As we end this first phase of our new reality, there is much about the coronavirus that stalks us that we still do not know. But given what we do know today – that you’re more likely to catch the virus indoors, seated for long periods of time in relatively close proximity to your neighbours – I feel pretty confident in saying that normal concert life isn’t going to be returning until we are convinced that the COVID-19 threat is gone. When that might be isn’t clear, but it’s not going to be soon.
The NY Philharmonic isn’t waiting. They’ve already cancelled their fall season; surely it’s just a matter of time before other organizations follow suit. To add certainty to the speculation, let’s remember that the average age for classical concertgoing in North America is at or over the 70-year-old threshold where COVID is especially fatal. We seniors may have ignored the severity of the virus when it first appeared, but months of horrifyingly grim statistics have changed our minds. Few of us are trooping to the concert hall or opera theatre, I’m guessing, until we’re completely and absolutely sure we’re safe. Or our kids are sure we’re safe.
And do we really think that things are just going to return to normal when we do go back? I’ll bet few arts administrators do. Here’s my two cents worth. Before the pandemic, I visited my local Starbucks up the street every day – sometimes twice a day. I was addicted to my grande light foam Latte. Couldn’t do without it. Then I had to go cold turkey, like everybody else. My local Starbucks has been open for a couple of weeks now. I haven’t returned once.
Oh, but this wouldn’t happen with our beloved classical music, we say. Are we sure? The pandemic has affected us in many ways, big and small, most of them unexpected. The strength of our desire for concertgoing may be one of them. Who knows? And what about those newer audiences to opera and the classics, who don’t have a decades-long history of attendance? Are we sure they’re coming back? I wouldn’t assume so. I think 2021, or whenever we return, is going to be a relatively new ballgame, where nothing should be taken for granted.
If there are any institutions left to serve us at all. The actual details of the situation today have not been made especially public, but I can’t imagine that any arts institutions, big and small, aren’t facing some very dire financial futures these days. Yes, performances have been cancelled, and that saves money on production costs. But so many arts institutions, especially the bigger ones, have a large number of fixed responsibilities that still must be met – from paying contracted, unionized artists no longer performing, to continuing with administrative staffs, to retaining large buildings which still need to be heated, cooled and maintained, although almost no revenue is being earned in them these days. (Ironically, it used to be the arts institutions with their own facilities that had a financial leg up on those that didn’t, because of the stream of parking and concession revenue they earned – I’m guessing exactly the opposite is the case these days.)
It’s hard to say exactly how seriously the pandemic is affecting the financial health of musical institutions, partly because financial information is generally only shared when annual reports are released, and every institution is handling the effects of the pandemic differently. (Some have laid off their creative complement; some have maintained them under reduced contracts; some have continued business as usual.) We do know that the box office hasn’t accounted for more than about 25 percent of the revenue of major institutions for years, which, under current circumstances, is actually an odd benefit. It means the bulk of the money for most musical institutions comes from governments and fund-raising efforts, neither of which need have diminished during the pandemic – although I’m sure fund-raising for an activity that doesn’t currently take place can’t be easy. And I’m also sure that smaller institutions and groups are hurting in a way that puts their very survival at risk.
Either way, the only short-term solution to the pandemic-related financial woes in the arts is government support – and lots of it. The Government of Canada has announced a generous $500 million emergency fund for culture, arts and sports, but whether it will be enough remains to be seen. I desperately fear that a decade or so of stagnant funding for the arts in Canada may have dulled our understanding of the importance of government support at exactly the moment when hefty, healthy, unqualified support is needed – and needed in spades.
But my greatest fear for the future of classical music coming out of the pandemic revolves neither around audience engagement or financial health. It has to do with the powerful and long-overdue reckoning with the failures and cultural limitations of our societies that has exploded under our feet just as the pandemic challenged us in so many other ways. The unmasking of racial intolerance and racial injustice, and the demands for the repairing of those injustices, may be the greatest challenge classical music faces in a post-pandemic world.
Because, let’s be honest. No other mainstream art form is so tied to the values of the past as is classical music – not literature, nor the visual arts, not theatre, or dance, or anything else. No other art form still nests the locus of its activity in the 18th and 19th centuries. And not just its repertoire, but its techniques, its goals, its methods of sound production, its seating arrangements, its power relationships – everything about the music reflects a certain set of values.
I’m not suggesting that classical music is inherently racist or colonial. I don’t believe in those kinds of arguments – all things work on many different levels at the same time, especially artistic realities. But there’s no doubt that classical music, as it’s usually been imagined and presented, has many barriers to overcome before it can come to terms with the racist and colonial realities that we need to erase in our society. Yes, there can be powerful operas on Indigenous or Black themes; and greater diversity is certainly possible on our concert stages and programs. But it’s not enough, in my opinion. The key to success is in aggressively supporting and funding the new and young and offbeat and out-of-the-way in musical creation, artists and groups that can render into sound the new realities that are struggling to be born in our society, relationships, quite frankly, that are far beyond those imagined by traditional symphony orchestras or conventional opera houses.
If that happens, it may be that this enormous pause in the world, this giant prolonged forced intake of breath, may have proven to be immensely valuable, despite all its grim tragedy. Events like this in the world, unexpected and radical, can be and have been forces for immense good, sweeping into being greater justice, greater equity, greater truth. We’ll have to see whether this current combination of medical, economic and cultural shattering will stand among them. And how, and whether, serious music joins in this resurgence.
Robert Harris is a writer and broadcaster on music in all its forms. He is the former classical music critic of the Globe and Mail and the author of the Stratford Lectures and Song of a Nation: The Untold Story of O Canada.