Symphony of a Dozen: Classical Music in a Post-COVID World

Near the end of John Mulaney’s 2019 Netflix special John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, the character “Mr. Music” (a fabulously-dressed Jake Gyllenhaal) bursts through the door, kicks over a flower pot, and proclaims, “Hey! It’s me, Sack Lunch Bunch—Mr. Music!” What follows is one of my favorite streaming-platform moments from last year (tied with Baby Yoda, of course). Perhaps it’s better viewed than explained…

If there were an official mascot of 2020, the coronavirus would obviously take first place, but an unhinged Mr. Music could easily be a close runner-up. He is the year in a nutshell—at least, so far—someone who simply wants to live their life but is met with failure and disappointment at every corner. (Though, the realities of the year have been way less hilarious than Jake Gyllenhaal waiting for a toilet bowl to refill.) Or perhaps we are all Mr. Music, just trying our best in these insanely difficult times.

Mr. Music trying his best

OK, so what’s the purpose of this hot take, besides an excuse to talk about John Mulaney? (I mean, it is.) Well, there’s a small, but eerie piece of foreshadowing in this sketch. Towards the beginning, as Mr. Music begins explaining to the Sack Lunch Bunch that music can be found everywhere (a very John Cagean concept if you ask me), he suddenly cries, “Follow me… but also give me space!” What was probably a brilliant, off-handed improv on Gyllenhaal’s part could unintentionally be a motto for the future. As soon as a successful vaccine for COVID-19 is released, we’ll all be enthusiastic and raring to get back out there. To embrace our friends and family. To go out in public without masks. To get back to life. BUT—we will still have to be careful for a time until this deadly virus is eradicated completely.

Once we reach what I’ll call the “cautious normalcy” of the post-COVID era, some facets of society will face more significant challenges than others. For our purposes here, the question must be asked: what will classical music look like in a post-COVID world? What will live music look like in general? Will it even be possible anymore?

In short, yes. I want to think optimistically and believe that we will one day be able to pack concert venues again and enjoy live music together. However, for now, concerts are and will likely continue to be put on hold as coronavirus cases continue to rise. Some classical organizations have chosen—sadly, but understandably—to cancel their fall seasons. Others will continue to offer music online, either pre-recorded or live-streamed in an empty hall, until they can safely host an audience. Still others have received the green light to present live concerts with an audience, albeit a much smaller one and with appropriate health and social-distancing measures in place. This last scenario is pretty much exclusive to Europe, where certain countries are doing much better at curbing the spread of the virus than we are in the United States. (FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, PLEASE WEAR A MASK, PEOPLE!!!)

So, what will happen once live music can safely return on a larger scale? What are some things that the classical music world will have to figure out? While there are many, many people in the field currently discussing these very things (Timothy Mangan, for instance, recently wrote a great article on the future of live classical concerts), I thought I’d add my two cents to the discussion. Of course, health and safety protocols for both audiences and musicians must be at the forefront of any decision, but there are other questions that I believe will need to be addressed as well. Let’s look at three big ones in particular…

1. The Question of Venue

We all love our concert halls, but let’s be real, most were not designed with a global pandemic in mind. All contain hundreds if not thousands of tightly-packed seats, with the sole purpose of getting as many people as possible into the same room. Clearly, not an ideal scenario at this present moment. Once it is safe to cautiously congregate in public spaces again, both smaller halls (like the 1,600 seat Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis) and much larger ones (like the 3,600-seat Metropolitan Opera House) will all face the same fundamental questions. Will it be it possible to safely keep audiences and musicians six feet apart? Is clean air consistently being circulated through the hall? What about printed programs? Intermissions? Food and beverage services? These’s so much to consider, and classical institutions will need to get creative.

One idea could be to forgo the concert hall entirely for the time being and hold concerts at alternative venues. Think about it for a sec. There are plenty of places that are outdoors and/or spacious enough to host an orchestra and allow for easier social-distancing—warehouses, amphitheaters, churches, parks, convention centers, galleries, courtyards, parking garages, the list goes on and on. Many orchestras already play at non-traditional venues during the summer months. The New York Philharmonic presents concerts at Central Park. The Chicago Symphony holds a summer residency at Ravinia. And who could forget the LA Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl or the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood? But as soon as the summer ends, it’s back to the concert hall, and there’s little venturing outside its confines, with a few exceptions here and there.

However, some organizations have built their entire DNA on performing in alternate venues. The above mention of parking garages actually wasn’t a joke. There’s an ensemble in London called the Multi-Story Orchestra, who performs almost exclusively in “car parks” throughout the city! Take a look; it’s pretty freaking cool…

Of course, there are issues that come with performing in alternate venues (weather and acoustics are two that immediately come to mind). Obviously, nothing will replace the crystalline sound quality of a concert hall and, yes, we should all savor that one-of-a-kind experience. But during the “cautious normalcy” of the post-COVID era, the possibilities offered by other venues should be taken into serious consideration.

2. The Question of Repertoire

There’s nothing like hearing an orchestra live, but there’s something truly extraordinary about experiencing works that require massive performing forces. From rafter-shaking climaxes to breath-taking pianissimos, it’s so incredibly life-affirming to see and hear so many musicians playing at the highest level. Some of my fondest concert memories come from hearing these massive orchestral pieces live—Mahler 6, Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, Adams’s Naive and Sentimental Music. Seriously, there’s nothing else like it.

