Music and Beyond strikes a chord with virtual concert series

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Despite the pandemic, one Ottawa festival refuses to hang up its instruments. 

Since 2010, Music and Beyond – a local classical music and arts festival – has hosted dozens of concerts every summer. With a mission to make the genre accessible to everyone, the festival connects young people to music, and gives budding artists the opportunity to perform with world-renowned musicians. Since 2015, the organization has also been running the glamorous Viennese Winter Ball, raising funds for youth cultural initiatives. 

Before the pandemic, Music and Beyond generated more than $3 million annually in tourism spending, says Julian Armour, the festival’s artist and executive director. The year 2020 was going to be the festival’s biggest yet; Armour and his team were recording record ticket sales from patrons all over the globe. They had even booked John Rutter, one of the world’s most celebrated and widely performed living composers.

And then, of course, the pandemic hit.

100 videos

Instead of cancelling, Armour and his team got creative.

“I believe strongly that one of life's really great experiences is seeing music live,” Armour says. “We wanted to do something totally different, that didn’t try to replicate a live concert, but offered something that a live concert couldn’t.”

The answer to the riddle? Recording 100 videos of acclaimed musicians playing together live, as well as performances from singers, dancers and more. And so, Music and Beyond’s 2020 virtual edition was launched on July 8, taking place over 12 days.

In total, there will be 50 videos in English and 50 in French released, all completely free. The series cover three themes: Music and Law, hosted by Beverley McLachlin, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Music and Circus, a collaboration with Montreal’s Cirque Fantastic, and Music and Nature, shot at the Canadian Museum of Nature. 

Music and Beyond - Music and Law
Beverley McLachlin, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, hosting Music and Law at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

For venues, the festival worked closely with the Museum of Nature and Carleton University’s Dominion-Chalmers Centre.

“It was a really huge project to bring together so quickly,” Armour says. “We had to make sure that everything operated with military precision, so people wouldn’t get too close to each other.”

Larger audiences

While many festivals are transitioning online this summer, Armour says Music and Beyond’s distinguishing factor lies in its live performances.

“It's an incredible reminder of how lucky we are to be doing what we do, making music with other fantastic people,” he says.

Going online gives Music and Beyond access to larger audiences, and Armour expects each video to be seen by about 10,000 people. The festival is no stranger to viral success; in 2018, a Music and Beyond concert video was posted to Facebook, featuring Canadian opera singer Wallis Giunta bringing a baby on stage.

That video got 3.4 million views, which Armour calculates would take 70 years to rack up in live performances. 

These kinds of numbers are music to the ears of any sponsor or grantor.

“For the most part, our grantors have been very helpful and very understanding, even though we spent a whole year preparing for this festival and spending money on it,” Armour says. Amongst the many supporters for the virtual edition were grantors such as the City of Ottawa, Government of Ontario and the Ontario Arts Council, alongside sponsors such as Rogers TV, Steinway Piano Gallery, Les Suites Hotels and more. 

Individual patrons also showed some love after Music and Beyond cancelled in-person festivities. They had three options: get a full refund, reallocate their ticket price to a future concert or donate the full amount.

“More than half of people agreed to donate their tickets, and some were orders of over $1,000,” Armour says. “We've been supported to the point where we can keep things going.”

Thanks to the wage subsidy, grants, donations and a “huge break in rent” from the organization’s landlord, Music and Beyond has been able to remain operational as well as compensate its musicians.

“I've heard of some people selling their houses, some not even able to figure out where they're going to get money for groceries,” Armour says. “The fact that we're able to generate revenue to support artists is so important to me. It keeps the music alive, but it keeps the people alive, too.”

Armour believes investing in the arts will play a huge role in Ottawa’s economic recovery, especially as the hard-hit tourism industry looks for marquee attractions to draw visitors back to Canada’s capital.

“I want us to emerge stronger, so that when the pandemic finally ends, we're able to make a real contribution,” Armour says.