This year’s spring arts season will always be known as the rosebud that never fully blossomed.
Among the artistic projects unrealized were a rare chance to hear all the Beethoven string quartets and piano sonatas from the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and a Philadelphia Orchestra performance of Strauss’ ever-astonishing Elektra.
It’s important to memorialize what we’ve lost this season in the way of concerts while remembering that unlike some of the artists and fellow listeners who have died in this pandemic, concerts are not gone forever. Art lives on.
To have been deprived of it for the past 10 weeks (and counting) is not without its value. Individual artists and ensembles have found creative ways to move their wares online. Sometimes, the digital format is even a deal-sweetener — like following local artist Terrill Kevyn Johnson on Facebook watch parties as he makes art, or eavesdropping on pianist Chick Corea in the practice room.
Artistic windows like these might prove durable even after we return to being physically present with art. What the past few months show us, though, is that live performance gives us something the digital replica cannot. As a new normal, this just won’t do.
Safety is critical as we consider how to return to gathering. We are facing a very quiet summer.
In the meantime, the weird spring arts season that barely was demands a “review.” We can’t know what the big Beethoven cycle would have sounded like, of course. But it is extremely useful to look at a handful of thwarted events and consider how each still speaks to why we need live performance — even more now.
Elektra, which was to have been performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in mid-May, would have tested the ensemble’s artistic chops like no other piece, and that’s important. But the loss of a May 2 Beethoven concert for children feels worse. Something happens at the orchestra’s regular, somewhat under-the-radar Saturday morning family concerts that is absolutely critical. It’s bonding time with children and caregivers over a pursuit that’s not electronic.
More critical, still, is the power of persuasion when children sit in full view of each other all feeling the pull of art together. Peer-to-peer influence is potent. I’m not sure there’s a way to replicate this experience online.
The Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia has been singing for nearly a century and a half, and many other of the city’s institutions have evolved and triumphed for a century or more. One unfortunate victim of timing was a birthday party for the Musical Fund Society, celebrating 200 years. The gifts were merely waylaid, though. A concert premiering four commissioned works by Tania León, Stephen Jaffe, Roberto Sierra, and Augusta Read Thomas has been rescheduled for next spring.
The current challenges are formidable, but we’ve seen arts groups through epidemics, wars, and economic downturns. We may lose some groups, others might hibernate for a season, the majority will endure.
Listening to music online sometimes feels like skipping a rock across the water. It’s not conducive to deep concentration. Buy when you’re locked into a two-hour relationship with the artist onstage, you’re forced to think about the music and interpretation even when you hear a turn of phrase or quality of tone you don’t like. And sometimes, because you are forced to sit there, you learn something and evolve as a listener.
Particularly heartbreaking were the losses of recitals by Mitsuko Uchida in the Perelman in April and Evgeny Kissin in Verizon in May — two artists with whom one is never happier to disagree.
Sure, on the web you have instant access to absolutely anything. But do you know where to look? Are you really going to spend the time? And how do you know what you don’t know? You would probably have to be a rare book collector to have known the name Wanda Gág, the early-20th-century illustrator (Millions of Cats) whose works are being specially exhibited online by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in lieu of in-person shows.
We develop relationships with museums and ballet troupes and chamber music groups so that when a name we don’t know rotates onto the schedule — say, Etel Adnan, the Lebanese poet explored by the Wilma Theater this season — we take a chance. Our local arts institutions have responded to the pandemic and collapse of audiences with an alacrity that makes us love them even more for being smarter than we are at knowing what we might want next.
It may be obvious to anyone who regularly attends Philadelphia Chamber Music Society concerts, but it’s even more clear now: Feeling part of a group reinforces the relationship with art.
To stand in the lobby of the Kimmel Center at intermission and overhear a conversation about the sound quality cultivated by a particular pianist or string quartet is an exhilarating thing. Over time, you befriend audience members, you develop ways of talking about the art, and it changes your musical values.
Jeremy Denk’s May 8 Bach recital would have been a good event for intermission chatter. I tend to share the audience’s love for this pianist, but not for the same reasons. They find his self-effacing stage comments endearing; I come to this musician to challenge my assumptions of what a piece is really about.
Art is an escape, for sure. But it’s also a way of listening to the outside world. When Opera Philadelphia wasn’t able to produce Madame Butterfly this spring, audiences lost the chance to reconsider a piece that has long played into racial stereotypes. Ted Huffman’s production promised to strip away the demeaning exoticism and refocus the story to being from the perspective of Butterfly. (The production will return in a later season).
Many an arts group this season developed a fuller sense of social conscience, a trend that only seems more urgent in the age of pandemic and the injustice that has surfaced with it.
The American spirit. Such an overused phrase, but it’s not a sense of blind patriotism that makes American music particularly important to program and listen to right now. It’s painfully clear that the idea of what it means to be an American is in play.
Gershwin’s ecstatic optimism couldn’t be heard in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s canceled May performance-to-screen presentation of the 1951 film An American in Paris. But next season, the orchestra has its first performance of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1, which was premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933 and remains an exceedingly rare example of work by an African American woman programmed by an American orchestra.
Price’s music is getting more attention lately, and perhaps it will be heard in a new context. The America of hope and humanity is woven into the music of Bernstein, Copland, Morton Gould, and Ives. Other voices, like Price’s, have been there all along, telling a parallel story, even if we’re just now ready to listen.