Music for a Time of Crisis: Livestreaming in a Global Pandemic
As city after city, state after state, country after country, has begun to implement restrictions on public gatherings due to public safety concerns amidst the COVID-19 crisis, performances, when not canceled outright, have moved en masse to livestreaming platforms. Globally, orchestras still performing are offering free concerts to empty theater seats and thousands of online auditors. Just this past weekend, one could tune in to Bach’s St. John Passion, performed by the Bach Collegium Japan under Masaaki Suzuki, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and the Finnish Radio Symphony, to name just a few. The Met has closed up shop but is offering free nightly HD reruns (although when I tried to log on, the website was so popular that I had virtually to queue, being 28,081 in line) and presenters such as the 92Y and Chamber Music of Lincoln Center are streaming chamber music. And then there’s social media. On March 15, Joyce DiDonato and Piotr Beczala, accompanied by harpist Emmanuel Ceysson and pianist Howard Watkins, streamed excerpts of Massanet’s opera, Werther, which had been scheduled to open at the Met on March 16. Filmed with an iPhone from DiDonato’s living room, as of 1:53 p.m. on March 16, the performance had 244K views, one thousand more views than five minutes before.
On Facebook, comments fly by in real time. Most consist of emoji hearts or smiley faces with a note like, “Hugs from Brazil!” or “Thank you!” but some are invested with the particular quirky enthusiasm of remote participation. “Living for the harp!!!!” raved one listener of DiDonato’s Werther production. (I heartily concur.) My personal favorite is a comment made on the livestream of New Morse Code, a cello and percussion duo, on March 14 by one Pascal: “Is he the embodiment of a crowd of train enthusiasts from the future? . . . all trying to verbalize the train sounds throughout history with the help of a broken circuit bend ‘speak and spell’?!” This comment makes a modicum more sense when you know the piece he is referring to, but still somehow captures the bizarre through-the-looking-glass quality of pandemic-induced virtual living. One wonders how one’s fellow audience members are tuning in. Are most, like me, hanging out in sweats and an overlarge shirt, eating brunch in their kitchen? Do some dress up as if for a “real” concert? How many, like me, are tuning in to concerts performed halfway across the globe while at the same time working remotely, wrangling a rambunctious baby (spitting up on my overlarge shirt), and monitoring text messages from family members circulating the newest blogs and articles on COVID-19?
These livestreams are cast by their presenters as holding several related but distinguishable functions: They are a means for musicians to continue their work at a time when many have lost their main sources of employment for the foreseeable future. (By March 19, one small professional chamber ensemble I know had already lost 50K of work from cancelled gigs. The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera will not be paid past March 31.) Online audiences are encouraged to make donations to help soften the financial blow to performing artists. Many recent livestreams have served as a kind of last hurrah before the orchestra disbands for the rest of the season. The online concert platform allows them to make use of the many hours of rehearsal already invested in a particular concert. Secondly, these livestreams serve as a forum for connecting people in a time of quarantine and social distancing. While no longer possible to congregate in large gatherings in person, we can still join together in real time. Finally, music is presented as a means to offer comfort, hope, and entertainment to global populations under severe stress. As I’ve been listening to these livestreams, I’ve been reminded of WWII-era radio entertainment organized to boost morale for both troops and civilians. Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Jascha Heifitz, Aaron Copland—all the great musicians, singers, and entertainers of the era were touring round for “Camp Shows” and offering musical commiseration and encouragement over the radio waves. As I write this, I’m listening to a 1943 recording of Vera Lynn (the “Forces’ Sweetheart”) crooning, “We’ll meet again / Don’t know where / Don’t know when / But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day / Keep smiling through / Just like you always do / ‘Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.” I shuffle around the house in my socks, dodging the cat as I dance with a giggling baby.
With new developments in public health policy unfolding on a daily basis, last-minute changes for these livestream concerts are inevitable. Some, like a livestream of Tenet Vocal Artists performing Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien on March 21 and a concert by the Ulysses Quartet on The Violin Channel were canceled last minute due to public health policy changes. For the livestream of the Bach Collegium Japan performing Bach’s St. John Passion on March 15, Czech soprano Hana Blažíková was replaced with Aki Matsui when the former was forced to travel immediately to Prague lest she be blocked from returning home for who knows how long. On March 16, I tuned into a free livestream from the Bayerische Staatsoper TV at the National Theater Munich. Originally billed as a robust orchestral program featuring Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony No. 9,” Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, new German COVID-19 policies necessitated quick reprogramming to a chamber concert. A musically varied evening, the concert included Schumann’s Liederalbum für die Jugend, Op. 79 performed by soprano Christina Landshamer, baritone Christian Gerhaher, and pianist Gerold Huber; Mozart’s Quartet No. 14 K. 387 by the Schumann Quartett München; and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations by pianist Igor Levit. The concert ended with an upper: a world jazz number by OPERcussion.
