Streaming Music: Like Concertgoing, Sans A Few Details

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Split-screen images of Juilliard students performing an online fantasy based on Ravel’s ‘Bolero.’ (juilliard.edu)

COMMENTARY – It would not do to write a review of the recital Marc-André Hamelin livestreamed last month from his home outside Boston. Even though I have positive things to say about the warm cantabile he summoned at the start of Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude; as well as reservations to voice concerning his percussive approach to Scriabin’s Fantasy in B minor, Op. 28; plus praise to offer of his virtuoso fingerwork in Debussy’s Feux d’artifice; and puzzlement to express over the popularity of edgy-toned Fazioli pianos among a significant minority of acclaimed pianists, including Hamelin’s fellow Canadians Angela Hewitt and Louis Lortie.

No, it would not do to write a review. For one thing, I turned up late (or, to be more precise, logged in at 8 p.m. sharp, which I took to be the starting time). Furthermore, I was sipping a cheap red through those parts of the recital I did hear. Arriving late and drinking steadily as the concert progresses are not behaviors endorsed by the Music Critics Association of North America.

Perhaps even more troubling, I experienced the music through the good graces of a circa-2013 MacBook Air. The recital might have emanated from Hamelin’s living room, but it did not reach my own without a considerable degradation of fidelity. Nor was the fixed camera angle, capturing the pianist in profile from the treble end, consistent with contemporary production values, even though the recital was billed as a co-presentation of the 92nd Street Y, Chamber Music Society of Detroit, and UChicago Presents.

Yet this live performance was characteristic of the sort we can expect to hear for months, as the last holdouts among concert organizers prepare to cancel their summer schedules and doubt is cast even on a September start. The fanciful notion of performing with masks to appropriately seated audiences has been broached by some concert societies, but such arrangements hardly represent a template for the long term. About the only certain thing to say about the present performing-arts environment is that nobody knows what to do.

Apart, that is, from broadcasting performances over the internet. Heartwarming singalongs were so common in March that they fell out of fashion by April. Hausmusik, a century and a half after its heyday, has made a comeback. I enjoyed National Arts Centre Orchestra section violinist Emily Westell playing Kreisler with her husband at the upright piano and the family dog as a somewhat capricious spectator.

Humor is rampant. The Strad has posted a duo performance of Bach’s Badinerie in a supermarket parking lot in Greece. Bolero Juilliard, a fantasy based on the Ravel favorite, is adorned with split-screen images of Juilliard students and alumni performing household tasks and what sometimes appear to be yoga routines. More earnest, but comparably dubious as an artistic artifact, is The Swan Project, which features 14 cellists in 12 countries performing the Saint-Saëns hit from The Carnival of the Animals, in phrase-by-phrase succession. Why not?

There have also been knitted-together performances of remarkable fluency. “We’re going low-tech,” Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb said in his spoken introduction to the Met-At-Home Gala on April 25. Maybe so, but the Met Orchestra rendition of the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana — with each part separately recorded in the players’ respective homes and Yannick Nézet-Séguin somehow leading — was as tenderly curvaceous as it could be. Soprano Lisette Oropesa sounded splendid in an off-brand aria from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable with a prerecorded piano accompaniment piped into a big-screen television. Mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča managed a seductive “Habanera” with what appeared to be a hand-held media player.

These digital arts will continue to evolve. The question is whether they will become — to deploy the now irritating cliché — the new normal. Or, to pose the question on the flip side of this coin: Will audiences who have become accustomed to consuming free music online trouble themselves to schlep downtown and pay good money to hear a pianist, string quartet, or orchestra? I think it is more than an expression of personal and professional optimism to predict that they will.

Many who agree with me will cite the communal experience of gathering with hundreds of strangers who love great music. Concertgoing in this view is analogous to churchgoing. The idea is to be quiet together and awed by the ineffable. And in a temple, no less.

Others stress the immediacy, spontaneity, and risk entailed by “real” musical communication as opposed to the mediated type. “Music happens when you are in the physical presence of someone moving air to express musical thought,” is how a clarinetist friend put it recently on Facebook. It is a venerable conviction that found expression in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, a 1935 essay by the theorist Walter Benjamin: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

A case can be made also for the superior acoustics of the live experience, especially in 2020, after a series of technological advances that paradoxically resulted in a setback in music playback quality as it is experienced by all but a few determined purists. (If you think your cellphone sounds fine, wait until you hear a stereo setup from the 1970s.)

Of course, the opposing arguments in favor of at-home music consumption are considerable, and as old as Edison. You are spared the expense and trouble of leaving your own home. You can sip (or indeed smoke) the sedative of your choice, shift your weight, cough and scratch yourself at will. Phone call or incoming tweet? Hit pause. Did the trombone enter late? Rewind and confirm.

In general, you hear the concerts when you want to rather than when the presenter wants you to hear them. This has always been true of recordings. But it appears also to be true also of “livestreams,” which are often available after the initial broadcast (as was the Hamelin recital at press time).

Indeed, the livestream isn’t really so new. The Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall has been with us since 2008; the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD started simulcasting to cinemas in 2006. Heck, Live from the Metropolitan Opera was delivering opera to living rooms in 1977. Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts were live 20 years earlier.

Still, there is no question that music-lovers have been made newly aware since the outbreak of the advantages of mediated performance over in-situ concert attendance. Possibly the points invoked above on behalf of one experience or the other can be reckoned a wash. But seldom considered is the special quality of the live concert experience for the individual who is compelled by circumstance and convention to sit quietly and listen. There is no consulting the cellphone in the middle of a Mahler symphony, no putting Brahms on hold to answer the call of nature, no sipping Chablis through Die Walküre, no observing out loud to whoever might be listening that the concertmaster of the Mariinsky Orchestra has remarkably curly hair.

Attending a concert in person means accepting delivery of the music in a concertante context, without visual cues supplied by a production team deploying multiple cameras. It means hearing the solo at the start of The Rite of Spring emerge from the midst of the stage (or the pit) rather than from a bassoonist who might as well be sitting in your lap. It means being impressed not simply by the conductor’s scowls and calisthenics but by how these tactics elicit musical results.

Ironically, the discomfort and inconvenience of live attendance comes at a price, which might itself add to its ceremonial aura. If you pay this much and take this trouble, there is an incentive to get the most out of the experience.

Despite my show of confidence, I cannot say for certain that everything will be the same when COVID-19 subsides and concert halls and opera houses reopen. Millions have been coached to fear transmission and rely on the internet for music. For some, the lessons will be hard to unlearn. And people won’t necessarily have as much money to spend on tickets.

Yet ultimately, I think it is not a matter of whether but of when. Predicting the “whether” is like predicting the weather. Will live concerts resume? Is it going to rain? Without a doubt. Eventually.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and La Scena Musicale.