As the Omicron variant surges, it might feel like the entire world is stuck in a time loop. But in the classical music landscape, much has changed since the beginning of 2021. Boston Symphony Orchestra has its first-ever woman president and CEO, Gail Samuel; the intrepid New England Philharmonic is hunting for its new music director after the two-decade reign of Richard Pittman; and Boston Lyric Opera revised its plan for a production of “Madama Butterfly” into a yearlong process to collectively brainstorm the future of the popular but problematic opera.
Throughout the pandemic, artists and musicians have adapted to constantly changing circumstances, reimagined their plans for the future, and found space for innovation. In the final days of 2021, I asked six classical music standouts about their hopes and resolutions for 2022.
KATHLEEN FAY, Boston Early Music Festival, executive director
In 2020, Fay had hoped the Boston Early Music Festival would be able to mount its usual biennial early music extravaganza — which attracts performers, vendors, and fans from around the world — as planned for summer 2021. But with international travel still risky, she put the entire festival online. “My wish for 2022 would be to continue to dwell on what we can do, not what we can’t do. I know that sounds oversimplified . . . but that’s my mantra going forward,” she said. “Despite all hopes and dreams and strategies for returning to normal, I think that’s not reality for the foreseeable future.”
Starting in the fall, BEMF started offering both virtual and in-person tickets to its local concerts. Virtual concerts premiered two weeks after the live event, allowing the audiovisual team to take its time to create a quality experience for those who couldn’t be there in person. Thanks to these efforts, BEMF’s audience expanded around the globe. “I would like to see some more technical accomplishments when it comes to how we present virtual concerts,” Fay said. “To make it easier for customers to enjoy what we’re doing; to make the actual experience better. Better color, better sound. I’ve got friends and colleagues all over Europe who were thanking us for presenting this beautiful music still, throughout the pandemic.”
PHIL CHAN, Final Bow for Yellowface, founder; Boston Lyric Opera, consultant
Chan, a dancer and an arts administrator based in New York, cofounded Final Bow for Yellowface with the goal of encouraging ballet companies to ditch stereotypes of Asians in popular works such as “The Nutcracker” and “La Bayadère.” Now, he’s working with Boston Lyric Opera as a consultant for the ongoing Butterfly Process educational initiative, which aims to address offensive stereotypes in “Madama Butterfly.”
“The big New Year’s resolution I would hope to see in the performing arts is a shift from a Eurocentric way to a multiracial way of producing,” Chan said. “Using diversity and inclusion not as something that is painful for us to do, but something that is a wellspring of creativity as opposed to being a burden. So what does this shift look like? It looks like questioning: Whose perspective are we taking when we tell a story in an exotic place that might be real to some people? So, you know, fantasy India, fantasy China, fantasy Middle East — how do we give the composers, choreographers, artists, and dancers from those communities . . . equal oxygen to make their art as we do with European art? A multiracial way of producing includes Puccini and Shakespeare and Verdi and all the rest. It just means we get more, it means it’s bigger.”
MIKI SAWADA, pianist
For this Brighton-based pianist, it’s a bucket-list goal to tour all 50 states with piano in tow, staging intimate concerts at community centers, in backyards, and wherever else she might set up her keyboard. She was able to arrange several outdoor concerts all around Massachusetts in May, shortly after vaccines became available to all adults.
“Everything with COVID is most likely not going to end anytime soon, and so I think we need to find ways to be more flexible,” Sawada said recently. “And I think the best way to go about that is to empower individual artists more, through any kind of initiatives that allow artists to have more control over curating. We’re much more flexible than, say, Broadway — it’s on or off. But with classical music, sometimes all we need is our instruments and space. I think we’re really well positioned to do things on a much smaller scale that can still be really meaningful for audience members.”
LUCIA LIN, Boston Symphony Orchestra violinist
After Lin’s work dried up at the beginning of the pandemic, she teamed up with composer Gabriela Lena Frank for In Tandem, a duet-commissioning project to help out composers who had also seen their opportunities vanish. It was only when Lin looked at the composers she’d chosen that she realized they were a much more diverse bunch than the usual symphony orchestra repertoire.
“Music communicates in such a visceral and powerful way, and everybody responds to it differently. I think that musicians can really be stewards in leading movements and raising social consciousness,” Lin said. “So I’m hoping to keep making connections outside of my little world into other art forms; maybe poetry, or visual art, or theater.” She wants to take the In Tandem pieces into schools, with the hope that they could influence kids, “because I think the next generation is going to make a big difference,” she said. They’re “going to have all these fabulous ideas and think outside the box, while my generation [baby boomers] was very traditional. I think we need to walk in step with them, support them, and be resources for them.”
KEITH LOCKHART, Boston Pops, conductor
Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart says he was surprised to learn that during the virtual 2020 Holiday Pops season, 75 percent of the online audience was composed of viewers who don’t normally attend in person. With that in mind, he’s hoping to draw some first-timers through the doors.
“My New Year’s resolution is to go be a missionary for the importance of the arts as much as I can,” he said. “We’re not just a painting on the wall . . . but something that has to be made and remade. What I hope that will look like is full concert halls and people saying, “Wow, we really need to see this.” Speaking from the orchestra world, it may cause all of us to start looking at our programming choices and creating things that are really special, that there aren’t 10 other great taped performances of on YouTube. Not that the core repertoire won’t exist anymore, but concerts will really have to morph into an experience that cannot be experienced remotely, that you need to come to see.“
IMAN HABIBI, composer
This Iranian-Canadian composer wrote his short orchestral piece “Jeder Baum spricht,” which translates to “every tree speaks,” while imagining how Beethoven would react to the current climate crisis. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed the piece during its virtual season this past winter, pairing it with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6. “My hopes for our industry, the classical music industry, whatever you want to call it, are not really that different from my hopes for the world at large,” Habibi said. “These global crises that we’re having right now: the pandemic . . . and climate crisis . . . I’m hoping the world we have after that is not just sustainable, but fulfilling and vibrant. When I go to a concert in the future [I want to] hear not just Beethoven and Bruckner and Mahler, but music from South America, Africa, Asia.”
To achieve that, Habibi thinks a cultural shift in priorities is necessary on multiple levels. “We need to rethink what prestige and success in this field means,” he said. “There should be just as much prestige assigned to bringing free music education to underrepresented communities as a Carnegie Hall premiere. The pandemic has been tragic for our industry, and I think part of that is because we were vulnerable to what the pandemic hit: gatherings. But at the same time, a lot of the problems that came to the fore through the pandemic were systemic problems that existed before the pandemic. So now we have to rethink what caused these problems in the first place. We’ve had a hard reset. There’s so much room to start fresh.”