OCTOBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 25

OCTOBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 25
October 19, 2020 leonard slatkin

“Every step of life shows much caution is required.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

During the more than half a year of pandemic shutdowns, I have spent a lot of time dwelling on what others should or should not be doing. Whether addressing matters concerning performers, administrators, or audiences, my observations and suggestions have come from the standpoint of an outsider looking in. Other than a decision not to make the nine-hour drive to Detroit to lead rehearsals and a concert, I have mostly been shielded from heeding my own advice.

Ever since it became clear that musical life was being turned inside out, I realized that a major verdict might need to be rendered as October arrived. When COVID-19 first reared its ugly head, I, like so many others, did not believe that it would affect me. Exercising every precaution, I believed that together, we could beat the virus into submission. It did not take very long to realize that this was not going to be the case.

On October 25th, I was slated to begin a seven-week, five-country European tour. The EU seemed poised to be in much better shape than the States, having controlled the virus to manageable levels. But as the summer drew to a close, things were changing, and with the increase in cases came new sets of entry restrictions within each of the countries.

Beginning in September, I started monitoring various websites in order to get a feeling for what travel would entail. This proved almost impossible, as not only were the entry rules being altered, but flight schedules were also changing on a regular basis. Many of my friends and colleagues were in the same position. We exchanged calls and emails, trying to gauge how and when we might make a decision on whether or not to travel.

In my mind, I had thought for a long time that this trip would not take place. But my heart was yearning for the opportunity to make music again. Part of me hoped that the orchestras involved would actually make this decision for me. Clearly there was local awareness, as all of them needed to change the originally scheduled programs to comply with current restrictions—no Manfred symphony, no Shostakovich 8, no Beethoven 9. The orchestras had adjusted their plans to accommodate smaller forces and fewer audience members.

In each case, we came up with some very nice program alternatives. Soloists had to alter their repertoire as well. There would be no intermissions. Social distancing would be in place, although each hall had its own set of rules as to how many musicians could be onstage at the same time. But it all seemed to be doable.

Then, reality kicked in.

Being based in St. Louis has so many benefits, but it also has a few drawbacks that complicate life for the itinerant musician. When I was music director, Trans World Airlines had nonstops to London and Frankfurt. Paris used to be on their schedule as well. The company went belly up in 2001, by which point I had left the Midwest. Today, with no international flights operating out of St. Louis, one has to connect through another U.S. city to get to Europe.

No matter how it was sliced, it would take three airplanes and four airports to get to my first destination, Lyon. During the whole seven-week trip, there would be only one occasion when I could fly directly to the city where I was to conduct. Being on the plane was not as much of a concern as spending hours in the terminals of more than fifteen airports, a prospect that seemed more ominous during this pandemic time. Cindy and I take many precautions, but there are sadly many who do not seem concerned with the safety and health of others.

What if flights were delayed? How did baggage handling affect safety? Was it really possible to make it through an eight-hour flight with heavy-duty masks in place throughout?

But that was just one part of the picture. Another consideration was the COVID testing that had to take place prior to departure, and again upon arrival, in each city, and the corresponding quarantine requirements, which varied by destination. In some cases the self-isolation timeframe overlapped with the rehearsal schedule. Moreover, we learned that in some countries the decision to grant or deny entry rested with the border guards on a case-by-case basis—there were no guarantees. Should we be turned away at the border, finding available flights to return to the U.S. could be difficult.

Cindy and I have been very cautious about dining out. We have only done it on two occasions, one of them outdoors and the other with a couple of good friends, in a surrounding that had about twenty people well separated from each other. With cool and cold weather coming up during the trip, al fresco dining could not occur, and even room service might be a dicey proposition.

Perhaps if I was a younger man, it might have been possible to take these risks. Even though age is just a number, and I am in good health, I can’t deny that I am in a more precarious position than my youthful colleagues. But overriding all these obstacles was the genuine fear that Cindy and I might be putting others in harm’s way after a potential exposure. Stress is not conducive to good music-making. Even though the science has been difficult to follow at times, exercising caution and prudence seemed better than relying on the observations and pronouncements from unqualified politicians.

And so it came to pass that on October 5th, I notified my European agent that it was time to withdraw from these engagements. That gave each orchestra ample time to secure the services of another conductor. Some already had a person on standby. I wrote to a couple of the orchestras’ music directors whom I know to express my disappointment, and everyone seemed to understand. Hopefully these dates can be rescheduled sometime in the next year or two.

With the exception of a couple appearances in front of a virtual audience in St. Louis, the next time I am scheduled to lead a full concert is New Year’s Eve. We do not know how the situation will unfold as this disaster-filled 2020 comes to an end, but at least looking forward to better times provides a sense of hope. In the meantime, all of us have to do our best to stay safe, healthy, and sane.

The first two tasks are easier than the last one.