It’s been exactly thirteen months since I stood in front of a professional symphony orchestra, conducting a performance the evening of March 3, 2020 in North Carolina. Returning to New Jersey on March 4, I realized I was now living in Pandemia, a bizarre world filled with perplexing conditions and equally bewildering emotional responses. With lots of time on my hands to ponder, some disturbing thoughts began to fill my mind. “When would the audience for live classical music performances again be willing to sit three inches from each other in a concert hall? When would it be safe for 80 musicians to be on a stage with each other? When would any conductor stand in front of a symphony orchestra? Months, a year, longer?” Answers to these questions continue to shift even now as Carnegie Hall recently announced the cancellation of all performances through at least July 24.
Before the North Carolina concert, I was writing an article called Underneath the Formal Attire, a brief look into the behind the scenes lives of professional symphony orchestra musicians. In Pandemia, I found myself with no appetite to complete this task, haunted by queries like: “Who’s going to even care about this? Which professional symphony orchestras will still be left standing when the pandemic and the economic disaster it spawned finally end?” A psychological cloud would not allow me to think about professional symphony orchestras at all. “What’s the point?”
However, I continued to listen to the music I have loved all my life. Recorded music is, of course, more abundantly available than at any previous time during my life. While it’s not the same as sitting in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center listening to the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra perform under Valerie Gergiev, it is thrilling to listen to and watch previously recorded concerts by the Berlin Philharmonic on my computer or television.
In the interim, some conductors have cautiously begun to conduct socially-distanced performances with chamber ensembles. Some of these performances have even been presented before live audiences, while most have been streamed. I’m confident that one day I will finish Underneath the Formal Attire – on a day when symphony orchestra musicians are again gainfully employed and performing for enthusiastic crowds in concert halls.
The most moving event for me personally during the past year occurred when friends learned the Mt. Gretna Festival near Lebanon, Pennsylvania had put together a last minute performance in their outdoor music shed on October 3rd. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra had decided to mount a brief outdoor tour of Wynton Marsalis’s new work The Democracy! Suite. The music is definitely worth the listen and can be downloaded here: https://store.jazz.org/products/the-democracy-suite.
The most incredible aspect about that afternoon in Mt Gretna happened just as the concert began.The shed at Mt. Gretna has 708 seats. The management had sold 150 extremely socially-distanced seats to mask wearing attendees. When Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra began to play the first notes of Be Present I swear that I, my wife, our two friends, the other 146 audience members and even some in the orchestra simultaneously burst into tears. It was a cathartic moment like no other from any concert I’d ever attended.