Week by week, the coronavirus has transformed one of the virtues of public musical life — its ability to bring people together — into its greatest vulnerability.
The latest casualty is the entire summer festival season, as events from Tanglewood to the Hollywood Bowl have now been canceled. Most experts seem to agree that the performing arts will be among the last sectors of the economy to reopen. Locally, New England Conservatory has already announced that Jordan Hall will remain closed to outside renters through the entirety of next season. And in a particularly cruel twist, the human singing voice, the original instrument, has now been marked for special concern as an instrument of viral contagion.
But in a rather remarkable demonstration of resilience, musicians and ensembles have not fallen silent — they have simply taken their wares online. As a result, there has never been so much live streaming, especially in recent days as concert halls in Europe gradually reopen, and the streams will only multiply as the virtual incarnations of festivals like Tanglewood soon arrive online. Obviously no one would prefer it this way and there is no substitute for direct contact with live music, yet for listeners the situation has introduced some interesting new opportunities. It also provides an occasion to reflect on what it is we value in the traditional concert experience, and just how much of that can follow classical music into its own virtual quarantine.
Of course, while the shuttering of concert halls this March was swift and abrupt, the technological genie has been out of the bottle for a very long time, skeptically eyeing the animal warmth of the live concert experience. It was more than a half-century ago, in 1966, that the brilliant pianist Glenn Gould issued his famous prediction “that the public concert as we know it today would no longer exist a century hence, that its functions [will be] entirely taken over by electronic media.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Gould was excited about this prospect. He himself had already fled the concert stage in search of a more pure relationship with his art, and technology for him promised to realize the performer’s ultimate fantasies of complete control. And what’s more, its blessings could be shared: Gould believed that technological developments would eventually create “a new kind of listener — a listener more participant in the musical experience” precisely because technology would vastly expand our ability to curate our own musical encounters. “It is my view,” he concluded, “that in the electronic age the art of music will become much more viably a part of our lives, much less an ornament to them, and that it will consequently change them much more profoundly.”
I’m not sure the recent trends in streaming have brought music more profoundly into our lives — I worry instead that an endless flow of music delivered as data reaches us less deeply — but certainly, as Gould predicted, new technologies have made music a more ubiquitous presence while changing our habits of listening in both subtle and obvious ways.
To start with the latter, as I write this column, strange to say, I am also attending a performance in Sweden. In an open window next to my document, soprano Nina Stemme is holding forth in Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” with the Royal Philharmonic Society performing live under the direction of Alan Gilbert, every glowing syllable resounding in an empty hall and then traveling essentially in real time to my laptop 3,700 miles away. Live streaming is hardly new but its sudden centrality as the only way to consume live music has brought into sharp relief its mysterious ways of collapsing time and space, not to mention the tricks it plays with our relationship to the music and its disembodied presence.
To be sure, the current streaming landscape is untethering the act of concert-going from all geographic constraints as the ear glides frictionlessly across oceans and continents. After Stemme’s “Wesendonck Lieder” in Stockholm, I hop over to Frankfurt to catch the final movement of violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s performance of the Beethoven Concerto, thanks to a simulcast with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. (Tetzlaff and conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada walked onto stage wearing masks but removed them for the performance.) Then I refill my coffee mug and settle into the opening of the Bergen International Festival in Norway. I have never stepped foot in any of the halls where these performances are taking place, and I may never do so in the future, but they are all now just a few clicks away. This presents an embarrassment of riches to the online listener, but also a structural challenge to local orchestras like the BSO, whose digital offerings must now compete on a vastly enlarged playing field.
And of course that field is even larger than the competing live streams — it includes an ever-growing library of previously recorded performances as orchestras, eager to keep their audiences engaged and loyal, have reached deep into their own archives to make older concerts available on demand. It is interesting to compare the experience of watching any of these live streams with that of watching a similar performance, even by identical musical forces, that has been previously recorded. I find myself drawn far more strongly to the live stream, but why?
The fact that the two concerts may appear outwardly identical suggests the difference is in us and not in the stream. It’s in our knowledge that one is an event, and the other is a document. One is unfolding in real time and therefore still carries a frisson of risk, a possibility of multiple endings. The other is a fait accompli, indifferent to our witnessing and our empathic participation. With a live stream, even though we are far away and completely anonymous, just another IP address in the ether, we suspend disbelief and willingly subscribe to the illusion of inclusion. At the Met’s simulcasts to movie theaters (remember those?) audience members often clap at the end of the opera, which feels simultaneously absurd and completely natural. The fact that the European halls streaming these performances are themselves completely devoid of audiences only quickens the pull.
But there is another dimension to this phenomenon. Listening in a concert hall is a solitary experience — we are alone with our thoughts, our emotions, our subjective responses to the music. Yet our solitude is experienced while being surrounded by hundreds of other people. The public and private intertwine. To say a piece resonates with us individually is to say that something in its vision affirms our private truths and life experience. Yet to be in an audience that is collectively moved is very different. It suggests the circuitry has been broadened; something in our shared humanity has been affirmed.
In a live streamed event, by contrast, we have simultaneously lost our collectivity in space but retained it in time. We are listening not as isolated individuals staring into the black mirror, but as an imagined public. It’s a last vestige of the communal, a final toe-hold in the real, beyond which lies the asynchronous rabbit holes of the virtual.
∗ ∗ ∗
In recent weeks, beyond this newly expanded diet of live streamed concerts from empty venues, I’ve also been drawn to the wonderfully informal performances being given by musicians directly from their homes, including the rhapsodic Bach Cello Suites of Alisa Weilerstein, the rapt sincerity of pianist Igor Levit’s nightly house concerts, the ingenious micro-commissioning of Jennifer Koh’s “Alone Together” project, and the violinists of the BSO carving up Bach’s complete Sonatas and Partitas and recording separate movements, thereby showcasing the individuality of essential players who rarely see the spotlight.
It’s common to hear the argument that classical music discourages newcomers because of its traditional packaging, the musicians’ formal dress, the arcane rituals of concert halls, the expectations of reverent silence punctuated by applause at only very specific moments. But that entire layer has now been peeled away, and at their best, performances like these lay bare music’s elemental power, or as much of it as can be experienced without being in the room. The packaging is gone, leaving only the content. For the digitally native millennial generation, there may never be a better time to discover classical music.
Do some works thrive in this moment better than others? Solo Bach seems ubiquitous (Yo-Yo Ma will perform the complete Cello Suites on Sunday at 3 p.m., live streamed on classicalwcrb.org) and for good reason. In small vessels this music contains vast landscapes of sadness and of beauty. And the Berlin Philharmonic recently opened its European Concert arrestingly with the mysterious yearning of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” a work conceived in the permanent artistic quarantine of the 1970s behind the Iron Curtain.
But perhaps the most memorable three minutes of online music-making I’ve heard in recent weeks was provided by the violists of the Met Orchestra and soprano Joyce DiDonato paying tribute to violist Vincent Lionti, who recently died of COVID-19. It was a stark personalization of loss at a time when the pandemic’s dead are often reduced to statistics. The performance featured a chorus of seven violists, assembled from remote locations to send off one of their own with one of Handel’s most exquisite arias, “Ombra mai fu” from “Serse.” The musicians play wearing headphones and the mix is not perfect, but all of this only adds to the video’s impact because there is no glossy illusion of normalcy to buy into, no attempt to disguise the fact that we are living through a time of national tragedy, no hesitation in allowing for a moment of collective self-compassion. In this aria, the singer praises a humble tree for its lovely shade — a shelter against the elements that Handel suggests, by simple virtue of the aria’s vertiginous beauty, is second only to music.