Après Le Déluge: Music May Come Back Better, Buoyed On Virtual Raft

A live webcast by the Montreal Symphony in January included the debut of Rafael Payare as music director-designate. (Photo by Antoine Saito)

PERSPECTIVE – As music lovers largely deprived of live performances for the past year, we need an aural equivalent to a light at the end of the tunnel. Or a bugle at the back of the balcony. Or a warble at the edge of the woods.

However we choose to express ourselves, it is now possible to hope that the pandemic that has terrorized humanity for more than a year will eventually begin its retreat. And it is arguable that classical music in most of its many manifestations will be all right. Maybe even better off than before the pandemic.

This prophecy is based substantially on intuition and a faith-based adherence to the premise that great music (even in the face of sustained attacks by musicologists who should be informing us about it) will never die. Also in the belief that the long-suppressed potential energy that is expected to fuel a general economic recovery will manifest itself no less forcefully in the arts. Above all, I think that the Large Hadron Collider that is the internet will keep classical music humming for years to come. Digital platforms have hugely expanded the availability of classical music and its exposure to new audiences. Whatever presenters lose in old-fashioned box office they can make up in online views. Depending, of course, on their willingness to do so. 

There are statistics to support my outlook. Two weeks ago, the League of American Orchestras reported that 67 percent of about 200 responding ensembles have offered streamed performances during the pandemic. Orchestras Canada reports a virtual-participation rate of 84 percent among 57 respondents, a difference possibly related to the greater availability in Canada of government grants.

Wine goes well with a live webcast of the Montreal Symphony under future music director Rafael Payare. (Photo by Arthur Kaptainis)

Yet according to the Canadian survey, only 44 percent of orchestras will continue to make concerts available online when normal operations are restored. And only 12 percent will seek to increase their “digital offer.” Not an overwhelming show of enthusiasm, but neither was the prospect of talking pictures universally welcomed in the 1920s. (“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Harry Warner is alleged to have asked his brother Sam.)

A number that strikes me as particularly relevant to the live/online discussion is 75,000, the approximate tally of viewers who fired up their electronic devices on Jan. 10 to experience, as a live webcast, the debut of Rafael Payare as music-director-to-be of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. An event of exceptional interest, to be sure, and online viewing was free. 

Still, the total is impressive by classical standards, especially considering the many options that enrich (or clog) the internet. (The free Metropolitan Opera stream that night was a nicely cast Il trovatore.) Nor did the views of Payare’s debut end on opening night; the concert was available for a week on www.osm.ca and remains available until April 11 on www.medici.tv. Live performances used to happen once and recede quickly into the memory hole. Now they last days or weeks. Sometimes forever.

Obviously, only a fraction of these internet consumers could be counted as potential members of a live audience. But to look at this relation through the other end of the telescope, all it takes is two to three percent of that 75,000-member audience to sell out a typical symphony hall. And all it takes is a few thousand viewers at $20 a pop to pay for a team of onstage videographers many times over. There is an element of risk to any investment, but also a potential payoff.

Not that we should generalize carelessly. Ensembles differ in their resources, and cultural communities vary in their commitment to great music. Montreal, with its multiple orchestras and tradition of public support, is exceptional. Both the OSM and the Orchestre Métropolitain have announced the resumption of live-audience concerts (250 spectators being the provincially ordained maximum, even in the 2,100-seat Maison symphonique). Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the OM, having started a Brahms symphony cycle online, are completing it with an audience. (The webcasts come later.)

In Canada’s rival metropolis, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, after months of silence, is settling for an on-demand performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, while the Canadian Opera Company contents itself with politically enlightened podcasts. These presenters operate under stringent provincial protocols, but the modesty of their output remains striking.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain have started a Brahms symphony cycle online. (Photo by Hans van der Woerde)

In the U.S., the Minnesota Orchestra has shown more fortitude, turning every other Friday into a livestream night, complete with television and radio options for more traditionally minded consumers. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, blessed with temperate weather and the spacious Hollywood Bowl, has been making filmed concerts available online since last summer. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is presenting chamber music online, having recently hazarded a string quintet by Jessie Montgomery along with Beethoven’s Septet, Op. 20. Some orchestras fall between the extremes. The mighty Philadelphia Orchestra is posting online programs of mostly midsize repertoire (last week, Mozart’s Gran Partita). Carnegie Hall, still an icon despite the vacuum within its walls, hopes to reopen in October. You can “select an amount to donate” on a homepage that also offers as dubious clickbait a sing-along series for families.

