What exactly is required for a meaningful musical encounter? A big hall? A formally attired orchestra? A large, cheering audience? Turns out the answer is none of the above.
This was a manifestly horrendous year for most working musicians and the ensembles they bring to life. But if there was a silver lining for classical music in 2020, it was perhaps the forced stripping away of all the packaging and extra-musical concerns that can too often overshadow the concert experience itself. In their stead came a re-embracing of music’s more elemental powers to speak directly to mind and heart.
Examples were everywhere: celebrity soloists shot themselves on iPhones, or performed unpretentiously from their living rooms for anyone with a Twitter account. New solo works for violin were commissioned and performed with uncommon purpose. Contemporary music was unloaded from a loading dock in the Berkshires, and taken in by listeners delighted to be present even in 6-by-6-foot squares. Opera in Boston was fervently created from inside of a truck on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and chamber music was imaginatively dispatched from locations across Jamaica Plain. Essential workers got some of the best seats in the house. And, especially in those quiet early days, nature’s own orchestra turned up the volume.
Somehow most striking of all were all of those performances for audiences of one. In Germany, orchestral players locked eyes with one listener at a time, and then communicated with their art alone. And in intensive care units across the United States, isolated patients battling COVID-19 were connected with musicians performing for them in real time over the phone.
Classical music thrives on collective encounters, but even concerts experienced in large crowds — remember those? — are particularly meaningful when they simultaneously address the more private precincts of the self. Yes, musical organizations will talk about learning pragmatic lessons from this pandemic. But as the industry begins the long march back toward some semblance of normalcy, let’s hope the lessons internalized also include keeping sight of the art form’s unique modes of immediacy, of intimacy, of direct expression, and of vulnerability. These qualities carried classical music through 2020 — and many of the rest of us too.
It will be a happy day when the concert experience is no longer boxed in by livestreams and Zoom grids. And organizations should have no problem filling seats after the long dark of 2020 and early 2021. But for some listeners, the pandemic has made the experience of live performance more accessible than ever.
Listeners like Libby McLaughlin of North Carolina; she’s been a regular at the Charlotte Symphony for more than 30 years, and now sits on the board of trustees. But she has a lung condition that forces her to avoid crowds during flu season. McLaughlin estimates she can attend “two to four” of the orchestra’s 12 classical series concerts in a typical year. But this year, she’s been able to see everything the orchestra offers, including a summer al fresco chamber series filmed in a musician’s backyard.
McLaughlin is as eager as anyone to return to the hall. “Live performances are the lifeblood of the musician,” she said over the phone.
But she’s also hoping the symphony finds a way to continue its online offerings. “I do believe that people would be willing to pay if they can’t go to the performance itself, but want to hear the music.”
Immunocompromised listeners are not the only ones who would benefit from continued online programming. It could clear the way for entirely new swaths of audience to connect or stay connected. The virtual experience would keep the hall open for children in the classroom environment; for the grandparent recovering from a broken hip; for the season subscriber who thinks they might be coming down with a cold; for the busy parent who might go in-person to the orchestra one week and watch at home with kids the next. No one cares if they eat ice cream during the concerto or need to use the bathroom or fall asleep.
Matthew Szymanski, founder and director of Boston-based orchestra Phoenix, has noticed a flurry of appreciative comments from many different angles. He’s heard from patrons with disabilities as well as patrons with kids who used to struggle getting to weeknight concerts. Now everyone can catch the premiere stream or watch on demand later.
Virtual access “reduces so many barriers,” Szymanski said in a phone interview, adding that he plans for Phoenix to keep some elements of the experience once in-person concerts resume. “We’re mainly thinking that we’re going to continue recording concerts … and then doing a stream of the concert that has live commentary and live chatting with musicians, you know, a week after the concert or two weeks after the concert.”
This year, we learned virtual programming can never replace the live performance; it can only expand. Performing arts groups made heroic efforts to stay connected with audiences while everyone’s stuck at home. Coming out of the pandemic, the infrastructure will be in place to connect with fans and fans-in-the-making wherever they are, if organizations choose to use it — and they very well should.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.