JOURNAL

JOURNAL

  • JUNE 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 1

    Nearly three months into the process of isolating ourselves physically from the rest of society, members of the arts world find themselves struggling to come up with solutions for how to return, if we really do, to a more regular pattern of life. This has given us a lot to think about, and this pondering has produced some interesting experiments.

    Performances are given with musicians all over the world participating, their images projected onto our devices as if they were an extended version of the Brady Bunch. I was involved in one webinar with eight other people and found myself in the middle of the three-across group. All of a sudden, I was Paul Lynde on the Hollywood Squares.

    There is no question that the entertainment world, along with sports and other large-venue events, will not be functioning normally for a long time. Those who think that come the fall everything related to COVID-19 will simply disappear are in for an unfortunate surprise.

    Rather than dwelling on what has been, I would like to use this space to project what I believe might be practical to achieve with limitations on in-person gatherings. Realizing that organizations are planning to start up again, albeit with precautions in place, I have been  thinking about what can be done in terms of programming and logistics. Let’s begin with the musicians.

    We have seen experiments with smaller orchestral ensembles practicing social distancing. Depending on the size of the stage, it may be possible to have up to 40-or-so musicians, plus a conductor, on the platform at the same time. That will more than likely be the way of the world for a while. But it is that separation that makes things so unlike what we have ever practiced. Even though some don’t like it, the closer an instrumentalist is to another one, the better the balance and ensemble, as well as the intonation. Additionally, there are some other major impediments to staying apart.

    Almost every time I have conducted a Haydn symphony, for example, when we get to the repeat in the first movement, there is inevitably a page turn immediately followed by a continuation of the violin part and sometimes all the other instruments. That is why we have two people on a stand in the string section, a practice that has been in place for a couple centuries. One has to stop playing and then quickly and adroitly negotiate turning the page so all will go smoothly.

    But without stand partners to perform this action, the music will simply have to stop. There is no way around that, is there? Well, maybe there is. Some musicians are beginning to use tablets and can accomplish page turns by tapping a foot pedal. It is not impossible to envision this as a wave of the future for orchestras. It would require an initial investment on the part of the organization to purchase tablets, stylus pens, and software, but one that might be offset over time by savings in printing costs and labor.

    Uploading materials and distributing them to the musicians would be the responsibility of the librarians. After putting markings into a master set, rather than having to transfer those markings into each printed part, they would send the relevant master file to each member of the orchestra. Any alterations by others involved in future performances could be added to the existing electronic master set. The other plus is that no one has to physically touch the device other than the player. After all, we certainly cannot perform with gloves on.

    With the ensemble spread out, how can its members properly hear each other? There is an assumption that this job of balancing is sorted out by the conductor. But in order to accomplish this, the musicians have to be in close proximity to one another, so they can hear what their colleagues are up to. It is just not possible to coordinate everything with the musicians so far apart. The issue of immediate communication is lost with distancing.

    The solution is one that has been in play with pop artists for years. Audio monitors are strategically placed onstage, allowing the performers to hear what the other musicians are playing. You have all seen this setup numerous times but may have assumed that it is for overall volume level. No, it is to help with coordinating the musicians when they cannot hear each other onstage as clearly as they would like. Assuming that it can be done discreetly, why not try it out with an orchestra? Again, this has been done before with pops concerts, and a few composers require it for certain pieces.

    It is not necessary to employ click tracks, used primarily for film and television in order to synchronize the music and picture. They are impractical for the majority of concert works because they preclude flexibility. You have to stay with the ticking metronome that is heard by the musicians via a small headphone or earbud. During a concert, there always has to be room for change and spontaneity.

    We have now partially solved two problems. Let’s add a small chorus to the mix.

    When you see those vocalists onstage, they always look like sardines, packed in tightly. Everyone has their own score so they always know what the other musicians are playing or singing. Each accomplishes the page turns with little or no effort. And they can hear each other very well, depending on the setup the chorus master chooses to employ. Robert Shaw positioned his forces in quartets rather than just putting the sopranos on the left and basses on the right. Clearly that would not be practical given distancing requirements. More than likely we would have to put a couple of monitors in for them as well as the orchestra.

    The last work I conducted was a rehearsal of Orff’s Carmina Burana in Detroit. This was on the very day that the National Basketball Association suspended its season and the governor of Michigan urged organizations to cancel or postpone large gatherings after the state’s first two cases of coronavirus were confirmed. We practiced with the chorus out in the audience seats, but the orchestra was still packed in onstage. With the ability to stream all our concerts in Detroit, there was the thought of performing Carmina this way and broadcasting it to the world without the public in attendance.

    That did not work out, but I thought of one problem that might occur no matter how we did it. What if any one person coughed or sneezed? We have statistics that tell us how far air molecules travel under different circumstances. It is clear that everyone would need to be more than six feet apart to mitigate that risk. And it goes without saying that having vocalists wear masks is just not going to work. The same, even more obviously, is true for the woodwind and brass players in the orchestra.

    Nope. Chorus performances are on hold indefinitely. Let’s move on to the audience.

    This is complicated, but not in the way you might think. We have models that tell us how to get them into the auditorium. My own thought is that first, we need temperature scanners for each person coming in. Patrons from the same household sit next to each other, but three empty seats separate them from other parties. This looks strange, but all of us have played to what looks like near-empty houses. We try to give our all no matter the size of the crowd.

    Remember how I wrote about smaller ensembles being the rule for a while? Here is my solution, as regards programming—not elegant but practical.

    First of all, it is becoming clear that most full-size orchestras will not be able to go forward with the season’s programming as it has been announced and still observe social distancing guidelines. No more Mahler Six, Copland Three or Carmina Burana. There needs to be an alternative program in place now, so we can be ready to respond to government restrictions and adapt to the recommendations of the health authorities. I am quite surprised, with just a little over three months before the start of the new season, that no orchestra has asked me to have an alternate program ready in case the originally planned one cannot be performed due to orchestra size.

