One year ago, on March 8, 2020, I concluded that evening’s episode of Letter V Classical Radio on WDCE, the University of Richmond radio station, with J.S. Bach’s “Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother.” I can’t claim that the selection was prescient. I didn’t know that it would be the last time my radio show aired until who knows when (if ever), or that the outbreak of COVID-19 would become the most widespread pandemic in more than 100 years.
Coming home after that show, broadcast the day after I attended the Richmond Symphony program that secured Valentina Peleggi’s appointment as the orchestra’s new music director, marked the beginning of my lockdown – a separation from the wider world, interrupted rarely by visits to doctors and skittish dashes in and out of grocery stores and pharmacies.
This year of solitude hasn’t been as traumatic for me as it has been for so many. I’m used to keeping my own company – and that of Fritz, a cat who by now can’t conceive of life without affection-on-demand. I live on a sufficient retirement income, and in a comfortable home with plenty to read and hear and see to ward off boredom or stupor. I have a private deck overlooking a lake, so I can enjoy the outdoors without risking exposure to people who don’t take precautions.
I know only a few people who’ve contracted the virus, and no one close to me has died of it.
I’m lucky, and I try never to forget that.
Still, I miss the world with me in it. Phone calls and e-mails to family and friends, online shopping, performances experienced virtually on a computer screen, and the rest of the “new normal” are a lousy substitute for the old normal. Understanding that sustaining the old normal could be fatal to you or someone else doesn’t make the new necessity – a better term, I think – any more desirable.
Anxiety over the virus may ease in time. (“May” = anxiety; that’s going to linger.) More and more of us will be vaccinated – I got my first shot last week – and life more or less as we knew it may resume by the summer or fall.
Or will it?
How long will it take to get over all the obsessions we’ve fallen into during the pandemic? Will we become chronic hoarders of food and paper products? Will a stash of surgical gloves and N95 masks be as common as a drawer full of Band-Aids?
Much less trivially, will we continue to keep our distance – physically, emotionally, socially, economically, politically – as the virus recedes? We’ve seen how easily caution can turn into suspicion and then into hostility.
It’s nice to envision a post-COVID society that’s free and fun, something like the Roaring ’20s following the flu pandemic of 1918-20. Remember, though: The 1920s also saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan well beyond its Old-South spawning ground, along with other descents into ethnic and religious bigotry, anti-science and junk-science mania, a toxic brew of isolationism and hyper-nationalism, and growing economic dislocation and disparity. The ’20s set the world stage for the ’30s and beyond, full of horrors that no decent person would want to see repeated.
History doesn’t repeat itself, or even rhyme; but there’s plenty of current-day evidence that the pandemic has changed us, individually and socially, in ways that we haven’t begun to come to terms with.
On top of that, pre-COVID, we already were facing colossal challenges from climate change, technology-driven transformations of the economy, delivery of information (and disinformation), personal privacy (or lack thereof) and so many other aspects of life and work, and growing perceptions that the systems we’ve depended on, from pothole-filling to foreign policy, have become sclerotic and destined to fail.
Maybe the über-rich guys seeking to colonize Mars are on to something . . .
OK, enough of that. I’m old enough to bank on having already died by the time our self-induced Armageddon comes to pass.
I worry more parochially – and more pertinently in this space – about the post-pandemic state of classical music, especially close to home.
The Richmond Symphony, the largest local musical organization, appears to be at some tentatively reassuring point on the spectrum between surviving and thriving. Recovery may be more challenging for Virginia Opera, with its higher production and multi-city logistical costs. (The travails of the big kahuna of US opera, the Metropolitan in New York, couldn’t be encouraging to smaller fry.)
Richmond’s principal presenters of touring chamber-music artists, the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, are sheltered somewhat by being educational institutions that are either well-heeled (UR) or big, state-supported and arts-intensive (VCU).
Other local recital presenters, such as the Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia, the Richmond Chamber Players and the Repertoire Recital Series of the Richmond chapter of the American Guild of Organists, are leaner operations with (so far) dedicated audiences and donors. The area’s choral groups are leaner still, with unpaid singers and modestly/minimally paid directors and accompanists. Semi-pop-up endeavors such as Classical Revolution RVA presumably will pop back up when conditions permit.
