May 2021. A backyard in Medford, opposite a riverside playground. Pianist Miki Sawada rolls up with a cargo van and unloads an upright electric piano. Plastic folding chairs are set up for the small masked audience who RSVPed to this event — one of several outdoor concerts on her spring “Gather Hear” tour of Massachusetts — but as pieces by Florence Price and Franz Liszt drift into neighboring yards and across the street to the basketball court, people passing by stop and listen. Some stay for a few seconds, rolling down their car windows. Others stay for an entire piece or two, anchoring their bicycles’ kickstands and taking off their helmets. Something special is happening.
September. Jordan Hall. Jamaica Plain-based string orchestra A Far Cry returns to live, indoor performance after over 500 days away from their onstage home. It’s my first indoor classical concert since before the shutdown. The second-to-last piece on the program is a bright orchestral fiddle tune called “Castles” by the group’s bassist Karl Doty. About two-thirds of the way through the short piece, the musicians start singing along behind their masks as they play, vocalizing in wordless arcs that evoke the feeling of seeing a sunbeam. It takes me a few seconds to realize that I am tearing up, and another few to fully realize why: I haven’t heard a group singing together, in person, in 18 months. The human voice, arguably the first ensemble instrument, is no longer on mute.
As a critic, I usually see between 75 and 100 live concerts per year, but it took only a few online pandemic concerts before I was sick of them. After working on my computer in my room all day, the last thing I wanted to do was sit down in front of the screen again and be reminded of how much I missed the feeling of experiencing something with other people.
We all had hopes for what 2021 might bring. Some of them became realities. We got the vaccines and COVID-19 treatments. We did not get a return to life as we had known it before “social distancing,” “contact tracing,” and “vaccine card” became part of the daily lexicon. But the reopening of clubs, concert halls, and theaters to live artists and audiences, with safety precautions: yes.
I had hoped that in the closing months of 2021, I would be writing about the post-pandemic landscape of live music. But the pandemic is not over, and it would be inaccurate at best and dangerous at worst to call anything about this time “post-pandemic.” Still, at the beginning of the year, gathering to hear live music was unthinkable, and now inboxes and mailboxes are filling up with colorful brochures and graphics advertising upcoming events, live and in person. The era of empty auditoriums now belongs to the past. For many of us, experiencing music through Zoom and all its digital cousins is no longer the only option.
I’ve been thinking about what I’ll tell future generations about life during the pandemic. As the years pass, it’s not the individual pieces from my first 2021 concerts that I will remember, but the sensation of being fully immersed in live sound again. It happened in stages and seasons: first, in the spring, the teeming soundscape of Sawada’s “Gather Hear” concert, just a few days before I got my second dose of Pfizer; in the summer, the Boston Pops slinging John Williams’s evergreen film scores to an eager crowd at Tanglewood; and in the fall, the floor of Symphony Hall vibrating as the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Handel and Haydn Society reunited with their publics.
Virtual concerts can never replace live performance — though when produced and advertised well, they open up possibilities for listeners who wouldn’t be able to make it to the concert hall even under normal circumstances. Several local organizations including Handel and Haydn Society, A Far Cry, Boston Early Music Festival, and Celebrity Series Boston are now offering both virtual and in-person tickets to their events, keeping a window open for listeners who might not be able to make it through the door. But there’s no substitute for being part of a live audience, seeing and hearing music created in real time along with others who have gathered to share in the sensations.
And in our eagerness to resume our favorite old habits, it’s valuable to pause and reflect. “I feel like as a society, we’re going to push for reopening so quickly, and we’re not really going to have time to process what we went through,” Sawada said when we spoke on the phone in early May, before her outdoor concert.
Sawada invited people to take that pause during the concert. She passed out cards and pencils, asked audience members to complete the sentence “Before I die, I want to . . . ” and read them aloud between pieces. To meet my grandkids, wrote one audience member. To go to Disney again and visit my grandparents in Japan, wrote another. To see our country return to sanity.
As we again take our seats, I have the utmost gratitude for the people who are helping to rebuild that sanity through live music. The musicians, the composers, the conductors — and just as much, everyone working behind the scenes to make the events happen, from sound techs to stage managers to maintenance staff. The administrators and advisers who drafted and revised safety policies for venues and organizations this summer as the Delta variant made its dangers known. The audiovisual staff who worked crunch schedules to get the shows ready for Internet prime time. The ushers who checked vaccine cards, handed out programs, and prompted people to pull their masks up over their noses. To all of them I say: thank you.