Perspective has a way of reshaping our priorities. For the past two weeks, we have witnessed events that either remind us of earlier times or, for the younger set, are unlike anything we have ever experienced. Now we can truly say “The Whole World Is Watching.”
I remember 1968 very well. Although my heart and soul went into my studies, it was impossible to be immune to the scenes in Grant Park—and in major cities and college towns across the country—as Americans were reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy as well as the continuing conflict in Vietnam. Here we find ourselves once again, grappling with social and political unrest and physical acts of violence that are changing on a daily basis. This time, however, our war is not against an enemy in a faraway country, and we know why we are fighting.
Seeing people flagrantly gathering together, sans masks and without social distancing, was disturbing enough. But the horrendous sight of military force being used against our own civilians was not just a reminder of 52 years ago, but also reminiscent of demonstrations in so many other countries whose governments have made no pretext about the reasons for such crackdowns. No wonder the plight of our musical community seems almost insignificant at times like these.
But as we begin to emerge from the cocoon, not at all sure if we will have to return to our enclosures at some point, it is not too soon to consider our futures as well as the wild cards that will most certainly be in the deck.
My own conducting schedule does not resume until October, and my first dates are back in Detroit. I have already offered an alternate program that could work should the orchestra consider a scenario with reduced forces onstage during the recovery phase. On the assumption that the industry will not be at 100% in terms of orchestra, audience and staff when the new season starts, organizations across the country are engaged in contingency planning and establishing the parameters for operations based on potential public health conditions.
For me as a guest artist, travel considerations would be of primary concern. It is about a nine-hour drive to Detroit from St. Louis, which can be done in one day, should I feel unsafe flying. The DSO has an apartment right across the street from the hall. And there is a Whole Foods just a couple hundred feet away. So far, so good.
In my proposed adjustments to the original program, I allowed for the possible change of soloist, should he decide it is not yet the time to travel. It is doubtful that we will have the full orchestra on the stage, and if there is an audience, the hall will be filled to, at most, one quarter of capacity, probably less. Maybe the most practical solution for this dilemma is to do rehearsals as usual and rather than give live concerts, record them with no audience present and later broadcast them through the orchestra’s streaming service. That way, the webcast team could edit three “performances” and include additional content such as interviews and commentary on the repertoire while taking the opportunity to try out different camera angles.
But if there is a strong feeling that there should be audience members in attendance, why not make the rehearsals open in this way? Give all subscribers a chance to be part of the experience. Perhaps the concerts themselves, should there be a public presence, should not have an intermission, as it would be impossible to keep social distancing rules in place for gatherings in the foyer. The use of restrooms presents another set of problems.
Do not forget that the scientists and medical professionals are warning that a second wave of the virus is highly likely in the fall, so there will be trepidation among many. If orchestras are to return at all, there must be assurances for all constituents that the environment will be safe. But the above decisions are ones that must be made by every arts organization after careful consideration of the costs and benefits of each scenario. My role is simply to suggest alternatives as regards the music itself, at least outside of these pages.
The next date on my calendar is in Spokane, Washington. Those of you who read these posts on a regular basis know that I have been visiting orchestras in cities where I have never performed, and usually at the request of a good friend. I love doing these, as there are so many wonderful ensembles, not only throughout the States but also all around the world. In just this past week, I have received word that this orchestra is still weighing options for how they are going to handle the fall season.
Again, I have proposed alternate programs for these concerts, but it is possible, as it is for all live events, that they might not occur at all. A lot of us are quite worried about airports, as well as the flights themselves. Even baggage claim presents challenges. Everything is on a wait-and-see basis, but it is more than helpful to have different scenarios in place. I am not a big fan of surprises when it comes to our orchestral life. There are plenty in the music itself.
After the scheduled engagement in Washington state, I have two weeks of teaching on my calendar, one in New York and one in Cleveland. Who knows what the state of affairs will be like at our educational institutions? Probably, we will not know much until the schools get up and running, if they do at all. Even though clever folks have done wonders with virtual learning, teaching ultimately is about personal connection. There is no way to do anything with an orchestra via Zoom, although I can do a bit of teaching and some webinars if in-person instruction is still on hold.
Then, by the end of October, it is time to go to Europe. It appears that several countries are now starting to present live performances, albeit with fewer people in the audience, and mostly with smaller ensembles. This is where the wild card comes in.
At the moment, most entrants into these countries face a mandatory two-week quarantine. If this is going to continue into the fall, it will not be possible for guest conductors and soloists to do any consecutive dates. And they will have to arrive 14 days prior to the first rehearsal. This, of course, is not practical. That is one of the reasons my first article on the recovery had to do with making sure that every orchestra have local musicians in place should the scheduled artists not be able to honor the date.
I will be proposing alternate programs, but the isolation issue remains. With four different countries involved in this trip, something may have to be sacrificed along the way. That is a decision I will make in consultation with the orchestras and my management.
Does this all sound too paranoid? No, just realistic in terms of trying to understand what may or may not occur. Maybe all this preparation will not be necessary, and we will all proceed as planned. I seriously doubt it, as we will not have an approved vaccine until at least the new year. The rush to get our economies going could bring renewed outbreaks. Or perhaps it will not make any difference at all. These many lingering questions cause me to look at all possibilities.
We all want to bring the music back, but at the same time, we have to ensure that we do so in a safe environment for everyone concerned.
The expression still holds: “Hope for the best but expect the worst.” Maybe the Boy Scouts said it even more succinctly: “Be prepared.”