    For the purpose of this argument, let’s say that the full orchestra comprises 80 musicians. There is certainly enough music, both old and new, that can be performed by just half of that number. And it is not difficult to come up with satisfying programs. Chamber orchestras do it all the time. Here is an example of a possible change. The original program was:

    Caroline Shaw: World Premiere
    Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 5
    Beethoven: Symphony No. 7

    How can we change this lineup to maintain the balance of works and keep the orchestra down to 40 musicians?

    Caroline Shaw: Entr’acte for Strings (unless she writes a new chamber work quickly, at least she is still represented.)
    Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 5 (This can be performed by our newly resized orchestra.)
    Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 (No problem.)

    If the originally scheduled concertos require forces that are too large, we have to ask soloists what else they have in their active repertoire that might work. It is just a matter of adjusting to what we have available. Why try to preserve as much of the scheduled program as possible, or at least provide a similar alternative? Because most subscribers bought their tickets based on either the works planned or the soloist. In these times, I would think that those going to a concert will understand the need for changes, but if it is possible, at least staying in the same ballpark will help encourage the reluctant.

    When it comes to soloists, as well as conductors, a new problem emerges. If there is a resurgence of the virus and either or both decide not to travel, what options are possible? Here is an interesting thought. Each orchestra could engage a conductor from within the community, or a member of the orchestra, to lead the programs. There are always one or two who can do a good job. The day of assistantships in the United States has slowly been evaporating in favor of freelance “cover” conductors hired by the week. Having someone on the staff helps ensure that there is always a person available to lead the concerts.

    There are a couple of options when it comes to soloists. The artistic administrators can call around to see who might be available and willing to fly in. Or, as with the conductors, orchestras can identify terrific local talent and have them step in. When it is a musician from the city, whether well-established or just beginning, it generates a certain excitement in the community, and because of this, changing the piece is a little more acceptable. And it shows that everyone is willing to acknowledge that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.

    The bigger question has to do with who gets to attend. Suppose that you are a season ticket holder. The concert that you are scheduled to attend is about two-thirds sold, and that is too many people to put into the hall for one concert. Who decides which tickets can be honored on a given date? What is the rationale as to who gets in and who does not? How can we keep people engaged if we don’t let them into the hall?

    Imagine that the venue holds 2,000 people. Allowing for families of two to four persons to be seated together, we need space between the other households in attendance. The estimate is that three seats between families would be required to create enough distance. Essentially, we are down to one quarter of the total seats being occupied. If ticket sales for any given concert are at 70 percent, that requires three performances just to seat the ticketholders of a single concert.

    If three performances of the same program were originally planned, we would have to play the music nine times to reach the full audience. Clearly there are not enough days in the week to do this as well as rehearse, and not enough services are available in the CBAs of any orchestra, which specify the number of sessions allowed. Even though I do not have the statistics in front of me, it is possible to reason that only orchestras that are in larger metropolitan areas fit the three-performances-a-week model. And those ensembles are usually 80 or more musicians strong.

    Divide the orchestra into two equal groups, in our case 40 musicians in each. We will all have to live with change for a while, and that applies to the audience as well. More than likely we will have to devise the programs so that they can be rehearsed in three sessions rather than four. Using the above program, a week for Orchestra A might look like this:

    Monday

    10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

    Rehearsal 1

    Tuesday

    1:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

    Rehearsal 2

    Wednesday

    10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

    Dress Rehearsal

    Wednesday

    7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

    Concert 1

    Thursday

    11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

    Concert 2

    Friday

    Free Day

    Free Day

    Saturday

    3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

    Concert 3

    Sunday

    3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

    Concert 4

     

    And for Orchestra B:

    Monday

    1:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

    Rehearsal 1

    Tuesday

    10:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

    Rehearsal 2

    Wednesday

    1:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

    Dress Rehearsal

    Thursday

    7:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m.

    Concert 1

    Friday

    11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.

    Concert 2

    Friday

    8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.

    Concert 3

    Saturday

    8:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.

    Concert 4

    Sunday

    Free Day

    Free Day

     

    And the outline could be reversed the following week, with Orchestra A taking on the schedule of Orchestra B. With orchestras that perform twice each week, the prescription is easier to figure out. These frameworks could be applied to educational programs as well as pops concerts. More than likely, a schedule such as this will require an amendment to any existing agreement with the musicians. I am sure everyone understands that things will be different for a while. My faith in musicians, staff, board and audience remains strong.

    There are many equations to change depending on the orchestra. However, this model represents one way to perform for all the members of the public who choose to return to the concert hall. By the time you read this, we will all have a better idea of how many subscriptions have been sold, and we can predict what single ticket sales will be. If needed, a concert could be subtracted and the rehearsal days and times could be adjusted. Do not worry about the conductor. Most of us can manage to wave our arms and expend the energy to do 14 services in a week. It is less wear and tear than doing a Ring Cycle.

    Does it require a new mindset? Absolutely. But we are all anxious to get back to doing what we are driven to do. Even if only a couple hundred people are in the hall, our job is to make music at the highest possible level. With creative solutions, we can ease ourselves into the new world. And after that, who knows what we will all want? Maybe changes like this can provide more flexibility and we might even hold on to a few of the models.

    And on the off chance that come the fall, the virus miraculously vanishes, a vaccine is developed in time for the next wave, and society is functioning in the way it used to, we can put this idea on the back burner, just in case. There are so many possibilities, and I wanted to get these first thoughts out now. But in a couple weeks there will be a follow-up, with other ideas for a new way forward. Keep watching this space.

Journal Archives