An eerie silence has descended on Boston’s concert halls. Faced with the dangers posed by the spread of the novel coronavirus, virtually all major ensembles and concert series have put their concert offerings on hold — most temporarily, yet with the acknowledgment that no one knows when performances will resume. The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Celebrity Series of Boston have canceled all concerts remaining in their seasons
This is, of course, the correct decision in the face of a global pandemic. But the costs are large and dismaying. The most serious, of course, is the huge loss of ticket revenue that will be borne not only by musicians and presenters but by the network of vendors and contractors whose livelihoods depend on a steady stream of such work.
But audiences will lose as well — the opportunity to see and hear programs that may never materialize again. And while there are any number of ways to consume music today, there is simply nothing like a concert. It’s a ritual both communal and personal, the act of gathering in a space with your fellow listeners and allowing sounds to be enacted before your ears. There are no second takes, and we all hear something different in the results. That experience is irreplaceable.
Still, to quote a New England sage, it is what it is, and for a while we will all need to accustom ourselves to life without live concerts. Some ensembles, such as the Berlin Philharmonic and Bach Collegium Japan, have livestreamed previously scheduled performances in empty halls, a phenomenon that has rapidly gone from unsettling to habituated. The Philharmonic has made the Digital Concert Hall, its extensive video archive, free for all. The Budapest Festival Orchestra has even initiated a new series of livestreamed chamber music concerts called “Quarantine Soirées.”
And of course, there are always recordings — an imperfect substitute but one we will likely embrace more than ever as our weeks of isolation tick by. So, as a way of keeping alive some concerts that should have been but will not be, here are brief reviews of (relatively) recent recordings of performers, ensembles, and works that have been rendered silent.
I was hoping that we’d at least get to hear Daniil Trifonov at Symphony Hall before the concert embargo set in. Not only is Trifonov one of the preeminent pianists of our time, but he was slated to play Bach’s “The Art of Fugue,” the master’s imposing contrapuntal masterpiece (left unfinished at his death). Reviews of earlier performances promised something special. Alas, it was not to be, but one can still enjoy “Destination Rachmaninov: Arrival,” the final entry in his series of the composer’s piano concertos. Trifonov brings a torrent of energy and fresh insights to the underplayed First Concerto, and the Third lands with unusual transparency and elegance, summoning happy memories of his performance of the piece with the BSO last year.
The BSO was scheduled to host jazz pianist and composer Uri Caine for the Boston premiere of his “The Passion of Octavius Catto” for Caine’s trio, vocalist, chamber orchestra, and chorus. The piece tells the story of Catto, a Philadelphia civil rights activist who fought for passage of the Reconstruction Amendments and was murdered on Election Day, 1871. The piece, as a recording released last year shows, alternates mostly between traditional jazz and gospel, but the sections depicting racial violence are colored with streaks of dissonance. Singer Barbara Walker and the various choruses give the piece a solid shot of soul.
To compensate for the cancelation of BSO artistic partner Thomas Adès’s engagement, one can hear Adès’s first recording with the BSO, which has just been released. It contains two Janus-faced works: the Piano Concerto (which the BSO commissioned and premiered), as dashing and entertaining a piece as Adès has written; and “Totentanz” for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and orchestra, one of the darkest in his oeuvre. Where the concerto feints and dances, “Totentanz,” inspired by a 15th-century German frieze, paints an grippingly bleak portrait of death’s inexorability. Its whispery ending, Mahlerian in tone but lacking any redemptive aura, stays with a listener long after the music concludes.
The Handel and Haydn Society was to have performed Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” the weekend before Easter. Haydn’s “Harmoniemesse” isn’t quite a substitute for the Passion’s expressive drama, but it’s one of the most accomplished of Haydn’s masses, with some brilliant and characterful wind writing. That facet of the piece is highlighted in H&H’s recording from last year, which also features a lively rendition of the composer’s Symphony No. 99.
The Skylark Vocal Ensemble has crafted a form of musical narrative that melds fairy tales with a wide variety of short choral pieces. Two of these amalgamated works — on the stories of Snow White and The Little Mermaid, with the stories told by Sarah Walker, musical selections by composers ranging from Poulenc to Morten Lauridsen, and the rest of the musical fabric composed by Benedict Sheehan — appear on Skylark’s new CD, “Once Upon a Time.” Both are effectively done, and the singing by Skylark — which has canceled its April 21-25 series of concerts — shows both warmth and perfect ensemble.
Finally, Skylark music director Matthew Guard wrote an informative and gloomy blog post breaking down the kind of financial peril freelance musicians will face due to cancellations. The group has set up an artist fund to be able to pay its performers. The house concert series Groupmuse and the recording studio The Record Co. have started musician relief funds. You should contribute to one or more of these funds. Buy a recording. Donate your tickets instead of asking for a refund. Support the livestreams and other creative concert substitutes artists have been coming up with on the fly. Now is the time we should all be finding a way to sustain the artists who have served our musical ecosphere so well.