SEPTEMBER 2020: Potholes Edition

SEPTEMBER 2020: Potholes Edition
September 24, 2020 leonard slatkin

“The tendency of the casual mind is to pick out or stumble upon a sample which supports or defies its prejudices, and then to make it the representative of a whole class.”
—Walter Lippmann

We have a lot to discuss this time around. Arts, politics, society, and health have all intersected, at least for me. Let me begin with a decision that was agonizing but, ultimately, appropriate.

Over the course of the pandemic, I have, despite some of my written observations, tried to keep an optimistic view. Somehow, without concrete evidence to the contrary, I believed that things would be under control enough to allow me to fulfill at least one concert date that was on my calendar, namely my engagement in Detroit.

A return to my former orchestra might have sent a hopeful sign that we would eventually return to some degree of normal performance practice. Similar to a few organizations, the DSO is offering digital concerts with no audience and reduced orchestral forces. The new music director, Jader Bignamini, was able to present two weeks of livestreamed programs. If the performances felt forced or uncomfortable, he did not show it, and everything proceeded in an organized manner.

With a little over a week to go before I was to arrive in Detroit, the conductor who was scheduled to appear prior to me traveled from Europe to New York, where he has an apartment. Due to the restrictions in place in the State of New York, he was subject to a two-week quarantine, making his trip to the DSO impossible. Now the orchestra was faced with finding a conductor to step in at the last moment. As far as I knew, this was the first replacement that took place during these opening weeks among those ensembles that were up and running.

Now it was my turn. Although every safety precaution was outlined and seemingly well-defined, I still was concerned about potential exposure during this four-day trip. Should I travel by airplane as originally planned, or could I avoid more risk by making the almost-nine-hour drive? Even though the hotel where I was to stay made assurances about their cleaning protocol and air filtration, it had not yet opened up some of its amenities, including room service. Just having turned seventy-six years old weighed heavily on my mind as I considered the many issues affecting all parties.

In the end, I worried more that should Cindy and I find ourselves with any trace or symptom of COVID-19, we would feel terrible that we might have contributed to even one more case of the virus. And we would not know where or when we contracted it. With one week to go, I withdrew from the engagement. Everyone in Detroit seemed to understand, and I was confident that with a week’s notice, a replacement conductor could be found.

If you were to go back and look at the very earliest of these postings, you would see that I outlined three things I thought orchestras might do to facilitate concert presentation and keep safety protocols in place. First, I suggested that using tablets instead of sheet music would make the physical act of touching the paper moot. Next, I recommended placing sound monitors onstage to help mitigate the distance factor between the musicians, something a few players have mentioned to me as a problem during rehearsals and concerts. Finally, I proposed engaging local artists to conduct the programs.

Given the likelihood of additional cancellations as the season moves forward, why risk bringing in musicians from far away when there is wonderful local talent to showcase? Wouldn’t it be a fine message for orchestras to send that they are supporting local artists, both to give deserving conductors the opportunity and to enhance safety measures by eliminating those who have recently traveled from the equation? I would like to see orchestras consider this idea in the months ahead.

Just days before I made the difficult decision to stay at home, RBG passed away. Normally, this would be a solemn, non-political event, a time for reflection on a life well-lived. But of course, it turned divisive almost immediately. It was my honor to have met her on several occasions and to hear her extol so much passion about music. Why couldn’t we just let it be that way, reveling in her impact on society, whether one agreed with her or not?

No, we live in different times. It is now possible to say one thing just three or four days earlier, or four years earlier, only to reverse course and not be held accountable for those positions. This applies no matter which side of the aisle you support. It is one thing for me to change my mind about slowing down for the restatement of the chorale near the end of Brahms’s First Symphony, but quite another to do or say something that has an impact on society.

Now I was thinking not only about my replacement in Detroit, but much more importantly, who would sit on the Supreme Court bench. It is unclear whether we will have eight or nine justices in place on November 3rd or January 20th. By the latter date, the majority of orchestras are hoping to be back to full strength, but that remains very much uncertain. Why?

Because earlier this week, in the space of about five hours, we got conflicting information from our own CDC as to how the virus is spread. Between the intractable positions of our politicians and the confusion being sowed by the very people we are supposed to believe, how are we to know which way is up? Further compounding the dilemma is the daily roll call of organizations announcing cancellations past the new year.

None is more visible than the Metropolitan Opera, which announced that they were closing up shop for the remainder of the 20-21 season. At the same time, they revealed their plans for the following year, as if people were ready to make a decision to see a production on May 16, 2022. Mind you, there is no positive spin to put on the news that the most prestigious house in the country will be closed for such a long period of time. Yet artists still have to plan, budgets must be met, fundraising has to continue, etc.

What troubles me is that there are artistic matters of equal, if not greater, economic impact than the opera company. What about all the theaters, touring companies, ballet troupes, and drama organizations? Virtually every one of the seven lively arts is impacted. Meanwhile, as theaters in Europe have tried to go ahead full steam, those countries are experiencing rapid rises in new virus cases. Whether or not they can be traced back to performers or audience members might never be known.

The bigger question is what can anyone do about it? From what I have read, creativity has been at a premium, with a few companies trying out experiments that are clearly one-offs. La Bohéme, performed as a drive-in event, is amusing and perhaps interesting one time, but that is it. The computer screen has become the epitome of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage. That seminal book from 1967 seemed almost preposterous back then, but now is eerily prophetic. For those of you who do not know it, I encourage you to get a copy or at least listen to an audio version, as it is incredibly meaningful for our time.

A few hours after learning of the Met’s closure, the world was treated to the following statement by President Trump when asked if he could commit to a peaceful transition if he loses the election: “You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots, and the ballots are a disaster. … Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful—there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There will be a continuation.”

Ironically, these words were spoken less than twenty-four hours after my mail-in, absentee ballot arrived at my house. On November 3rd, I am supposed to be in France, a trip that is very much in doubt right now. In Missouri, you have the option of voting ahead of the election date. Given the amount of speculation regarding when or if our ballots will be counted, I might skip the post office and take the ballots straight to the polling station. There are several posts and initiatives that are literally up in the air in this state.

By air, I mean that on the same day the president told us that voting was a hoax, avoiding speaking about the virus, the governor of Missouri and his wife came down with the disease. After refusing to mandate anything regarding masks, Mike Parson now finds himself in the awkward position of having to defend that stance, which cost him the opportunity to participate in a debate with his opponent two days later.

Topping all of this off was the grand jury in Louisville finding no one at fault for the murder of Breonna Taylor. We do not need more unrest. People will always question what justice means. What it should not stand for is violence. Like many Americans, and perhaps others around the world, I feel as if society is collapsing all around us, and there is little that the majority of us can do about it.

Saving an opera house, streaming our concerts, voicing our opinions, and confronting an ever- divisive society seem almost impossible and, in some cases, not as meaningful as we might have believed six months ago. Still, we must press forward, hoping that our collective will might come to some sort of consensus as to what is right.

We have to be innovative. Practice safe and healthy living. Allow for celebration and mourning without interruption. Look past the near future to achieve a lasting artistic sensibility. Get out and vote. Understand that we must be judged equally under the law of the land as well as the laws that bind us morally.

I am cautiously pessimistic.