Coronavirus Concerts: The Music World Contends with the Pandemic

Audience-free concerts streamed on the Internet, like the one performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, cannot provide the bond that forms under the spell of live music.
On March 12th, the Berlin Philharmonic gave one of the eeriest concerts in its history—a history that has not lacked for eerie moments. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Berlin, along with other major cities, had called a halt to all large gatherings. The Philharmonic went ahead with its scheduled program all the same, performing in a vacant hall and streaming the event over the Internet. The facilities were already in place: Berlin’s Digital Concert Hall, with its crisp sound and elegant camera work, has long held pride of place in the world of classical music online. Ordinarily, you have to pay a hefty fee for the service, but the Philharmonic offered this concert without charge, and for the next month its entire archive will be free to all.

The program consisted of two turbulent masterpieces from the fraught heart of the twentieth century. First was Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia,” composed in 1968, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; one of its movements, “O King,” pays tribute to the fallen leader. Then came Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which had its première in Boston, in December, 1944, amid the final inferno of the Second World War. The works are profoundly different in style—Berio belonged to the postwar avant-garde generation, whereas Bartók was a classic modernist with a flair for folkish melody—yet they share an aesthetic of multiplicity, of distinct masses colliding.

Tense music is not always a good match for a tense time, as some listeners in New York discovered after the 9/11 attacks. The polystylistic kaleidoscope of the third movement of “Sinfonia,” in which the scherzo of Mahler’s Second Symphony is overlaid with fragments of other familiar scores and scraps of verbal chatter, was anything but calming, particularly when its spoken-word component dips into the icy existentialism of Samuel Beckett’s “The Unnamable”: “It’s getting late. Where now? When now? . . . Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on.” Yet the cool poise of the Berlin performance, with the virtuosic singers of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart expertly delivering the text, gave a sense of anarchy controlled, or at least comprehended. The Bartók benefitted from the customary refinement of the orchestra’s soloists and from unerring structural cohesion. If a feeling of collective elation was missing in the finale, the omission was understandable under the circumstances.

The conductor was Simon Rattle, who completed his tenure as the Philharmonic’s music director last season. He is an eager, eloquent communicator, and it was fortunate that he happened to be on hand for this singular occasion. In pre-taped introductions for each piece, Rattle refused to peddle bromides about music’s power to comfort and uplift, instead reminding viewers of the historical darkness from which these works arose. The Bartók, he said, is the statement of a “dying refugee,” of a “person who was displaced.” It asks, “How do you remain yourself in another place? How do you take what is deeply important to yourself in a place where you have basically no contact with the outside world?” Rattle seemed to be alluding not only to the self-quarantine culture of the coronavirus crisis but also to the desperate precariousness of refugee lives around the world. And he seemed to be gesturing, even more broadly, toward the isolation into which rampant digital technologies have beguiled us.

The orchestra was, of course, in isolation itself, and the absence of an audience made the experience exceedingly strange. Rattle walked onstage not to a round of applause but to a shuffling of feet and a tapping of bows—the usual signals of appreciation from an orchestra. As I sat and watched at my home laptop, I became sufficiently immersed in the music that I forgot about the peculiar context, and it was a shock when stony silence intruded at the end. After the Berio, the players awkwardly applauded for a moment and rose in acknowledgment of the ghost public in the ether. After the Bartók, conductor and orchestra simply stood and looked out at the empty hall. Rattle then turned to the musicians and said, “Eine Riesenfreude [a great joy]. Bless you, thank you so much.”

Other ensembles have been giving audience-free concerts in recent days—I’ve assembled a list of events on my blog—and a sense of weirdness is pervasive. Later on Thursday, the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin, presented the Fifth and Sixth symphonies of Beethoven alongside “Jeder Baum spricht,” a new piece by Iman Habibi. The finale of the Fifth delays its closing cadence to a famously absurd degree, revving up the audience’s desire to answer with loud applause. Again, the leaden silence that followed the performance was unnerving. Nézet-Séguin and his players looked a little ashen as they stared out to the cameras. Music is at heart a social medium, and it desperately needs contact.

The ad-hoc concerts are a welcome stopgap, helping musicians to keep working and listeners to stay engaged. Yet they shouldn’t be seen as any sort of wave of the future. We are already too sedentary and technology-addicted in our relationship with the arts. The monopolies that rule the digital realm possess unheard-of power, and non-celebrity artists increasingly struggle in a marketplace where audiences no longer expect to pay for recorded music. Furthermore, streaming ravages the environment, requiring vast quantities of electricity as music files are stored and transmitted. A 2019 study by researchers in Glasgow and Oslo found that the shift to digital music has led to a significant increase in carbon emissions.

Perilous times for working musicians lie ahead. “Force majeure” clauses in artist contracts—releasing companies from liability in the event of disruptions—mean that many opera singers and freelance instrumentalists, not to mention actors, dancers, and backstage technicians, will go unpaid for the duration of the pandemic. The tenor Zach Finkelstein has written about the force-majeure issue on his blog, predicting that “many household classical music names will likely be insolvent or in dire financial straits by this coming summer.” It’s heartening to see an announcement such as the one I received from Opera Omaha, saying that, in spite of the cancellation of a forthcoming festival, “it will fulfill its contractual commitments to its artists and crew.” Finkelstein has made a list of several dozen organizations that are acting similarly. So far, the bigger companies are missing from it.

Smaller-budget ensembles are also endangered by the coronavirus stoppage, and some may not survive. The Mahler Chamber Orchestra, a top-rank freelance group in Europe, has issued a statement communicating its members’ fear for the future. Pointedly, it congratulates fellow-groups on using technology to carry on with their work but observes that “we have no empty house to stream from.” Many organizations—those that have no multimillion-dollar endowments or lists of élite donors to fall back on—have begun pleading for donations. The new-music group Equal Sound has started a Corona Relief Fund.

After 9/11, the performing arts in New York never quite returned to normal. Many people who had routinely travelled to the Met or to the Philharmonic from the suburbs failed to resume their old habits; the seduction of staying home proved stronger, especially as digital offerings proliferated. In coming months, the same challenge will arise. Perhaps the exercise of watching events remotely will heighten our commitment to the artists who matter most to us. The most instructive thing about the Berlin concert was how it dramatized what technology cannot supply: the temporary bond of purposeful community that forms under the spell of live music. The final silence was a vacuum crying to be filled.