JUNE 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 2

JUNE 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 2
June 7, 2020 leonard slatkin

“Art is for healing ourselves, and everybody needs their own personal art to heal up their problems.”
—Linda Ronstadt

A little over a week ago, I wrote at length about what concert life might look like as we get to September and October, the start of the cultural season. I considered matters of orchestra size, social distancing among musicians and audience members, how to accommodate subscribers, and other pressing matters.

In the short time between that article and this one, I have heard from a number of people in the profession, many of whom are trying to formulate similar thoughts and put a plan in place. My piece left out some factors that must be considered, each of them affecting the process of returning to the concert hall. Perhaps it might be easiest for me to address some of these issues by framing them in the form of questions:

  1. You wrote about the necessity of social distancing in the hall. Since that will mean a greatly reduced number of patrons, how can we decide who gets first preference for tickets?

This is clearly a delicate subject. Prior to the shutdown, most orchestras were starting to find their way in attracting new and younger audiences. But the subscriber base still remains the backbone of the audience, determining how our musical institutions predict box office revenue as well as indicating who attends concerts.

I would have to say that those are the people who come first. In the course of a regular season, the subscribers are those who get the initial messages about what is going to be performed in the next year—they have the opportunity to renew, keep their same seats or change, and even create their own series packages. They are owed the chance to pick and choose among the revised offerings before anyone else. I would also include those who are new subscribers as well.

If you read the previous post, you know that I proposed smaller-sized ensembles onstage as well as reduced capacity in the hall. But in order to do that and still accommodate the number of people who might come to hear a concert, the number of repeat performances would have to increase. Under this new plan, subscribers would have options for different concert days and times than previously offered. There might be up to eight choices of the same program in a given week. In some cases, decisions will have to be made when one performance reaches the maximum capacity allowed for distancing purposes.

This is when all those years of building the subscriber base and creating personal interactions with the audience comes into play. The audience comprises not only those who attend concerts, but also those persons whose contributions extend far beyond sitting and enjoying. It is their fiscal support, as individuals and corporations, that keeps an orchestra afloat, and strengthening connections with this constituency needs to remain a priority.

One of the reasons I began to write about this potential new concert experience was because when orchestras do start up again, it cannot be with just a few days’ notice. With the new season three months or so away, information has to go out to the public soon. I estimate that contingencies would need to be in place at least two months before the first scheduled event to sort out issues related to reduced audience capacity in a way that demonstrates gratitude to donors, rewards subscriber loyalty, and includes room for attracting new audiences. This will require a thoughtful approach and an incredibly creative marketing strategy.

  1. Okay, suppose you can accommodate four hundred people for each performance. It still looks like a pretty empty house to the musicians. Won’t they be just a bit depressed seeing this paucity of audience members week after week?

Not at all. We know that we are playing for the people who are there, irrespective of how many. Given what we have been going through, my suspicion is that everyone will be glad to be making music together, even if they are apart. All of us have performed for, shall we say, intimate-sized audiences. We appreciate that they have come to the concert, and sometimes, our best performances have been heard by only a few.

  1. Won’t you run out of repertoire if this model continues too long?

Think about it a different way. When have you last heard your orchestra play a series of Haydn symphonies, portions of the Romantic repertoire with smaller forces, or even Bach? I would look upon this as an adventure, exploring pieces not usually heard but still important in the repertoire. Mozart, Schubert, and even Beethoven can take on a fresh, new meaning in this context.

In the twentieth and this first part of the twenty-first century, a lot of music has been written for chamber orchestra. Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith and Copland all have a number of works that would be nice to encounter again. This is also a time for creative commissioning, should we have a second wave of the virus.

It is also a time to relax some of the restrictions that have made performing some masterpieces cost prohibitive under current agreements. Most orchestras have a set number of musicians who must be onstage in order to avoid incurring extra payments to the players. I would have loved to do the Gran Partita by Mozart for thirteen instruments, or the Stravinsky octet, for example, but there are financial considerations associated with programming them.

  1. There will still be musicians and audience members who are not comfortable returning to the concert hall, even after restrictions are relaxed. How can we keep them involved?

Once again, we are confronted with rules that have governed how we export our musical product. So many orchestras could not broadcast performances from their archives due to the expense of having to pay the musicians for work they might have done a long time ago. It is my feeling that for the time being, we should open up the extensive libraries so the listening public can hear presentations from years gone by. The treasure trove of works, artists and composers is incredible.

I have conducted numerous premieres, many of which were only heard by people who attended the concerts. At the very least, we should all be allowed to hear music that has only been listened to by a limited number of audience members. If we are to preserve art and possibly discover something worthy of future consideration, these performances need to be made available. And until we return to some kind of normal, if we ever do, these presentations should be made free to the public, without financial compensation to the performers. This is an investment in bringing audiences back.

In Detroit, the DSO has opened up its on-demand video streaming archive for free online access, providing a new avenue through which to share the power of music with a wider audience. Several of the DSO players have hosted “Watch Parties” during broadcasts of archival concerts on social media, taking time to speak with fans about the music, their lives, and what they have been doing during this quarantine period. Other ensembles have also become creative with offerings that audiences can enjoy from home. The public now can put faces to names and instruments, hopefully making for a more personal relationship when concert life resumes.

