A little over a month after returning to the podium, I have been struck by how various orchestras are dealing with rehearsing and presenting concerts. In the past, a conductor could just show up, ask how long the orchestra could rehearse before taking a break, and try to accomplish the goals for the day.
Now it is all different. Every orchestra seems to regulate things depending on state guidelines, union rules, and what they feel is best for everyone. The three ensembles I worked with recently each has a different method of operation.
The first orchestra I visited was the Rhode Island Philharmonic. I worked with them twice, and for each engagement, I was asked to present a negative COVID test taken no more than three days before arriving in Providence. A guard seated at the stage door gathered information from each person entering the hall. (These days you must give your phone number, regardless of why you are in the building, to assist with contract tracing in case of an outbreak.) Then I stood in front of a machine that took my temperature. During all this, of course, masks were in place.
From there I headed to my assigned dressing room until it was time to go onstage for each of the three scheduled rehearsals. With the musicians seated six to ten feet from one another, achieving a sense of ensemble was a bit tricky. This challenge would persist with the other socially distanced orchestras I led as well.
The crew kept stage changes to a minimum, presetting the chairs for the piece with the largest instrumentation and putting the piano for the concerto in place before the top of the show. We presented the program twice on the same evening, and about 200 people came to each performance. All of us have played for audiences this size before COVID capacity restrictions, usually due to inclement weather. Clearly, audience members were excited to be back. To meet social-distancing guidelines, each group of two or three people was seated quite far away from the next. The 50-minute program was presented without intermission, which was the case with all the groups I visited.
This was the first live, indoor concert I conducted during the pandemic, and I found that they were very careful with the precautions they put in place to ensure a safe experience. Having received my two vaccinations several weeks earlier, I asked if I could conduct without the mask. The first answer I got was that it would be alright. However, minutes later, I was informed that the regulations for the auditorium required everyone to wear a face covering regardless of vaccination status.
Next up was Detroit, where the streaming of concerts was born. Being leaders in the field gave the DSO a leg up when it came to webcast presentations of any kind. When I arrived, Michigan was leading the country in new COVID infections, so there was a bit of apprehension as the orchestra gathered for another week of digital concerts. As with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, all Detroit Symphony personnel were tested prior to the first service. But a major difference was that the DSO required me to be tested after I arrived in Detroit, one day before the first rehearsal.
Thanks to the DSO’s partnership with Henry Ford Health System, testing took place at the hall as opposed to a medical facility. A nurse was assigned to administer PCR tests to the orchestra, and lab results were returned within 24 hours. The DSO’s protocols also involved a daily wellness assessment that musicians and staff must complete online. Before heading to the hall, we answered a few health questions designed to identify possible COVID symptoms, triggering the delivery of a QR code to our digital devices. Upon arrival, we scanned this code at a touchless kiosk to demonstrate completion of the wellness check and had our temperatures taken.
The week of work consisted of four reduced-length rehearsals and two short concerts, each featuring a different program performed just once for a digital audience only. This was quite different than how things proceeded in the past. Usually there were two or three performances of the same music, with the final concert also presented as a livestreamed event. This gave the webcast crew a chance to use the first performance as a “dress rehearsal” for the cameras and sound. Now they were limited to utilizing the actual dress rehearsal as a practice session to establish their camera angles.
My programs were not easy. The first concert included Ginastera’s Concerto for Strings and the second featured Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1—hardly standard repertoire. But the musicians managed it all with their usual flair and enthusiasm. The acoustics of Orchestra Hall accommodated the “separation anxiety” of players spread apart onstage a bit better than most performance venues.
One question I had, given that these concerts were not performed for a live audience, was whether the presentation needed to emulate an actual concert. Would the digital product be better if treated more like a recording session? After all, an orchestral service is somewhere between two and two-and-a-half hours long, so why not use the spare time to put the recorded product into even better shape before presenting it to the digital audience? Does it matter to the audience that the music is live if they are only experiencing it digitally? I think the pandemic should be a time to try some new paradigms because we may not be able to experiment when we return to the full orchestra complement. Sustaining the existing audience and building a new one is paramount to a successful return.
I traveled home to St. Louis for my final concerts of the spring season. This was the closest I got to a “normal” weekly schedule, with the usual four rehearsals to prepare a single program to be played three times. A live audience of about 300 attended each show. With Britten’s Frank Bridge Variations, Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes and Ravel’s Tzigane, we had a lovely selection of music to present. Powell Hall is a wonderfully reverberant auditorium, well suited to the pieces we were playing.
The SLSO’s updated protocols eliminated the COVID testing requirement for the fully vaccinated, which was a welcome development. When I arrived at the stage door, the thermal scanner took my temperature before I could enter the backstage area. The staff was being quite strict in its enforcement of the safety measures. For example, only one person at a time could use the elevator to get to the dressing rooms. I still struggled with mask issues during the rehearsals and performances. For a conductor, taking away one of the main physical means of communicating was tantamount to asking the violinist in the Ravel to use only three fingers.
Nevertheless, we conductors must adjust our technique to fit the occasion. With more than half of the face covered up, our physical gestures must be very clear to convey ideas to the musicians. With everyone spaced far apart onstage, hearing the whole ensemble from the podium is difficult. Now more than ever we have to rely on the principal strings and section members to know if the orchestra is truly together. Despite these challenges, it all went superbly, and presenting some less-familiar repertoire was great fun.
My overall takeaway from these recent experiences was that we need to consider under what circumstances it is valuable to present live events. If one thing is clear, it is that when limited audiences are permitted, everyone who shows up really wants to be there. And the musicians are keen on doing the very best job possible, regardless of the size or presence of the public.
I think playing without an intermission is something that should be encouraged during the regular season after the pandemic is over. By mixing up dates and formats, orchestras may be able to attract a new audience to concerts of around an hour and fifteen minutes in length. It is certainly worth considering.
After four weeks of conducting with the solid mask, I started searching for a better alternative. There are some transparent ones out there that have possibilities, and the hunt is on for the perfect head adornment.
I should have a couple of interesting pieces of news to report in the coming weeks, so watch this space.
See you next month if not sooner,