SEPTEMBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 19

SEPTEMBER 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 19
September 11, 2020 leonard slatkin

“If you told me I could only do one thing, I would choose live concerts.”
—Mandy Patinkin 

There was a catchphrase used by a company that manufactured recording products. “Is it live or is it Memorex?” That firm must be in a total state of confusion these days.

We have come to the time when orchestras are starting up their reconstituted seasons. After a summer of remote chamber music and virtual ensembles, many groups are going to reemerge this week. Most will consist of forty musicians or less, and others will keep the forces down to four or five. A few will have a small contingent in the audience, but most will be playing to empty halls.

What I am going to write next is not meant to sound cynical, but the following thoughts have crossed my mind. Why are we doing these? Is it to keep the public informed that the organization is still functioning as a performing institution? How did orchestras, particularly those that previously did not have the capabilities or financing to utilize video as a means of presentation, get the funds to do virtual broadcasting? Who is the target audience for these presentations?

I do not have answers to these as well as many other questions. Being outside the music director role has made me more of an observer than a participant. These queries have come about as I have tried to imagine what my own events will sound and look like.

This weekend I am scheduled to lead a live, outdoor performance here in St. Louis. That is assuming that everything goes as planned. A couple months ago, I was asked by a local conductor if I would direct part of a program with members of the Metropolitan Orchestra of St. Louis and Union Avenue Opera. After thinking it over, I agreed, with the caveat that every precaution be taken. Should there be any deviation from the proper safety measures or a notable uptick in the virus, I could not participate.

The work I chose was the Beethoven Seventh Symphony. It is a piece that most of the musicians will have played, there are very few tempo fluctuations, and I have my own set of parts, saving time because all the bowings are in place. There is a one-hour rehearsal prior to the concert. Cindy and I plan to bring a picnic cooler for the time in between that and the performance.

All the string players will be wearing masks. So will the conductor. I was thinking about putting it on while I do my exercises on the stationary bike, just to get used to how it will feel for an extended period of time. This does seem antithetical to the concept of communication between the maestro and the orchestra, as one uses every facial expression to convey things in the music.

I have no idea how many people will attend the event. Certainly, people are starving for live music. Members of the St. Louis Symphony are performing on front lawns and in the backyards of homes in various parts of the community. At one point, they thought about coming to the street where I live, and they asked me to lead a performance. I wanted to but thought that there were too many variables, such as kids racing by on bikes. For the time being, I just cannot bring myself to do this type of concert.

The performances I have observed from home look very strange indeed. Seeing the musicians so far away from each other is at odds with what we are supposed to be doing in our special world of communication. With clever miking techniques, the sound is decent enough. However, I cannot help but think that these seem to be more like video recording sessions as opposed to true concerts. The lack of audience takes away the vital need for immediate feedback. This is not about applause, but rather about the performers onstage feeling the presence of those who are in the hall listening.

As a part of the pioneering effort in the field, the members of the Detroit Symphony will start digital concerts with their new music director, Jader Bignamini. He is leading two weeks of performances with varied small-ensemble repertoire that will be streamed to subscribers, donors and single-ticket buyers. Like so many of his colleagues, this is not exactly how he envisioned beginning his tenure. Still, he is luckier than some, who will not appear at all with their orchestras.

An interesting aspect of digital presentation that I have noticed is the opportunity for organizations to place themselves on a higher level in the musical stratum. The internet can become a bit of an equalizer during this period in our history. Orchestras that did not have much of a national profile can now rightfully be seen and heard on the same platforms as their bigger brothers and sisters. That could be a boon in terms of the difficult task of raising funds at this time.

As for me, I am taking it week by week. There are decisions to be made regarding appearances in the States as well as an extensive European tour. Life goes on, but one has to wonder if the perception of music as a living entity will ever be the same.