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Listening through a summer of sounds for what lies ahead for arts and culture in the city

As fall arrives, the city has gone an unnatural shade of quiet, without familiar sounds like the scales and arpeggios from the practice-room windows at the Curtis Institute. This can't be our future.

A group of chamber musicians perform on the 400 block of South Iseminger Street in Center City Philadelphia on August 11, 2020. (Ed Newton / For the Inquirer)
A group of chamber musicians perform on the 400 block of South Iseminger Street in Center City Philadelphia on August 11, 2020. (Ed Newton / For the Inquirer)Read moreEd Newton

No other summer in Philadelphia, it’s safe to say, ever came with the soundtrack of the one now ending. It started with the chants of Black Lives Matter demonstrators and air-chopping sounds of hovering helicopters. As we head into fall, the city has gone an unnatural shade of quiet.

The concert halls of our big arts town are marking six grim months of sitting idle. In Rittenhouse Square, where the practice-room windows of the Curtis Institute of Music would normally be a source of scales and arpeggios this time of year, the air is still. The city is a different place.

Hushed the music may be, and yet listening for everything that should be around us — and isn’t — has become an urgent exercise. We must not accept this as the new normal.

There are in fact quite a few stirrings of life. Some are promising; all seem to come with new meaning. Spontaneous chamber music concerts by self-organized klatches of musicians have cropped up in recent weeks on small streets and plazas. These gatherings are wonderful for the spirit. They hearken back to the intimate beginnings of chamber music, and the ability to bring music and listeners back into face-to-face contact is a small triumph in tough times.

But as lovely as they are, sidewalk concerts don’t constitute a viable business model. Musicians need to make a living. If they can’t, they will gravitate to other professions and Philadelphia will lose the extremely high level of quality built up over decades in its corps of instrumentalists, singers, composers, and teachers.

Worry for our artists seeps out in unexpected places. The supermarket near me plays on a loop an annoyingly anodyne prerecorded message saying that we are in “uncharted times” while encouraging shoppers to stock up on barbecue supplies. My first thought is a telling one: that at least some actor somewhere has made a little money doing the voice-over work.

The response from nearly every arts group to the inability to physically gather has been to shift to online performances, though some are doing concerts for small live audiences. I surely don’t speak for everyone, but virtual concerts often leave me cold. It’s striking, this migration online, given the fact that the arts sector has for years argued for the irreplaceable experience of live performance. It explained why we would pay to see The Lion King live at the Kimmel when you could find it on your laptop or big-screen TV for a lot cheaper.

And yet, uninspiring as online concerts may be, arts groups must continue with them. We should think of this as a research-and-development phase long overdue. Online performances won’t sink or swim based on how well they replicate live ones. Viability of the form hinges on quality — high production values and smoothly functioning technology, to be sure.

More important, though, is the question of whether a new breed of production designers and directors can give viewer-listeners something different from live performance. There are a lot of small mysteries going on during a Mahler symphony or a Puccini opera, gestures or movements that reveal something very specific about how the music is being generated. It takes a lot of cameras and a smart director to find them.

Such access is what makes the Metropolitan Opera at your local movie theater a worthy event. The camera has a better vantage point than you would have by physically attending in Lincoln Center, so there’s added value.

It’s time to stop introducing these online presentations, apologetically, with “though we cannot be together in person …” The merging of the art and the medium must become a distinct genre unto itself. Opera Philadelphia will play with this concept in a series of four short films in the coming season.

This takes money, of course, and online income doesn’t come close to ticket revenue. And the timing of this pandemic coincides with the arrival of another crucible. In a couple of months, there’s the small matter of an election. The outcome will likely determine how ambitiously scaled our much-needed rebuilding phase will be.

Loyal private donors will be called upon to scale up their generosity. But if anything close to our full roster of arts groups is to survive, it seems increasingly likely that government funding will also be necessary. Just on a return-on-investment basis, the support is justified. The arts in 2017 contributed $877.8 billion (4.5%) to the nation’s gross domestic product, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s five times higher than the contribution of agriculture, and more than the sectors of construction and transportation/warehousing combined.

Some groups are still hoping to return to something resembling normal operations by the spring. Maybe. The virus will decide. Arts leaders would be smart, though, to stop thinking about the end to this crisis as coming with the arrival of a vaccine. We may see a vaccine at some point, and perhaps even one that will be safe, effective, and widely available and used.

But for the performing arts, there is also a public confidence question. When will audiences perceive that it has once again become safe to sit elbow-to-elbow with a stranger? Probably not until there’s an accurate, inexpensive, and instantaneous antibody test that patrons can take on the way into the concert hall — or a foolproof cure.

The Philadelphia Orchestra last week released a video of the group’s first concert together since the middle of March. It was shot in August at the Mann Center, with a couple of dozen string players in masks distanced on a large stage with no live audience. As a replica-of-live-performance experience, the video is a step in the right direction. More close-ups of fingers and lips of instrumentalists, please. Again, the key to success is getting cameras to places where live audience members can’t go.

Metaphorically, though, it comes at just the right moment. The twin crises of our time, the pandemic and the political direction of the country, could be more easily quelled if we took a cue from the miracle of the symphony orchestra. Whether it’s Tchaikovsky or Gabriela Lena Frank, music is about contrasting ideas, the sometimes-uncomfortable arc of tension and inevitable resolution.

Every player is always conscious of being part of the same narrative. Each one understands that he or she exists in service of the common good.