JUNE 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 4

JUNE 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 4
June 17, 2020 leonard slatkin

“I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.” 
Franz Kafka

The sound you have been hearing of late is that of shoes dropping. More than three months into the isolation from normalized civilization, a few things are becoming clear.

We are a nation divided in a world that is more insular. Equality seems to be just a word, devoid of meaning for many. The great experiment called democracy is seeing itself torn apart, and we are barely hanging on to our constitutional rights. Our diverse musical culture is trying its best to be relevant, but at the same time, there is no way for artists to do what they do best: communicate in person.

With hopes that we all might be able to come back by the fall, we have begun to understand that we could only expect the unexpected. The big venues realized that having performances in large theaters would be impossible. Perhaps the audiences could be socially distanced, but on the stages of Broadway or the Metropolitan Opera, the artists could not. Logically, and with an eye on the financial impact, these and other organizations have suspended operations until the new year. With any luck, they might be able to commence rehearsals in time for presentations sometime in January.

With clever use of technology, musicians from several orchestras have tried online events during which they could perform remotely and, via click tracks, coordinate with one another rhythmically. Engineers have found ways to make the sound viable and, in several cases, very good. This method has brought back a little of the feeling that we would be okay.

Soloists, including singers, have presented mini-recitals, usually from their homes. This has enabled us to not only hear them again, but also learn what they have been reading, as the obligatory backdrop has become their bookshelves. The problem is that tuning in is similar to watching home movies—interesting, but lacking the degree of video or audio quality we have come to expect when the job is handled by the recording professionals.

Europe has been opening up slowly and, in several instances, we have witnessed actual orchestral performances—albeit with reduced forces—a sign that artistic expression is still occurring within our field. Some have felt a twinge of envy and even resentment as photos of highly respected musicians participating in these events have been posted, as if we need reminding of what so many are not allowed to do. The programs themselves have mostly favored a standard-repertoire approach, although if ever there were a time to try something new, this should be it. Nonetheless, the desire to return is so strong that we are grateful for any content.

Having arrived at the middle of June, orchestras in the States are making some very difficult decisions based on scant evidence. No one knows what further havoc the virus could wreak. Even the usually reliable scientists cannot agree on what will happen. With social distancing supposedly in place, many citizens have chosen to forgo masks, not thinking about how dangerous it could be to others. Seeing people outside looks a lot like it did earlier this year.

But it is not the same; is it? We have started seeing the consequences of the big Memorial Day events as well as the protests that erupted throughout the world. “An ounce of prevention” is not really turning into “a pound of cure”—at least not yet. We seem to need no less than a ton of restraint while we hope for the best.

Attempts to head off the virus at the pass have recently taken a sharp turn. Within two days of each other, the New York Philharmonic and Nashville Symphony Orchestra shut down operations, but for different lengths of time. The former cancelled everything until after the new year, and the latter closed up shop until June 2021! Now it is only a matter of time before other institutions give themselves a harsh and public reality check. No matter what the decision, artistic and financial crunches are inevitable.

Instrumentalists have an outlet for their own expression, at least. What are conductors supposed to do? About a month into the pandemic, I began receiving invitations to participate in webinars, basically to speak with other conductors from disparate parts of the world about what I was doing during this period, usually followed by questions on varying topics.

Since none of us has ever gone through anything resembling a worldwide shutdown, there is not too much wisdom I can offer. Perhaps a strike or lockout is the closest I have ever come to the current situation. As Chuck Berry sang, I have “No Particular Place to Go.” The conductors all find themselves in the same situation with different implications depending on their career stage, which could be divided into three categories.

Those whose careers have been well-established over many years will have, with any luck, put away enough funds to manage for the foreseeable future. Conductors who head up orchestras, not knowing when or if they will come back, need to be prepared for any eventuality. And the youngsters of the bunch can only study, hoping that they will someday get an opportunity to step onto a podium.

Current music directors need to stay in close contact with their executive directors, managers and artistic administrators. Fees will have to be renegotiated, even past the time when their orchestras return to full employment. If I were still in this position, I would probably accept whatever percentage cut was taken by the orchestra. If a guest conductor were unable to travel to my orchestra, and if I were free that week, I would take the date and more than likely accept the fee of the person who was supposed to be on the podium. This possibility will exist throughout the world if two-week quarantines remain in effect for international travel.

All conductors need to get creative. If you are the head of an orchestra that performs a sixteen-week season, check out the communities and cities nearby. Offer your services, should they be needed. You do not need a manager to do this, but some initiative on your part will be required. As I often say, “be assertive but not aggressive.” Look for other projects that you might launch within your own home base, opportunities that might provide a little income not only for yourself, but for instrumentalists as well. Use the web wisely. Target the audience, donors and musicians you will need for the future.

As far as the new kids on the block go, you have the roughest time of all. It is possible that you need to find temporary employment, just to keep some cash flow in place. I used to load dress racks and play in a piano bar, although not at the same time. One piece of advice is to use this time not just for score study, but also for reading. One complaint I have about the younger generation of musicians is the lack of curiosity they have about their predecessors’ careers. Now is the time to learn who they were, what their lives were like, how they built their careers, and what they contributed to the musical world.

It is time to be a sponge, just as you have done with the repertoire. Watch videos of conductors, especially ones in which rehearsal footage might be available. If you know some musicians and teachers who played under these maestri, ask questions. There is more to be learned from the past than the present. Take advantage of this moment in history, as it will serve you well when you are finally able to stand on a podium. Technique emerges from knowledge.

Above all, for everyone in the conducting profession, do not let yourselves be discouraged. I know that this is difficult. Not being able to present our art seems antithetical to our chosen craft. Most of you never thought that this kind of sacrifice came with the territory. We are unique, doing something that most people cannot even fathom. It has been a long road, whether you have been conducting for five years or fifty. Not only does the path continue, but it also has many byways. Explore them all.