For me, the highlights of the Bach Collegium and Bayerische Staatsoper livestreams were two singers: tenor James Gilchrist, the Evangelist of the St. John Passion, and baritone Christian Gerhaher in the Liederalbum für die Jugend, each of whom gave extremely thoughtful performances privileging sense over merely nice sound. Listening to Christian Gerhaher, I became five years old again sitting at the knee of my father, riveted to some story or other, gleeful when he did “all the voices.” Every syllable was exquisitely and effortlessly clear, every musical gesture perfectly in keeping with the text. Though he transformed into the various characters and expressed the changing sentiments with feeling, nothing was overstated — he maintained an aura of a kindly singer of tales. It is rare to hear a singer who comfortably wields more than one vibrato, and even rarer to hear one able to move between these vibratos such that one cannot perceive when one is “turned on” and another “turned off.” Gerhaher does this better than anyone I have heard.
It is equally rare to find an Evangelist of Bach’s Passions who doesn’t make the show all about himself. Proclaiming the narrator voice of the Gospel of John in thirty-one recitatives, the Evangelist of the St. John Passion is a demanding and fundamental role to the performance. Yet, ultimately, it is a primarily functional rather than aesthetic one. Though Bach sprinkles the recitatives with “musical” moments, whether through an expressive interval, or a few virtuosic cascades (as in recitative 18c. “Pilate took out Jesus and scourged Him.”), the job is a text-based one that tells the story of another character (Christ). The job, as was the job of the historical John the Evangelist, is to make someone else not just look great, but actually to be a god! But current performance practice places the Evangelist himself literally center stage. Performing from memory is often adopted as a virtuosic challenge (therein whittling away even further the textual element of his role), and the recitatives are often used as opportunities to luxuriate and show off a plenitude of vocal shades. Gilchrist didn’t do this. His Evangelist was a declamatory one who motivated and framed the arias and chorales. Gilchrist’s technique and musicality were revealed not by ostentation or overcomplication, but by executing the role with clarity and impeccable taste.
The aesthetic of the professional German livestreams (Bayerische Staatsoper TV, Kölner Philharmonie TV) have been a bit depressing, conjuring a funerary atmosphere as the performers mourn their absent audiences. The sleek videography emphasizes the starkness of the empty venue with shots from behind the performers revealing row upon row of empty set. On the Munich livestream, the performers curtly and somewhat awkwardly bowed to the silent and barren hall, then disappeared into the darkness of the dimly lit stage. The Bach Collegium similarly went through the formalities of assembling in silence, bowing to the empty theater. To me this is all a bit stilted. A concert hall empty because of a global pandemic is less musically depressing than a concert hall empty because no one has bought tickets (which almost every musician has experienced). (Of course, the empty halls are cosmically depressing as symbols of a global crisis, but in such a case as that, I for one look for cheering up.)
Personally, I found the experience of watching the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s “Quarantine Soirée” series on the organization’s Facebook page much more uplifting. On March 17, musicians from the festival orchestra presented a chamber music concert of Mozart’s Concert Rondeau in E-flat Major for French horn and piano; Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, and Schumann’s piano quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44. Filmed in a rehearsal space, there was one camera that shot from a tripod—no fancy pans to an empty theater. This allowed me to engage as an audience member, rather than voyeuristically experience some weird exercise of an orchestra performing and bowing to an empty hall. In addition, because there was only one camera which took in the entirety of the ensemble, I could always see how every musician interacted with one another and could choose on whom to concentrate. By contrast, the established classical music streaming services turn the concert into too much of a movie. Cameras zoom in and focus on individual performers, instruments, hands. As a consequence, the viewer loses some autonomy on what or whom to look at. The ability for the online viewers to comment on the Facebook platform also lent a sense of community for the Budapest concert not possible on the big classical TV sites. The numbers of people tuning in vacillated between seventy and eighty; the comments showed viewers from Italy, Scotland, Austria, Turkey, Greece, France, Hungary, Canada, and the U.S.