Musicians and audience packed together—probably not a sight we’ll see for a while

Thanks to the coronavirus, though, we now live in a time when putting over a hundred performers together on the same stage is a dangerous undertaking. As such, performances of Mahler symphonies, Strauss tone poems, and other large-scale works may be close to impossible for a while. Some works present other problems. Choirs have been linked to “super-spreading events”, so operas and large choral pieces will be a “no-no.” Wind instruments hold specific dangers as well. A recent study from the University of Iowa discovered the following:

Risks of playing a wind instrument are probably different than those involved in singing, though there are similarities. The flute, for example, creates a strong airflow, though other instruments do not. But airflow does not tell the whole story. Playing a wind instrument involves deep breathing, sometimes forceful exhalation, and possible aerosolization of the mucus in the mouth and nose, along with secretions from deeper airway structures. The only peer-reviewed, published study on a wind “instrument” and aerosolization investigated the vuvuzela and found significant aerosol production (Lai et al.). There is, therefore, at least a theoretical risk of droplet or aerosol transmission during wind performance, but more study needs to be done.

Adam T. Schwalje (MD, DMA) and Henry T. Hoffman (MD)

Once live classical music can return, what will there be to hear besides big symphonic works? Quite a lot, actually. In fact, several music publishers—Boosey & Hawkes, Universal Edition, and Schott/EAM—have all compiled lists of works appropriate for a socially-distanced ensemble. The New York Times also asked their music critics to weigh in and provide suggestions. There are literally hundreds of thousands of options out there, but here are ten different types of pieces that could be presented successfully, along with a few examples:

  1. Chamber arrangements of larger works—yes, the power of the originals might be lost, but musicians’ health will benefit from it (e.g., the piano quartet arrangement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony by Ferdinand Ries)
  2. Actual chamber works—there’s lots of possibilities here: duos, trios, quartets, quintets, octets… I could keep going. There are also plenty of works that have few amount of winds or none at all (e.g., Schubert: Octet)
  3. Smaller-scale orchestral works—small in size, but big in fun. Ibert’s Divertissement, for instance, only requires 17 players. (e.g., Ibert: Divertissement)
  4. String orchestra works—pieces that are string-heavy overall might be a safe bet for the time being (e.g., Caroline Shaw: Entr’acte)
  5. Percussion ensemble works—similar story with percussion-heavy works (e.g., Chávez: Toccata)
  6. Solo works—why not create copious amounts of space and give the stage to just one musician? (e.g., Ligeti: Viola Sonata)
  7. Works with a few singers—again, singing has been linked to “super-spreading,” but there are many different pieces that only require a few singers, or even just one. German Lieder would be a good option here, as would some smaller Bach cantatas or chamber operas (e.g., Bach: Cantata, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen”, BWV 51)
  8. Concerto grossos or concertantes—a chance for one or a few soloists to shine alongside a small ensemble (e.g., Corelli: Concerto Grosso in D major, op. 6, no. 4)
  9. Antiphonal works—some pieces already have social-distancing baked into them! Take the call-and-response effects in Gabrieli’s Canzoni or the quiet existentialism of Ives’s The Unanswered Question (e.g., Ives: The Unanswered Question)
  10. Outdoor works—jumping off the alternative venue idea from Section 1, there are some works that are intended to be performed outside (e.g., John Luther Adams: Inuksuit)

These seven examples only scratch the surface. Again, there are countless pieces that have been written for instrumental combinations that aren’t a large symphony orchestra. Though we won’t get to hear Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” for a while (more like “Symphony of a Dozen,” amirite??), perhaps this will be an excellent opportunity to mine lesser-known corners of the repertoire and bring to light some truly wonderful pieces. While we’re at it, how about we use this time to broaden the repertoire overall and begin to perform more works by women and people of color? Ya know, kill two metaphorical birds with one stone…

3. The Question of Accessibility

OK, so the day comes when live concerts can occur with an audience again. We do the alternative, social-distancing thing for a while and then eventually work our way back to concerts with large ensembles and full audiences. End of story, right? Well, maybe not. In order to make ends meet and survive the impending economic fallout, it’s likely that there will be some scary consequences. Back in April, tenor Zach Finkelstein painted a grimly-realistic picture of classical concerts post-COVID. Using the Boston Symphony as a model, he surmises what the financial cost could be:

…to maintain a presence at a 2000+ seat symphony hall, a large presenter would need to cut about three out of every four audience members; and, keeping the number of performances the same, would have to increase the price of tickets, and even then it would likely result in a major net revenue loss for the company

Zach Finkelstein

Specifically, Finkelstein calculates that an average, $57 ticket could soar to as much as $246 apiece. Yikes.

To be perfectly frank, this is absolutely unacceptable. Said option would ONLY be feasible for the rich and well-off, NOT for the middle or lower classes. I certainly couldn’t afford to pay $246 for every single concert I would want to attend. Plus, some people who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID (the elderly, those with preexisting medical conditions) may not feel comfortable venturing out in public at all, even when things return to normal. Remember that those 65 and older make up 37% percent of the concert-going public. If orchestras and classical organizations truly strive to serve their communities as a whole, then they will need to develop some better solutions.

Me missing live concerts but grateful for all of the online options

One possibility is to continue to expand the options of streamed video and audio recordings over the internet. The Berlin Philharmonic and Detroit Symphony already did this pre-pandemic (quite well too!), but so many other organizations have jumped on the technology bandwagon during this time. One such example is the LA Philharmonic, who recently announced that, in lieu of a fall season, they will be releasing several albums, television specials, and live-streamed concerts from the Hollywood Bowl. Who says that things like this can’t continue once live concerts with an audience resume?

The COVID era has also—unintentionally, but serendipitously—created an opportunity for organizations to expand their audience base. Alternative venues. Fresh, thoughtful repertoire. Online options. All hold fantastic potential to draw in younger, more diverse crowds and foster in them a love for the art form, in effect securing its survival for future generations. Come to think of it, perhaps classical music shouldn’t make a full return to the “old normal” after all; instead, maybe we should seek to forge a “new normal” from the ashes of the old and make this incredible art form more equitable and accessible for all.

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