JULY 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 9

JULY 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 9
July 15, 2020 leonard slatkin

“Please kindly go away, I’m introverting.”
—Beth Buelow

As we move forward into July, it is becoming clear that we will pay a price for not listening. Right from the start of our isolation, my thoughts have been centered on what the musical world will be like when the time comes to start the regular orchestral season. I have been concerned about the ability of music directors and soloists to come to the States. Turns out that it is problematic the other way around as well.

The EU has cracked down on its citizens entering the U.S.A. for fear of the virus being transmitted back to its own shores. Not surprisingly, given the aggressive reopening plans in some parts of the country and the lack of adherence to public health guidelines, we have experienced the highest spike in new cases of any country in the world. Some states, including New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, are now imposing a two-week quarantine on visitors from other states with large outbreaks.

In my curiosity to see what the impact would be like in September, I looked at twenty-or-so orchestras’ brochures with an eye to what might occur even if we opened up slightly. At the moment, we are theoretically not supposed to have events other than those that are socially distanced. Time after time the public is ignoring the warnings, and sometimes our officials are openly encouraging crowds to show up, with or without masks.

But what will audiences see and hear in our concert halls? We don’t know yet, as no orchestra has officially announced any program alterations, even with the first concerts just two months away. Hopefully ensembles have made plans regarding what will be performed and who will be playing. But there is not a lot of time left to get this information to the public. You can hear the fingers being crossed as administrators and marketing departments keep waiting for the green light from above. Just go ahead as planned. Everything will be fine.

But clearly, all of that is in question. The orchestras that I investigated are dominated by music directors who are from Europe. There is nothing wrong with that. Each ensemble has to pick the person best suited to the job. The immediate problem that has caught so many organizations off guard is whether or not their conductors and soloists can get here at all.

Remember the predictions by some that the virus will just go away on its own?  Apparently, somebody forgot to tell Corona to take the summer off. All that speculation about the warm weather nipping Covid in the bud did not take into consideration the impact of holidays at the beach, protests in the streets, or bars and restaurants opening up too soon.

As it stands, we cannot go anywhere and no one can come here. Come September, even if we are able to travel, a two-week quarantine will be placed on individuals prior to any work that needs to be done. For many artists, this is their lifeblood. Conductors and soloists must be able to get from place to place. It would be fine if these artists resided in the place where they worked, like orchestra members. Maybe it is okay for those who have university or music school positions.

However, what makes this so complicated is that these guest artists are usually booked for back-to-back weeks in different locations. Conductor A might open his or her season in Paris, but a couple weeks later, have concerts in New York or Los Angeles. Something has to give. The question is what do you give up? Stay with your European orchestra and not come to the States, or leave Paris in the lurch and get to the States in order to further your international career? And where do you stay for those two weeks of quarantine? Who pays for the lodging and meals? And there better be high-speed internet, wherever you are residing.

It is even more difficult for the soloists. There might be a recital at the beginning of the week in one or two cities, followed by a concerto in yet another place. Airport travel is somewhat restricted, depending on where you are going. Forget about going overseas right now. Perhaps younger artists are willing to chance it, but those of us who are older and fall right into the group that is most at risk are being very conservative.

As I wrote last month, organizations need to think locally. Utilize the musicians who are close by and least susceptible to exposure. There are no guarantees right now, but safety precautions must be put in place. Were just one artist, audience member, or usher to contract the virus, we go back to square one.

Crunch time is fast approaching, if it is not here already. This is not the time for last-minute surprises. It is my firm belief that two pieces of information should be made available to the artists, orchestras, and public. Tell everyone that your organization is hoping to go forward as planned. But if that is not possible, give the alternatives available, more than likely some sort of program with smaller forces. If we are still locked down, be prepared to cancel until the new year, as some orchestras have already done.

Stay positive about the work you have done to prepare for alternate scenarios, because your group has a plan. Reassure your audience that you are doing your best to accommodate them but that things remain in flux. Work directly with the artists, not just their managements. This is the time for direct contact, and with creative thinking, perhaps you just might come up with something that is unique and keeps the musical juices flowing.

Above all, remember what Douglas Adams wrote:

It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.