Of all the classical livestreams I have seen so far, this one gave me the edge-of-your seat feeling of attending a live concert, especially during the Schumann quintet. What let this happen? First, there’s the issue of ephemerality: many livestreams record the proceedings, which can then be accessed at any time. As far as I could tell, this performance was only, and thus actually, live. Either you tuned in, or you missed it. Moreover, the interpretation sounded live: Each of the pieces sounded well rehearsed, but not to the point of being beaten to death. The Scherzo movement of the Schumann frayed at the edges several times, teasing that it would topple over. The musicians took risks, exchanged facial expressions of glee. Each of the five musicians making up the Schumann quintet—Tímea Iván, Zsófia Lezsák, Barna Juhász, Dávid Báll, and Péter Szabó—played with a unique and distinctive sound making the listening experience an adventure. I was not familiar with cellist Péter Szabó before this livestream. After listening to him for about ten seconds, I was hit by the thought, “This is a master I should know about.” The sounds he drew from his instrument were forces of nature, not notes: rumbles, groans, sea tides. I lost no time in searching for his discography and was intrigued to find numerous recordings of unfamiliar works for cello including the cello concerti of Ignace Pleyel, Johann Baptist Vanhal, and Emanuel Moór.
Several ensembles whose seasons have been terminated are using online fora to connect musically with each other and their audiences: for example, the Manhatten Chamber Players and A Far Cry chamber orchestra. I have been enjoying a project called Music.Connects.Us by the Met Orchestra Musicians in which individual members of the Met Orchestra post short videos sharing music filmed at their houses. Artistic director Yannick Nézet-Séguin introduces the project from a sunny apartment in Montréal; his large orange cat, Rafa, grooms himself in the background. “We’re all in this together in these unprecedented times, but music connects us. And we’re determined at the Metropolitan Opera to share music with you all during this time when the stage is closed [and] is dark.” At the time of writing this paragraph (March 18), there have been three video posts: Cellist Julia Bruskin has recorded the saraband from Bach’s C major Suite for cello; violinist Yoon Kwon Costello, selections from Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy; and French hornist Hugo Valverde, “Patriotica Costarricense,” by Manuel Maria Gutiérrez Flores. In an opera performance, the individual personalities of the pit musicians are veiled behind the corporate persona of this sports car of an opera orchestra. Their concert uniforms are usually black, understated, professional—meant to blend into the dark of the pit so that the eye is drawn towards the stage. Each sound is shaped in the service of the larger group. As a consequence, one can sometimes forget the diversity of individual musical personalities, and what a virtuoso each musician is. One is reminded after viewing these video posts that the Met’s orchestra is so good because every single player is, to speak in Facebook lingo, a boss. Bruskin’s Bach was one of the most intelligent interpretations I have heard, perfectly balancing the individual contrapuntal voices. Dressed in informal black, she barely glances at the camera. Filmed in the evening, and illuminated by lamplight, the musical offering is austere and deeply personal. Behind her one can make out the books and recordings of her library and a family portrait with two young children. I’m taken back a few decades, listening to my mother playing this very piece in the living room after my siblings and I had gone to bed. I click on the next video. Yoon Kwon Costello sways in front of the camera as she serenades her virtual audience with Carmen Fantasy. Decked out in a black dress with puffy sleeves and lace, Costello bursts into waterfalls of notes as her bow and fingers fly. Next up, Hugo Valverde. Wearing a Met Orchestra Musicians T-shirt, he sits on a living room coach, a small Costa Rican flag to his left and a beach photograph above his head. He smiles sadly at the camera; his performance seems to me a familial love note to those so far away.
The best livestream I have seen, hands down, was Grammy winners Cécile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner’s living room jazz on March 18. I had heard about this concert through a Facebook share, which directed me to the following Instagram advertisement: “Coco-concert BROUGHT TO YOU BY COVID-19. Cécile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner. Wednesday March 18 at my living room. LIVESTREAM 8 PM. $? whatever. VENMO ME PAYPAL. DONATIONS WILL BE USED TO HELP PEOPLE IN NEED.” On March 18, I had started my musical evening at 7:30 p.m. with a livestream from the 92nd Street Y of Beethoven and Mahler lieder. The mezzo soprano, Fleur Barron, sounded beautiful and reminded me a bit in style (both music and mode) of the great Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. But the lyrics to the Mahler are a bit like stabbing oneself in the gut. At 8 p.m. I opened a new tab to see what was going on with the Salvant-Fortner concert. Salvant was holding up to the computer’s camera a whimsical drawing of an audience gathering for a concert (Salvant is a visual artist as well as vocalist). Somehow, I knew immediately this concert was what I needed.
