AUGUST 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 12

AUGUST 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 12
August 4, 2020 leonard slatkin

“Delay is preferable to error.”
—Thomas Jefferson

New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Boston, Baltimore. Those are just a few of the orchestras that have announced they will not commence the fall season and do not plan to start up again until the holidays. The next seven days will certainly see more organizations do something similar.

All of us want to return. The spring and summer vacation has lasted long enough. But now we add autumn to the list. All we need is winter and we will have completed the Vivaldi cycle, not to mention Tchaikovsky, Haydn, and Glazunov, to name a few. Perhaps those should be among the works we consider upon getting back to work.

Recently, figures in the musical world, as well as others with opinions, have weighed in on what the future may look like. After having written about this for more than two months now, I am starting to wonder what we will sound like.

In the case of soloists and singers, even some small chamber ensembles, at least they have had the luxury of being able to practice. Keeping the regimen in place is, of course, critical. Sometimes it is forgotten how physical our work is, placing demands not only on mental acuity, but also on staying in decent physical shape.

The independence of arms, hands, and fingers is often ignored when we speak of musicians. Yet we are constantly tapping our heads and moving circularly on our bellies every time we play. Conductors have to balance all that with the exercise they get on a daily basis. Most likely a number of my colleagues have found some sort of routine that helps them stay in condition. I would not want to have a Bruckner symphony on my first program back.

We are very much like athletes, but there is one big difference. Whereas the teams on the field or court have somewhere between five and thirteen players, we often put one hundred musicians onstage, all performing at the same time. But just like in sports, our players also move around a little, from one orchestra to another. Very few seasons go by with the same personnel, due to retirements or musicians accepting positions with a different group.

There was a time when you stayed put once you arrived at a destination orchestra. This is what helped create the specific sonic profiles of many of the great ensembles. They did not need to play in fantastic concert halls; just ask the old guard of Chicago or Philadelphia. The sound that was created came about because each music director, and the members of the orchestra, found ways to make how they played adapt to the acoustical properties of their auditoriums.

Even though the length of a season usually included a month or so of time off in the summer, it did not take long for each group to reestablish how they reacted to one another and their hall. Other than prolonged work stoppages, by strike or lockout, there has always been the continuity of working together. This time it is different.

We know that many orchestras will have been apart for at least nine months, perhaps even longer, by the time concert life resumes. No one can predict anything at this point. How long will it be before our ensembles return to the way they sounded prior to the pandemic? Will they ever be the same?

During my various tenures as a music director, I endured three strikes, one of six weeks, the second of two months, and the third of half a year. Coming back was made awkward because of the tensions that caused the prolonged absences. In the case of Detroit, the last of the three strikes, we lost a number of musicians and needed to repopulate the orchestra. It took about three years before we really started to gel. It is not fair to compare that to the current situation, but the impact on the sound of the orchestra after being away from each other is similar in either case.

We will see many retirements as well as new faces when we are next onstage. It will have been impossible to fill vacancies through the audition process, as those could not take place. More than likely there will be some orchestras going through a negotiation as regards the collective bargaining agreement. This will cause major discomfort in a time when austerity will be the watchword.

Depending on when the season resumes, it is possible that an orchestra might not even see its music director for a couple months. A full year could easily go by before a single vision can be put into place, whether by the individual efforts of the principal conductor or the collective will of the orchestra. And that is just at the start.

Returning to how we used to sound will not be easy. More than likely, we will be relying on the works of the past for a while. Audiences, for the most part, are going to want the standard repertoire that can be performed with reduced forces. Although there are certainly excellent examples in the world of contemporary and less-performed repertoire, several large-scale orchestral works that were scheduled will either be delayed or even canceled.

In my opinion, getting back into fighting shape will only come with rigorous training. The sports figures come to mind again, with their daily workout routines. They may use the latest equipment, but the old standbys of stretches, extensions, weightlifting, and all the other standard exercises remain the foundation of the regimen for those individuals. It is up to the coaches to determine when everyone is ready to move ahead to new strategies. Getting reacquainted with the strict time periods of rehearsals, rehearsing and performing with musicians we have not seen for a long time, as well as dealing with the individual and collective physical work of preparing different music each week will take time and energy.

In a recent, anonymous post on Slipped Disc, a reader expressed this very troubling thought: “Nowadays it’s not a question of rehearsing and quality but to return on the stage.” An inferior product is not better than something ill-prepared. We have expectations that go beyond just putting musicians back in the concert hall. Lowering standards for the sake of simply seeing the ensemble onstage would be a huge mistake.

In order to restore the sound of our orchestras, we have to rediscover it.