54 Classical Dino MirrorbannerHappy HalloweenHappy Halloween. So it seems we’re going to have some time on our hands in the musical world, whether we like it or not. It’s clear now. We’re not getting back to anything resembling normal musical life until the fall – next fall that is, September 2021. Joe Biden will have been president for almost a year before we get to go to another live concert (the joke should work either way no matter next Tuesday’s result). And if it’s smart, the classical musical world will use this forced hiatus in its life cycle to confront some of its powerful existential dilemmas. 

I know, I know this may seem like exactly the wrong time. High financial anxiety in the classical world may well be upon us a year from now. The Toronto Symphony, for example, just released its financial statement for their fiscal year 2019-2020, which ended in June, reporting a $600,000 deficit. That represents just four months of reduced activity. What will 15 months look like? It will be more difficult to ask institutions facing potential financial catastrophe to keep their minds on balance and inclusiveness in their hiring and programming, the true nature of classical art in a multicultural society, and other such esoteric existential questions when they’re just trying to keep the lights on. 

But we have to. The world is full of institutions who ignored different sorts of challenges, assuming they would pass by, who are now in a death spiral because of their studied indifference to these challenges. Institutions like the recording business, the news business, the TV business, the magazine business, pretty soon the airline business, the hospitality business, and many others. If the thing we call classical music wants not just to survive, but to thrive, it’s got to understand itself in a fundamentally new way. 

Read more: “Classical” Baggage vs Necessary Luggage

Photo by Robert HarrisI’ve written before about how difficult I’ve been finding it to listen to much music these anechoic coronavirus days. My recordings aren’t doing it for me; the livestream efforts I check out, however admirable, leave me cold; I sadly and inexplicably want to punch all the cheerful radio hosts I hear right in the nose. (sorry Tom, Julie, Paulo, Mark, Alexa, Kathleen, Mike and Jean and whoever else I’ve offended)

So I’m not listening much these days, but, lo and behold, much to my surprise I find that I’m playing more – a lot more, actually. I’m a pianist – well, OK, I play the piano, to be more accurate; there’s a difference, and I’m on the spectator side of the difference. I’m strictly an amateur player. I got my Grade 10 from the Royal Conservatory in my teens, and studied piano for my three years in the Music Department at the University of Ottawa, but never had the discipline, or nerves, or the temperament to be a professional player. Nonetheless, I make some music virtually every day one way or another and am still playing the Gerhard upright my parents bought me when I was nine. It’s been a daily part of my life for over 60 years now – the same instrument – maybe my closest companion. I can tell you where every scrape, scratch, discolouration from partying drinks inadvertently left on its surface, gouges and broken pedals came from (the move up and down the three flights of stairs in the house in which we had an apartment in Peterborough, with just my wife and I doing the hauling, was especially memorable). Next to my wife, daughter and dogs, my piano is the closest thing to me that I know. I really don’t know how I could live without it. 

Read more: Drastic vs. Gnostic: Missing the Touch of It All

rearviewI think it’s becoming clear that, at least here in North America, the unimaginable is going to be a reality.

There just aren’t going to be any major live performing arts events for us to go to for a year. Maybe longer. The Toronto Symphony has cancelled its entire planned season; Music Toronto the same. The COC has cancelled its productions at least until January, as has the National Ballet. No Nutcracker in Toronto for the first time since 1955.

But the shade of the pandemic hasn’t just denied us opportunities to witness performances. Beyond all the artistic and financial consequences of the virus, three major musical organizations in Toronto in the midst of institutional renewal have had those plans severely upended. Gustavo Gimeno will have to wait a year before he can conduct the TSO as its new music director from the podium in Roy Thomson Hall. The next general director of the COC, to replace Alexander Neef in September 2021, might not have a season to produce for some time, and the fascinating new spirit that Elisa Citterio has brought to Tafelmusik has been forced into relative hibernation just as it was blossoming. The virus burrows deeper and deeper into our lives as it continues unabated.

And so it is becoming clearer that the long-term effects of the disease are taking on increasingly radical proportions. We have underestimated the significance of the pandemic repeatedly since it first made its appearance. We continue to do so, and I shudder to think what will happen when a second wave of the virus comes smack up against our regular flu season. With each passing day, the potential for the virus to seriously disrupt and change central aspects of our lives increases. We’re not going back to normal, I think. That normal is a thing of the past.

So what might that mean for classical music?

Read more: COVID’s Metamorphoses

COVID Behind, a Reckoning AheadCan we render into sound the new realities that are struggling to be born?

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.

Read more: COVID Behind, a Reckoning Ahead

Rear-view-mirrorAs we enter into this extraordinary exercise in willed sensory deprivation that is our new reality (and how bizarre it is), I have found myself surprised by almost all of my reactions to the coronavirus. Not the least of which are my reactions to music. If I wanted to be rational about it, I would have to admit that while yes, I enjoy going to concerts, a good 90 per cent of the music I actually listen to – on the radio, online, from CDs, and files and even, heaven help me, on records – is still available to me. My listening habits really shouldn’t haven’t changed that much at all.

And yet, they have. The musical impact on me of the coronavirus has been profound. Unexpectedly so. 

For one thing, I can hardly bear to listen to music at all these days. Not a note. I assume I’m in a tiny minority because COVID-19 playlists are popping up everywhere. I’ve tried listening to a few – I never get very far. I’m just not moved. Even some of my favourite composers are unbearable to me these days. Beethoven I find appalling. All that power and desperate projection of will strike me as completely wrong-headed these suffering days. Bach’s crystalline mathematical perfection likewise comes across, to me, as an utterly tone-deaf response to a world seemingly without ballast or divine balance. Who is left? Mozart, of course, to my mind the perfect coronavirus composer in his deeply ambiguous, but fundamentally loving relationship to the world. I just listened to the last act of Figaro the other day, which begins with that amazing G-minor Cavatina of Barbarina (my nominee for Mozart’s most underrated aria, right up there for the expression of pure grief with Pamina’s Ach, ich fühl’s, although Barbarina is lamenting the loss of a pin, not a lover) and ends with that extraordinary heaven-sent hymn to forgiveness (more religious than anything in the Requiem) that perfectly sums up Mozart’s fundamentally confused relationship to the world. That confusion, the combination of comedy and depth, farce and love, the unexpected breaking out of the purest feeling in the middle of nonsense is such a perfect reflection of our present state, except ours is one of horror, not farce, that I found myself, much to my surprise, awash in tears at opera’s end, weeping not just for the Countess – surely the most perfect, angelic creature in opera – but for us all.

Read more: Listening habits blighted by COVID’s curse | No pleasure in solitary listening when it’s no longer...
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