Posted by Cecile McLorin Salvant Music on Wednesday, March 18, 2020
Take any memory of hanging out at home with two of your best friends singing songs, making jokes, just doing normal things; then imagine that those friends were two of the most imaginative and skilled musicians in the world at present, and possibly for the last several decades. Or, combine a FaceTime call to your favorite crazy cousins with the infectious energy of kids singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” but make the music the best and most moving you’ve heard in years, and you’ve got a sense for what it was like. Salvant, wearing a sparkly silver shirt, sat very close to the camera, giving the impression of a personal chat rather than a concert. Fortner was at an upright piano close by, Salvant making sure that his hands were always in view. Unlike the “empty hall” concerts, Salvant and Fortner were able to connect directly and include the online audience to build a sense of togetherness. (As one commenter, Nancy, wrote, “I love this community that’s happening!”) No awkward silences and bows to empty space here. Salvant and Sullivan cheered and clapped for each other at the end of each number as the online crowd sent hearts and clap emojis and made song requests. The two artists would banter between numbers, or look for iPhone chargers, or cheerfully argue about what to sing next. Near the end of the “show,” viewers could call in to chat or ask questions. In the words of a viewer named Kopano, “This is fun.” And fun was what I, at least, had been missing, and what I needed.
This duo understand that what people truly long for right now are not concert halls and stages. Let’s face it: as we all confront a global pandemic, no one minds all that much about missing a few months of shows in order to flatten the curve. It’s making ends meet while the shows are closed that is keeping gig musicians (along with all hospitality and service industry workers) up at night. People miss their friends and families, their colleagues. In times of crisis we want to be able to visit our grandmas and grandpas and hug those we love. No hugs allowed in this time of COVID-19. This performance felt like a big hug.
Musically, these two can do anything, as is being publicly recognized by many accolades including a recent Grammy win for The Window. On the livestream, they performed numbers from musicals (Annie, Get Your Gun), movies (Yentl, High Anxiety), self-composed songs, blues, and even a short opera snippet (Carmen). Vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant can be ragged or gritty, or delicate and inward. On March 18, she wailed and soared, traveled from buttery low notes to ethereal and crystalline heights. All while singing with sparkling diction, deep feeling, good humor, interesting and expressive intonation, and ingenuity. Fortner meanwhile made a little upright piano sound like a Steinway grand as he improvised witty retorts to Salvant, virtuosic interludes reminiscent of Debussy preludes, and complicated counterpoint and harmonies. (My husband, a keyboardist, was sitting next to me at the kitchen table doing his remote work and listening to the livestream as well. He heard Messiaen harmonies in Fortner’s improvisations and proclaimed him a genius. “I’m stunned.” ) The two of them hit it out of the park. As one Suzanne commented, “Holy Mother of God. This is how it’s done. The end.” Amen. Other commenters: “Shit . . . so beautiful,” and, “This will be a memory.” One of my favorite comments was from someone named Hiroshi: “Very very very luxurious morning for me in Japan!!”
No one knows how long we’ll be living in this new reality. But whether it will just be a few weeks, or a several months, what we need from artists is along the lines of what Cécile McLorin Salavant and Sullivan Fortner are doing: creating warmth and community and good old fun. I’m tuning in for their next COVID-19 livestream. In my sweats and overlarge shirt.
Please find below the internet addresses for the musical events reviewed by Elizabeth Lyon:
Bach Collegium Japan, St. John Passion
Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Virtual Finale
Metropolitan Opera Livestreams (From archive)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Joyce DiDonato, Excerpts from Werther
New Morse Code, Cello and Percussion Duo
Budapest Festival Orchestra, “Quarantine Soirées”
Met Orchestra Musicians, Music.Connects.Us
Cécile McLorin Salvant’s and Sullivan Fortner’s Coco-concert
 Available for streaming, mp3, audio CD or vinyl on Amazon.