Many orchestras have a rich archive that needs to be mined. Most of it is audio, but even early videos are surfacing. Preserving that history is only valuable if we can access it. Music is not meant to sit in some library, unseen or unheard.

  1. How has this lockdown affected music education, and what can we do to move forward?

Here is perhaps the most important question of all. Although orchestras have placed the teaching of music to young people as a priority, they are limited in the number of students they reach. This is a visual age, but even with the use of technology, there is still nothing like the personal relationship of a music teacher working face-to-face with individuals or groups.

Almost every teacher of an instrument, or voice, will tell you that they have struggled to figure out how to instruct without hearing the true sound being produced. One can show how a passage is fingered, the hand position, or whether something is up or down bow. Ultimately, though, the resonance is being relayed via a microphone and speaker. No matter how sophisticated, it does not compare to the real thing. For the teacher, this has to be the most frustrating aspect of social distancing.

For composers, perhaps it is a little bit easier. One can project the scores and parts onto a screen and have a discussion about what is presented. Even orchestration can be taught this way. With the various music composition software available, at least a representation of how a piece might sound is possible.

As for general music education, this is a good time to be creative. Finding ways to represent music via a visual experience is certainly a consideration. Normally I am against this kind of thing in the concert hall. Most music is abstract and requires the imagination to generate images in the mind. Perhaps teaching young people to create visuals to go along with what they are hearing is a possibility. A class project might involve the entire group creating a piece of music together. For older students, I would suggest looking up the MITA program, which has the most extensive music teaching library I know of.

  1. With auditions postponed, how will orchestras fill vacancies in their rosters?

Hmm. There is no question that these cannot be held any way other than in person, at least from the semi-finals onward. If it is a wind or brass player, they usually would be asked to play in a small ensemble with other members of the section involved. In an upcoming book, I give an example of a new model for auditions. Still, it is pretty clear that orchestras will not be able to go forward with auditioning new musicians for the time being.

As mentioned in my last web piece, we will all have to get along with smaller ensembles for a while. One of the reasons is that there will be a delay in the process of selecting new members to join the orchestra. Another is that there will be musicians in the orchestra who are reluctant to return until they feel physically and mentally prepared to come back. Relying on the freelance pool in our communities is really the only solution.

Since I am no longer a music director, I am not up to date on the exact number of vacancies or postponed auditions, but certainly this crisis has disrupted the process for all orchestras, and I suppose auditions will continue to be cancelled for the next few months. This is another reason for getting alternate programs, utilizing reduced forces, in place right now, so that the musicians and public know what the alternatives will be.

Basically, the answer to the question is that we cannot go forward with auditions at this time. Some will argue that the screened auditions make the social distancing easy. But think of how many candidates will be reluctant to travel, thereby reducing the potential pool of musicians taking an audition and hampering the orchestra’s goal to attract as many qualified candidates as possible.

  1. What happens to fundraising and how will the orchestra and staff be paid?

Every cultural institution has its own method of dealing with this issue, as does virtually any business. With no income from ticket sales, almost all revenue will be coming in the form of donations. A few groups will be borrowing from the principal of their endowments, but that is not ideal.

Most orchestral institutions worked out pay reductions for the musicians and members of the staff. It is doubtful that even this lower level of compensation can be sustained should the virus resurface, or even if it holds steady. Only a large downturn in risk of resurgence or the development of a vaccine will get us back to the conditions we were used to. It will still take a long time to recover from the fiscal impact of lost income.

Ultimately, arts organizations are at the mercy and generosity of their patrons. It is possible that many will be inspired by the creative ways the orchestras are finding to bring music to the public during this time of separation. There is no way to know what kind of financial shape we will be in as the new year approaches.

  1. In your previous post, you wrote about alternate programs that might replace the originally scheduled ones. But if we have an intermission, aren’t we talking about a potential risk that might be avoided?

Good point. Another manner of presentation certainly could be concerts without a break. We have seen these even when the full orchestra was present. The idea of shorter programs with strong content has always been viable. The hour of the event could be early evening so that people can attend after work but before dinner.

Taking this and including the model of two separate groups of 40-or-so musicians, it is even possible to conceive of a day on which four performances might take place, especially over the weekend. Each orchestra would play the same program. The first one does theirs at 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Orchestra B starts at 7:00 p.m. and then plays again at 9:30 p.m. If each program lasts a maximum of an hour and fifteen minutes, we don’t even have a predicament with overtime.

The people who would suffer from this arrangement would be the concessionaires, who rely on food and drink sales. Perhaps some combination of full-length concerts and abbreviated performances without intermission over the course of one week is the most workable of the alternatives. Each organization would have to sort that out in terms of what can be accomplished with the staff and musicians, and what the audiences will accept.


There will certainly be more questions, and it is possible that the first few months of resumed artistic activities will be confusing. No one ever said that art is easy, but it is vital at times like these, with social unrest creating tension in addition to the ongoing pandemic. Our economy is in shambles, making it even more difficult to project what it will be like as we attempt to move forward.

However, that is what is required of all of us who create and recreate. If we can touch even a few souls again, we will be reminded of one of the principal reasons we became part of the music world—to share meaningful and inspirational experiences with others.