“I was never less alone than when by myself.”
On March 11, 2020, I stepped off the podium at Orchestra Hall in Detroit. The strains of “Oh, Fortuna,” as interpreted by Carl Orff in his Carmina Burana, were the last notes I would lead for … no one knew how long at the time. Earlier that evening, the governor of Michigan had urged communities to avoid gatherings of 100 or more people.
For six months, I wrote, watched television, tried to cook in a healthy manner, and avoided pretty much any contact with anybody. Yes, there were the obligatory trips for medical check-ups, but for the most part, I got to know every nook and cranny of my abode. As several orchestras attempted to put on highly scaled-back seasons and others shut down until January and beyond, I was beginning to think that my next trip to the stage might not ever take place.
Then I got a message from Wendy Lea.
Many years ago, in the early years of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, Wendy played violin in the ensemble. She indicated that she aspired to be a conductor, and I encouraged her. Giving her one of my batons apparently spurred her on, and now she is the music director of the Metropolitan Orchestra of Saint Louis. This is a group of mostly freelancers, many of whom are substitute or extra players in the SLSO.
Wendy, like many of us, was getting restless and wanted to do something to allay the ennui that musicians were starting to feel. Being separated from colleagues and unable to make cohesive music was starting to take a toll. And this was especially true of those who made their livings from gig to gig, like the majority of the players in this orchestra.
My guess is that she truly thought it was a longshot, but she asked if I would be interested to participate in an outdoor concert in mid-September. Upon doing a bit of investigation into the history of the orchestra, I thought it was something that might make a tangible difference for the musicians as well as those who would be attending.
However, I had caveats. At 76 years old, and having undergone two heart surgeries over the last ten years, I could not afford to take any risks whatsoever. This meant that as much as possible, the proper precautions needed to be in place, including mask-wearing and social distancing. Even though this was an outdoor concert, there could be no guarantees that everyone would be safe. Missouri ranks fifth in the nation when it comes to new daily cases.
Monitoring the situation closely as the day of the performance approached, I started to feel more comfortable that any danger would be minimized. And so it was on a most pleasant day that Cindy and I packed up all the precautionary items we needed and headed out to St. Charles, about twenty minutes from where we live. This charming community, which has endured its share of flooding activity over the years, has an historic downtown area by the river from which the city draws its name.
In order to get to Frontier Park, where the concert was to take place, we had to drive on I-70, one of the interstate highways that crosses the country from East to West. A few days earlier, there had been a shooting on that very road. This drive-by saw two people fire into another vehicle that contained three adults and one child, a truly horrific act of violence and cowardice.
I thought about that as we headed west, but the real nail in the coffin occurred when looking at a couple billboards that advertised an upcoming gun show scheduled to take place the week after our concert. The venue’s website describes what is supposed to take place at this event: “This St. Charles gun show is held at St. Charles Convention Center and hosted by Midwest Arms Collectors LLC. All federal, state and local firearm ordinances and laws must be obeyed.”
We all know what this means these days. Keep in mind that this is in the same state where a couple brandished firearms on their front porch, supposedly to keep protesters from trespassing. Nine of the people who gathered in protest were cited by the police on Friday, and the McCloskeys were charged with a felony. But everyone can go to the convention center and buy weapons for the next encounter.
We arrived at the concert site, where the always-great Christine Brewer was rehearsing some arias and songs with conductor Scott Schoonover. The orchestra was socially distanced, with string players masked and the winds separated individually by seven or eight feet each. It was a true stage, set almost at the river’s edge in part of the old train station. This must have been fantastic at the turn of the twentieth century.
I had proposed to conduct the Seventh Symphony of Beethoven, as most of the members of the orchestra would know the work and would have more than likely played it at some point. Not only would this be my first time conducting since the Orff back in March, but it would also be a test of endurance. Even though I have been doing some exercising at home, there is still nothing like a rehearsal and concert to get the heart rate going.
