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 out 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?

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The LSO’s 30 Day Classical Challenge

One small but fun thing that I have enjoyed during quarantine is participating in a 30 Day Classical Challenge on Instagram. Hosted by the London Symphony Orchestra, followers of the orchestra’s Instagram account were encouraged to take a screenshot of the pink bingo card-like template and each day, share one piece of classical music that fit the category. Naturally, I couldn’t resist and had a blast coming up with and sharing my selections each morning.

To the right is a picture of the LSO’s official template, and below is a listing and Spotify playlist of my own picks. (My goal was to select a totally different composer each day, but I accidentally chose two selections by Ravel. Whoops!) Anyway, free to use the orchestra’s template and create/share your own version!

  • Day 1: A piece that makes you want to dance – Márquez: Danzón No. 2
  • Day 2: A piece that reminds you of nature – Ravel: L’enfant et les sortilèges
  • Day 3: A piece to help you sleep – Bach: Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering
  • Day 4: A piece that’s epic! – Messiaen: Turangalîla-Symphonie
  • Day 5: A piece that reminds you of summer – Stravinsky: The Soldier’s Tale
  • Day 6: A piece with an unexpected instrument – Ligeti: Violin Concerto
  • Day 7: A piece about mornings – Haydn: Symphony No. 6, “Le matin”
  • Day 8: A piece to sing along to – Copland: Old American Songs, “I bought me a cat”
  • Day 9: A piece for romantics – Clara Schumann: 3 Romances, op. 11
  • Day 10: A piece about the ocean – Ravel: Une barque sur l’océan
  • Day 11: A piece to play LOUDLY – Adams: Harmonium, III. “Wild Nights”
  • Day 12: A piece that’s brand new – Shaw: The Listeners
  • Day 13: A piece about the woods – Weber: Der Freischütz, Hunter’s Chorus
  • Day 14: A piece about city life – Ellington: Harlem
  • Day 15: A piece about unrequited love – Schubert: Winterreise
  • Day 16: A piece to accompany a storm – Britten: Peter Grimes, “The Storm”
  • Day 17: A piece that’s full of drama – Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4
  • Day 18: A piece inspired by a legend – Clarke: Morpheus
  • Day 19: A piece that’s full of melancholy – Pärt: De profundis
  • Day 20: A piece about an animal – Rameau: Hippolyte et Aricie, “Rossignols amoureux”
  • Day 21: A piece by a living composer – Thorvaldsdottir: Aeriality
  • Day 22: A piece that reminds you of home – Chopin: Scherzo No. 1
  • Day 23: A piece with a stunning solo part – Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2
  • Day 24: A piece that’s inspiring – Price: Symphony No. 1
  • Day 25: A piece you know thanks to someone special – Poulenc: Les biches
  • Day 26: A piece about a place – Higdon: All Things Majestic
  • Day 27: A piece about a person – Handel: Giulio Cesare
  • Day 28: A piece with a number in the title – Feldman: Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety
  • Day 29: A piece about space – Adès: Polaris (Voyage for Orchestra)
  • Day 30: A piece that’s BIG – Mahler: Symphony No. 8, “Symphony of a Thousand”

Diversity. Now.

Like countless people across the nation and the world, I am shocked, angered, and grieved by the recent events that have unfolded in the United States. The needless murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others are a sobering reminder that there is so much work to be done to dismantle systemic racism, implicit biases, and other systems of power that unjustly discriminate against people of color and other underrepresented groups. This is a significant historical moment, and coming together alongside these communities to mourn, listen, learn, and help enact positive change is more crucial now than ever.

As I’ve processed the events of this past week, my mind has occasionally turned to thinking about some of the similar, deep-seated systemic issues facing the classical music industry. I’ve written about diversity problems in classical music programming on this blog before (which you can read here), but now is the time to address it once again.

While many arts organizations are making great strides in the realm of diversity (such as the LA Phil), noticeable changes across the board are still not apparent. Works by women and composers of color are still programmed infrequently or appear on one-off, “themed” programs. Women conductors are still somewhat of an anomaly, even more so for black conductors and performers. Some opera companies and singers still insist on using blackface for specific roles, despite issues of racial and cultural appropriation. Certain instruments—such as brass—are still implicitly or explicitly gendered and widely considered to be appropriate only for men and boys. (To the people who think the tuba is a “guy’s instrument,” look up Carol Jantsch right now.) And of course, recent sex scandals surrounding James Levine, Charles Dutoit, Plácido Domingo, and others have done nothing to improve classical music’s image, making it seem skeevy, disingenuous, and out-of-touch with society.

Despite the progress that has been achieved, it’s clear that widespread discrimination, harassment, abuse, bias, and economic barriers still lurk beneath the industry’s seemingly pristine surface. These are complex and frustrating issues, and conversations must be had about how to hold the industry to a higher standard and make classical music fairer and more inclusive for ALL, whether it be composers, performers, administrators, or listeners. Something has to be done. But what?

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