It’s only been a month, but the stock photos of happily functional orchestras rolling by on Facebook have started to look somehow wrong. People congregating in large crowds? Sitting close together? And with no face masks.
Things could change, of course, but right now it’s hard to imagine that it will be possible anytime soon for 2,500 listeners to gather elbow to elbow — respiratory system to respiratory system — in Verizon Hall or the Academy or Music or anywhere else for an orchestra concert.
And what does it mean long term for large gatherings that COVID-19 might reappear in waves at unexpected moments? Nothing short of instant antibody testing at the doors of theaters and concert halls will put minds totally at ease.
And yet, gather we must and gather we will. Orchestral concerts in particular are a kind of mirror of humanity. Right now, that means contagion. When this bizarre intermission is over, though, orchestras are poised to be more deeply affecting than ever. Listeners are parched.
In this silence, I’ve been thinking about something late Philadelphia Orchestra music director Wolfgang Sawallisch said a couple of decades ago. Wondering about why classical music was struggling for relevance, he floated the theory that modern life was so full of easily obtained pleasures that music had become divorced from the impulses and urgent conditions that produced it.
For better or worse, that may no longer be a danger. Everything we hear now — the archival performances going online, radio broadcasts — seems fraught. A dip into Strauss’ Metamorphosen today sends a chill up the spine. What seemed bleak before is full-blown postapocalyptic.
Music can be entertainment, of course. But almost everything in the orchestral literature (chamber music and choral, too) suddenly seems about human connection.
Many groups are working in this pause to stake out connection with a bigger online presence. Some have even moved their fund-raising galas online. It’s pretty clear that if you’re going to do that, the way to do it is with a drag queen, and so the Wilma Theater will have Martha Graham Cracker do a “desktop” performance” at its May 3 online gala.
There are any number of online performances happening now as artists try to retain their base and maybe even land new fans. These are critical points of contact for both performers and listeners. Sequestered at home, you can only bake so much bread.
Some online moves have had great musical value, like the Beethoven piano recital Jonathan Biss streamed recently. Whether it was the moment or his comfort with the venue (his own Philadelphia home), Biss was touching and profound in ways that he wasn’t when he played the Perelman Theater a few weeks earlier for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s coronavirus-thwarted Beethoven cycle.
But when individual orchestral players go online, it doesn’t check off all the boxes. Yes, dozens of ensembles are stocked with wonderful instrumentalists. The value of an orchestra, though, is in the collective: the homogenous blending of single voices into a common one, the mysterious way the ensemble can suddenly turn like a school of fish.
And then, of course, there is the impact of all that sound coming at you. Nothing at home is a proxy for what you feel in a concert hall. Nothing at home could ever be as intense. But that requires crowds, on stage and out in the hall.
The Philadelphia Orchestra will be back, even if we’re not sure how or when. It will be a different orchestra, though. Lost in the madness of the last few weeks was the announcement of next season’s artists and repertoire, as well as a programming bent that continues to relate to the outside world. Racial identity, climate change, female composers, and digital technology are among the themes for its 2020-21 season.
All plans must be considered penciled-in, but the orchestra has announced another January visit to the Academy of Music, and has commissioned composer Melody Eötvös in a work evoking melting icebergs in When It Hits the Ocean Below. Robin Holcomb’s Paradise is billed as a response to California’s deadly wildfires. Our orchestra continues to evolve as a social conscience.
We will be different, too. We’ve seen a level of horror unknown to many of us when the orchestra last performed. What salve will we need? What repertoire can both acknowledge outside events and show a way forward?
Whatever the orchestra plays, the last few weeks have me believing that music changes in its jewel case or MP3 file when we’re not looking.
I’ve always appreciated Gerald Finzi’s Eclogue for its sense of ease and goodness. Now it strikes my ear as so much more. It’s not explicitly programmatic, and yet it tells me with every bar that everything is going to be alright.
I’ve also been particularly drawn lately to works that embody particular aspects of the American spirit. Which America? Copland’s Symphony No. 3 with its stirring first movement is the one I want to live in. The second movement is the sound of a country being built — of optimism and ambition. Copland said that the work, finished in 1946, was meant “to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.”
We’ve lost a lot of faith in institutions in the past few years, and maybe the America of this Copland score is unduly idealistic for some. The myth in the music undeniably ignores what the reality has been for this county’s marginalized and exploited. But that doesn’t negate idealism itself. It doesn’t mean the music can’t lead us to putting things right.
We’ve been here before, at least to some extent. In 2001, Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra went on a long-scheduled three-week U.S. tour that began 10 days after 9/11, giving those concerts unexpected relevance.
A cellist in the orchestra at the time told me on our flight out of Philadelphia that he thought Sept. 11 might make people experience music in a deeper way — "to listen with greater concentration and ask what music is all about. Is it about hope? Is it about redemption? Is it about humanity?”
Regardless of what music means, it is always an act of creation. It is exactly the silencing rebuttal to nihilism we need to hear now. It is the how and why of keeping on.