The return of live symphonic music is on the horizon — the northern horizon in the case of Philadelphia Orchestra music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is now rehearsing the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal in a socially distanced seating arrangement at Bourgie Hall.
Symphonic and operatic institutions in Europe and Asia have also been reentering their concert halls after long pandemic shutdowns — sometimes with live audiences — in ways that American orchestras can still only dream about, especially with the news that Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center and New York’s Metropolitan Opera (Nézet-Séguin’s two other strongholds) are shutting down for the rest of the calendar year.
Orchestras from Dresden to Berlin to Vienna to Taiwan to Salzburg to the Basque region of Spain have been balancing local health regulations with appealing repertoire for something resembling conventional concerts.
In North America, Nézet-Séguin is among the most ambitious. He leads a slimmed-down version of his Montreal orchestra, roughly 50 players, performing and recording eight of the nine Beethoven symphonies — without audience — for streaming starting in July. Bourgie Hall, a converted church, gives the players room to fan out.
“It requires some adjustment,” said Nézet-Séguin on Twitter after their first rehearsal, Monday, “but once the ears are open … it is, for the moment, surprisingly good!”
The project follows the leads of symphonic and operatic institutions in Europe, which are making decisive steps out of confinement, although it’s a nexus whose success is anything but consistent.
Audience size varies. The Vienna Philharmonic was limited to 100 in early June. The Taiwan Philharmonic planned a slow rise, and, with the blessing of local health authorities, was expected to host a full audience of 2,000 on Saturday with no social distancing. The Basque National Orchestra started with an empty hall, has progressed to an audience of 50, plans to have 500 by August, and hopes to be playing to 100 percent capacity by November.
The Berlin Philharmonic has been webcasting from its empty hall; local authorities have determined that any event with more than 1,000 participants isn’t permitted through Aug. 31. The Dresden Philharmonic is already selling tickets for live July concerts.
Templates and formulas are being constantly revised, to the point where one can almost date when an idea was hatched. The idea of the Berlin Philharmonic playing music requiring too few strings to even sound like itself can seem “so early May.”
But the Dresden Philharmonic under Marek Janowski is pairing Haydn and Hindemith in smaller-scale concerts with A-list guest soloists that go well beyond the makeshift. Here, we’re into the revelatory zone. And the Basque orchestra under Robert Trevino is playing Mendelssohn symphonies that actually sound better with a scaled-back orchestra.
The large-scale works of Gustav Mahler are having a tough time. Berlin Philharmonic’s chamber-sized Mahler Symphony No. 4 felt diluted in its empty-hall performance in May that followed regulations prohibiting no more than 15 musicians onstage. London’s Royal Opera streams Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde this weekend in a reduction, without audience, that has a more credible track record.
Rather than trying something similar, the Vienna Philharmonic substituted Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 for a smaller-scale Mozart/Beethoven program June 5-7 with Daniel Barenboim.
Choruses are considered especially problematic because singers inevitably produce droplets. But in May, Prague’s 1704 Collegium had already posted a YouTube video of Scarlatti and Zelenka choral works with no audience. The singers wore heavy face masks and were properly heard.
When the Dresden Philharmonic’s July concerts at the sprawling Kulturpalast build up to Beethoven’s choral finale in the Symphony No. 9, the performance will be in the open air. Come fall, they are hoping to perform Beethoven’s mighty, choral-dominated Missa Solemnis indoors.
Operating on a cut-down schedule in August, the glamorous Salzburg Festival checks many of right boxes. The primary orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, need not board flights to get there. The two primary venues are large enough to have socially distant audiences and still a fair number of people. One of the main attractions is Strauss’ Elektra with just five principal characters and a plot so steeped in revenge that they automatically keep a safe distance from each other.
Often, the secondary orchestras are the boldest. Sweden’s Malmo Symphony Orchestra maintained an online concert presence with players assembled live together under conductor Trevino from the beginning of the lockdown — but only after significant labor union negotiations regarding broadcasting rights.
When the Basque orchestra began streaming concerts in late May, the widely spaced musicians were also protected from each other by Plexiglas shields as a precaution.
The Dresden Philharmonic offers contactless tickets. The Vienna Philharmonic’s early June concerts with audience were 70 minutes long, apparently without intermissions that could compromise social distancing. The Taiwan Philharmonic has temperature checks for incoming listeners.
Schedules and regulations often change so fast that the websites can’t keep up with them. When health regulations were eased in Austria in early June, the Vienna Philharmonic quickly scheduled June 5-7 concerts, but the orchestra’s online concert list is still a chronicle of canceled events.
A spokesperson for the Orchestre Métropolitain said that the forthcoming Beethoven symphony cycle was hatched during the pandemic in the face of Nézet-Séguin’s canceled Beethoven cycle in Philadelphia and postponed Deutsche Grammophon recordings with Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
New terminology is everywhere. “Chessboard seating” has listeners scattered throughout the hall. Beware of the online “live digital premiere,” which might sound like a live-streamed performance but could well be an archival performance from long ago.
The point is that — for all the slippery terminology — a public presence for classical music is being vigorously maintained. Classical music institutions face steep challenges as a work-intensive, nonprofit, niche-appeal art form, but they are also considered the cultural crown jewels of any great city.
In recent months, they have become an increasingly eloquent and immediate means of expression for the grief and frustration of each succeeding crisis. This is where North Americans (and, often, Philadelphians) are in the forefront.
Valerie Coleman’s Seven O’Clock Shout celebrating frontline workers, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra online June 7 and is being repeated for the ensemble’s streamed gala this weekend, is an ambitious, sophisticated work that will be likely be heard long after the pandemic is over — eventually with the players assembled together and an audience back in the seats.
Nézet-Séguin’s Beethoven performances, whether from Montreal or in Philadelphia when concerts are resumed, are likely to sound and feel radically different from last year’s interpretations because they speak from a different world to a different world. And they should. As poet Kim Addonizio has written, “What we create may save us.”