MARCH 2021: Recovery Edition, Part 30

MARCH 2021: Recovery Edition, Part 30
March 1, 2021 leonard slatkin

“My music is best understood by children and animals.”
—Igor Stravinsky

Time to get back on the horse.

Five months after my end-of-summer podium appearance in Frontier Park, I found myself wondering if I could still conduct. This was not on account of any ailment or indisposition but rather because I would soon be returning to some aspects of performance life.

About a month ago, I received a message from the artistic administrator here in St. Louis. The SLSO was going hi-tech for some presentations from Powell Hall. Among other pieces, the Stravinsky Octet was on the docket. With anti-social measures in place, the musicians would be situated about six to ten feet from each other. These days, the Octet can be done without a conductor, as most wind players have performed it several times.

But with the space that now separated the musicians, it seemed a good idea to have a conductor coordinate everything. The hall is a somewhat reverberant chamber, and in a work such as the Stravinsky, there is a certain precision involved. I had my suspicions that the slightly cavernous space might present acoustical challenges for this incredible work and agreed to help out.

Now that I have received my first dose of the vaccine, I am feeling a bit more comfortable venturing into an indoor performance environment, provided that strict safety protocols are in place. The orchestra required all participants to take a Covid test. I strutted into the Total Access Urgent Care office with an air of invulnerability, as everyone else waiting was much younger and probably had not been vaccinated. We all had the cotton swab stuffed into our nasal passages.

Having gotten the green light on that, I knew that for my part, I had done everything possible to ensure my own right to be on the stage. Now I had to make sure that everyone else was properly attended to. The double-masking idea has started to take hold, and it was time to try it out using the variety of facial gear I had accumulated at home.

As I approached the stage door, I noticed a temperature gauge about three feet from the entrance. Looking right at the camera, I thought I had done everything correctly to undergo the screening. The guard pointed out that my masks were covering up too much of my face and that I needed to pull them down. “But doesn’t that expose me and others?” I asked. The guard was brief in his response: “Just do it!”

I headed toward the backstage area, forgoing any temptation to visit my former office on the sixth floor. A couple of the Octet musicians were hanging out with the stagehands, waiting for instrumentalists who were still onstage rehearsing a Mozart quintet. When the quintet finished, we strode out, greeting each other from afar. The eight wind players assumed their positions as set out by a predetermined chart. The space these musicians occupied would normally accommodate at least twice, if not three times, as many people.

The conductor is required to wear a mask at all times. Of course, wind players have to perform using their mouths, so I needed to be positioned such that ten feet separated me from any other individual. One of the trombonists had created a mask that had a blowhole in it. This looked very strange.

Surprisingly, we did not have as much difficulty coordinating the music as I expected. The resulting sound was actually clear and focused. Of course, there were matters of balance to sort out, as the musicians could not really tell how the whole thing sounded. Nevertheless, it was evident that we would achieve a fine performance.

But with the new protocols came some new regulations. There would be no audience in the hall when we performed the work. That raised a question: Was this a concert or a recording? The first is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a musical performance given in public.” Part one answered. As for the latter, it is defined as “the action or process of recording sound or a performance for subsequent reproduction or broadcast.”

It seemed clear to me that we were recording. However, the word “recording” was not being used by any of the personnel involved. Instead, we had a new term to add to our musical lexicon, “capture.” I always thought this was a verb, but it has magically been transformed into a noun. This seemed to allow new rules to be put in place regarding how much time would be spent rehearsing and then playing the work to be presented online at a future date.

The second rehearsal was more about getting the new audio and video equipment in place. While cables were being attached and microphones adjusted, we basically played through the Octet. It went quite well, and I was satisfied that we were well-prepared for the first “capture,” which would take place two days later.

No matter how much one tries, it is not possible to communicate as a conductor with double masks in place, which is a bit frustrating. Yes, you can give out instructions and make your arm gestures as clear as possible. But the whole face is ordinarily involved as well. Without the ability for the musicians to see you breathe, an awful lot is lost. I knew I was expressing things that the players could not see.

Still, all went smoothly, and the SLSO musicians seemed to enjoy themselves tremendously. I loved reacquainting myself with this masterpiece, which most likely would never have happened under different circumstances. The pandemic has its upsides.

So I am back in the saddle again. After the second inoculation and the ensuing two weeks following, I shall visit the Rhode Island Philharmonic. This may be the one state in the union I have never been to. It will also be the first trip outside St. Louis in almost a year.

But that is a horse of a different color.

See you next month,