very closely with our Chair Etienne Bruson, who is new to his role. He became chair in November 2019 and then I was appointed in January 2020. We also have the voice of Maestro Otto Tausk with us all the time. Etienne, Otto and I discussed at length what immediate strategies we needed to execute. The thing that we did was we formed a COVID-19 Task Force which was a board task force with myself and the senior leadership team members as part of the task force.Symphony orchestras are all about community – bringing people together to express beauty, pain, emotion, and feelings through music. Click To Tweet
We met almost every day through March, April and May 2020. The board became a part of the solution and that was important. We met with the board also as a full board on a monthly basis through the summer, which was usually the months that the board did not meet. We had extraordinary meetings in July and August 2020. We launched a number of other committees. The next one was Scenario Planning Committee and always working very closely with our finance committee. That’s a lot of words to say engagement.
You brought them into the kitchen.
We cooked together.
We are by no means through this, but if you look back at the great journey, you’ve traveled as an organization and as a leader, what is the lesson that you’ve learned that you’re going to take with you going forward during a pandemic and well beyond?
It’s something that is key to thoughtfulness, reflection and being values-driven. When we are in a crisis, say this is true of not only arts organizations but any organization, the tendency is to very rapidly close or change everything. That’s often scarcity-driven and it’s fear-driven. I would say that moving forward, this may be the first of other pandemics or disasters which befall us. To always reach back down to your core values and continue to commit to the relational work, in my view, is the way forward. I see many corporations moving to values-driven leadership as well.
There is a real cost for organizations and the social profit sector that have tried to strip things down to the basic transaction as a way of moving forward through the pandemic. Their donors aren’t responding as they were. Their communities are looking elsewhere for support their clients if they provide services, looking elsewhere, or forced to go elsewhere. It’s important to underline that relational focus both as the leader of the organization and as the leader of the mission of your organization.
For me, that’s core to my leadership but also the vision-mission of the VSO and the VSO School of Music. I’ve gone on record saying, “At a time like this, forgive me, I will make mistakes.” The mistakes are made, hopefully, rarely but also with the best of intentions. There’s a lot of forgiveness that’s required during a time such as this because we are trying things in new and different ways. As a seasoned educator, I’ve always said to my students that it’s okay to learn from your mistakes. That’s what we’re in right now.
The advantage of being an authentic leader is that your intention is factored in when you make mistakes and there’s this positive assumption. As we’re coming to the end of this interview, I have the hardest question yet to ask you. You mentioned the real important social issues that are facing all of us as we go through this pandemic. My question for you is at the end of the day, I’m tired, I’m trying to avoid the news because I can’t handle another run-through of what’s going to come at me and I want to put on a piece of classical music that’s going to lift up my spirits. What would your go-to piece be for anyone looking to be uplifted at the end of a long day during this pandemic?
I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question. I’m brutally honest and transparent. It would depend on the day. Sometimes it might be something like melancholy or longing like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which many people know through film scores. It might be as peaceful as Bach’s Violin Concerto Number One, which we are opening with on October 16th, 2020 at 7:30 with James Ehnes. It might be jazz of Oscar Peterson. Where I really go is I spend time with my dogs.
I appreciate that it is mood-based and that’s one of the beautiful things about music. If someone doesn’t know much about classical music or you can be a casual fan, is there a place you’d point them for, “This is what you should put on to bring people together at the end of the day?”
Almost everyone I’ve spoken with seasoned musician, amateur musician or someone who longs to learn more about classical music, I would always point them towards Mozart. There’s such a wide range of material and I’m very much hoping that our audience will join us at TheConcertHall.ca because we’ve created a 2021 season reimagined where much of what you’re asking right now is central to what we’re going to be presenting. We’re focusing on local artists, local musicians, local composers, conductors, and of course the VSO back together again.
I encourage everybody to check that out at TheConcertHall.ca. Thank you very much, Angela, for being part of the show.
Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
About Angela Elster
Thrilled to have been appointed President & CEO of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the VSO School of Music. It doesn’t get better than this! A world-class orchestra AND a state-of-the-art school of music. The VSO is an outstanding arts organization, exqui
site musicians, amazing staff, the largest arts org in Western Canada, deeply committed to community engagement, to truth and reconciliation and to the very highest artistic standard. At the VSO and the VSO School of Music we create, curate and connect irresistible musical experiences.