The question facing these and hundreds of other presenters and performance spaces – and I suspect there is a fair amount of brainstorming going on as you read this – is whether the online options that have been pushed so dramatically into the public sphere since the onset of the pandemic have a role to play in the restoration of concert life. Will orchestras, opera companies, and chamber societies pack away the microphones, send the recording teams home, and return to the old live-music status quo? Or will they attempt to capitalize on the unplanned virtual gains they have experienced?

Surely the shrewdest among them will adopt a hybrid model that accepts the appeal of both the live and online experiences and creates an environment in which one complements the other. Live and livestream are not mutually exclusive practices, any more than the venerable pastimes of concertgoing and listening to a recording. Forty years ago, it was held in some pessimistic quarters that the compact disc would deal a death blow to live music. In fact, the futuristic saucer and the old-fashioned seat in the parterre existed in a symbiosis, one inspiring interest in the other. The age of the CD was also the age of the construction of new concert halls. It is reasonable to expect a similar dynamic to prevail in the 2020s, especially as video streaming replaces audio-only platforms as the principal means of consuming music at home.

To be sure, the online revolution has its paradoxes. Borders fade on the internet. Those 75,000 OSM sales were distributed among 52 countries. Last November, the Montreal Bach Festival presented the Italian pianist Filippo Gorini in a solo performance of The Art of Fugue livestreamed from the National Museum of Cinema in Turin. Just how this could be construed as a Montreal event was not clear. But did it matter?

 A useful frame of reference for discussing the hybrid future is a realm generally thought to be antithetical to classical concertgoing: sports. Clearly, far more fans watch matches on television than in person. Television broadcasts increase awareness of a team’s fortunes and stimulate interest in heading to the arena or stadium. As in the world of music, there is a conviction that experiencing the event in person is superior to receiving it through speakers and on a screen. This is debatable. The broadcast offers instant replay, expert commentary, and updates from around the league.

Many, with cause, hold the audio experience to be superior at a live concert, particularly if home playback equipment is mediocre. But there are advantages also to the online experience, including the option of sipping a glass of wine while you listen and taking a break when it is necessary rather than when it is possible. Whether these comforts contribute to the appreciation of music can be discussed, but they do not stand in the way of access.

One difficulty, if this is what it is, is the sheer abundance of music online. The archival treasures on YouTube and other platforms are virtually limitless. And even if that Met broadcast from 1982 seems a little dusty, there are plenty of recent performances to choose from. If you can tune into Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony as performed in November by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra under Herbert Blomstedt, your evening is a full one, with or without a concert by the local band.

Again, there might be a lesson to be gleaned from the sporting world, where home-team culture overwhelmingly dictates viewing priorities. Like sports fans, orchestra subscribers are able to keep abreast of out-of-town developments without surrendering their primary dedication. Tuning into the Vienna State Opera is a healthy practice as long as it does not interfere with loyalty to the local arts organizations that provides the citizenry with live music.

Despite the brave face I put on this line of argument, there remain many unknowns. Principal among them is how quickly classical audiences will return to the concert hall. Another is whether the online saturation will make even a price as low as $15 (the Philadelphia Orchestra ask) an obstacle to the online consumer. Both of these matters relate closely to the economic viability of arts organizations that have had a very bad year. 

Will presenters return to the two-hours-including-intermission format or continue to cultivate the 70-minute straight-through alternative? Either way, high standards of performance capture are essential to making the internet option viable. Which in turn invites the question of how obtrusively video teams will be allowed to go about their business on stage.

There can be no doubt of the desire of performers to return to the concert hall; musicians love making music. Yet it is interesting that respondents to the Orchestras Canada survey expressed trepidation over managing “changed rights clearances and union requirements.” This might be a good time to remember how difficult it has been in North America to use the contracted service time of orchestra musicians for recordings.

I might not be alone in forecasting an upbeat future for classical music. League of American Orchestras president Simon Woods has summarized the prospects of a hybrid recovery in optimistic terms: “I think we’ve learned two big things about digital content over the past year: First, it’s clear that it will always be part of our future. And second, that it will never replace live performance – neither in terms of experience, nor in terms of revenue.

“These two seemingly contradictory phrases are actually complementary: We have tremendous opportunities…to…manage the interplay between live and digital and explore the different experiences and potential of each medium. And the accelerated learning of the last year puts orchestras in a great place to move forward on that journey.”