Then there was the matter of the mask. This seems to be a choice that my colleagues around the country must make when leading their orchestras—to wear or not to wear. It is true that we stand more than six feet away from any musician, but in a rehearsal, one has to speak to everyone, and sometimes in a louder and more forceful voice in an outdoor setting. Any remarks to or from the musicians might violate the airspace and exceed the minimum distancing guidelines
So masked it was. Everything had been sanitized, from the podium to the music stand. After a few introductory words to the ensemble, we started off. Outdoor concerts are always tricky, as the nature of the acoustic experience is dramatically different from an indoor hall. And with the players far apart, it is even more difficult for them to hear each other. In French, the word ensemble means together. We were anything but that, physically.
After a while, I got used to it, but because of the distance and everyone trying their best to stay together, tempos gradually began slowing down. More troublesome for me was the realization that I could not use all the tools available in the conductor’s arsenal. At least half of my face was covered, and because the sun was shining right onto the front of the stage, I wore a hat. The general assumption is that it is the conductor’s eyes that make contact and communicate with the musicians, but in reality, one’s total countenance conveys the necessary information.
With my part of the single rehearsal lasting just an hour, I told the orchestra, which had done a fine job throughout, that this concert was about joy, energy and life. It was the first time any of us had played onstage with a group in half a year. The audience would consist of people who missed live music and most likely several who had never heard an orchestra live. This was not the time to worry about details that could not be handled in the short time we had to put everything together.
There were two hours between the rehearsal and the concert. Sandwiches were brought in, and I had the chance to chat with several members of the orchestra, several of whom I knew from my days as music director downtown. Catching up and telling good stories is always a part of the musical experience. Some of the tales were slightly embarrassing, at least as far as my own actions were concerned. I was always a bit of a smart ass, and sometimes these ventures into the world of humor would come back to bite me. But it was always in good fun.
At five o’clock, it looked like more than five-hundred people had gathered on the lawn to hear our program. At the same time, a group of protesters had assembled a couple blocks away at the St. Charles police station. Motorcycles were roaring up and down the street adjacent to the stage. We were in the flight path of the planes taking off and landing over at Lambert Field. Just another Sunday in Missouri.
Wendy led off with a brisk account of the Overture to The Barber of Seville. I thought that William Tell might have been more appropriate, due to about two-thirds of the crowd wearing masks (Lone Ranger reference there, in case you missed it). Christine was brilliant, as usual. With Mozart, R. Strauss, Lehár and a lovely version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow—arranged originally for her and our dear friend, the late Lynn Harrell—she captivated everyone and brought a tear or two to the eyes.
The Beethoven was exciting and full of energy. It was clear that the musicians were so happy to be doing what they were meant to be doing. I managed to get through it with the mask, and more importantly, I did both the rehearsal and the concert without utilizing a chair. The weight loss of twenty-five pounds since the pandemic began seems to have reduced the pressure on my lower back. In addition, even though it was warm but pleasant outside, I did not perspire as much as had been the case for the past few years.
We concluded with an arrangement of America the Beautiful, giving me an opportunity to conduct for Christine again. She and I exchanged stories of our work together in the past, in particular, our recording of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in London. She lives over in Illinois and is considered one of the St. Louis regulars.
Prior to the Beethoven, I gave a few remarks to the assembled masses. Looking out at them, it was a bit dismaying to see many people without the masks, but that was not as troublesome as the lack of space between lawn chairs. Yes, it was an outdoor event, but the virus does not recognize borders. Knowing that a few hours later, in Henderson, Nevada, there would be an indoor event where few would be separated and almost all would be without facial coverings, I was reminded of the gulf that separates society today.
What are the differences between laws, rules and guidelines? Are any persons held accountable for violations of these directives? How much better off might we have been if everyone had followed the advice of the scientists right from the start? What ever happened to the word United in the States of America?
Between the shootings, protests and gatherings, at least some of us could experience the joy of making music again. The celebratory air still did not seem quite normal. We all knew that this was a one-off rather than a regular presentation. It did, however, feel good in a cautiously optimistic way.
For the musicians and the people who attended this concert, it was as if we had come out of hibernation. But, as with the groundhog, on this sunny Sunday, we could see our shadow. Perhaps it was time to burrow back into our homes. But unlike the chubby creature, we have no idea when we will come out.