VPM, the local public-broadcasting entity, has been producing online streams of symphony concerts and recitals, and its crew is getting good at it. VPM streams of other local classical performances are an enticing prospect.
Less promising is the number of classical musicians who’ve left the profession and may not return. Among proliferating bits of evidence: An internationally prominent solo artist is on food stamps; a number of colleges are cutting their music programs; a shockingly high percentage of musicians have given up in Germany, where state support of the arts is vastly more generous than in this country. I haven’t seen comparable data for US musicians, but I fear it would be a depressing number.
Will pent-up hunger for live music run up against a famine of still-active musicians? Especially seasoned 30- and 40-somethings working at the highest artistic level, many of them over-achievers since early childhood, who could earn much higher incomes in other lines of work?
How many music lovers have developed new listening habits that will endure? If you have high-speed internet and high-quality speakers or headphones hooked up to your computer, you can enjoyably access a vast trove of live performances at no cost or for fees much lower than the price of a ticket (assuming you could travel and obtain a ticket for, say, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra or the Vienna State Opera).
Sure, watching and hearing a concert or opera onscreen is nothing like attending a performance in person. Still, if you look at what television-streaming has done to the movie business, you have to wonder what music-streaming is going to do to live music – especially big-ticket live events, where at-home vs. in-person price and access disparities probably would be widest.
Recordings are the outlet for many music lovers, especially as they age and mobility becomes an issue. Some have spent fortunes on home audio-video systems – there are, no kidding, $100,000 turntables – and have amassed large collections of records, tapes, CDs, DVDs and, now, downloads and streams, to be enjoyed at home, whenever they choose, in whatever they care to wear (or not).
Increased at-home listening and viewing have prompted many to upgrade their equipment (I recently bought a computer monitor roughly the size of the TV screens I watched until I was 50), and may have acclimated many music lovers to levels of artistry that they may not experience in their local concert halls and opera houses. Physical perspectives are different, too: Video streams show musicians, notably conductors and pianists, as most concertgoers never see them.
Onstage social distancing of musicians has boosted lighter-limbed music for chamber orchestra that’s rarely played in mainstage concerts. Listeners, while missing the sonic punch of 80 musicians playing at full tilt, also may find that one of Haydn’s “Paris” or “London” symphonies makes a refreshing change from yet another go at the Brahms First.
Streaming offers the opportunity to present contemporary, early music or other special-interest works without concert presenters fretting about filling seats for repertory other than Beethoven and Rachmaninoff.
Video productions also have induced (or forced) more musicians to learn how to talk to listeners about music – that’s still very much a work in progress – and have opened up all kinds of opportunities to attract and educate new audiences.
Notions of what music rates being described as “classical” and how it should be presented already were changing, and those changes are sure to accelerate. (It’s high time for a piano recital program of Chopin, Debussy and Thelonious Monk.)
The two-hours-in-the-dark, overture-concerto-symphony, Mozart-Schubert-Shostakovich-quartets models of concert presentation may become unfashionably retro. The traditional concert space already was giving way to different spaces, used at different times, for different durations, and for not exclusively musical content.
Opera may cease being consistently “grand,” with lavishly costumed singers on an ornate set up there and the audience out here, but could be dramatically enhanced if/when it becomes more intimate. The most engrossing opera performance I’ve seen in recent years was Capitol Opera Richmond’s 2018 production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” whose mixture of singing, dancing and tableaux was staged throughout the sanctuary of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church – wildly impractical to try in a normal theater.
Pandemics are transformative. The bubonic plague in the 14th century hastened the end of feudalism and the flowering of the Renaissance in Western Europe. Without anticipating anything near the toll of the Black Death from COVID-19, we can safely bet that this pandemic will bring on significant and lasting cultural change, and we can hope that it’s change for the better.
Even in the hidebound, or at least habit-prone, culture of classical music.