Symphonies Silenced, Sonatas Streamed: The State of Classical Music During COVID-19

Soloists like Levit are literally playing solo, with neither an orchestra to accompany them nor crowds to applaud them. Other musicians perform online, but they mostly produce short clips. Once regular activities start to resume, the process of rescheduling everything will pose a considerable challenge. He can only take it one day at a time, like us all. It was from Igor Levit, my friend and the renowned pianist, who’s played concert venues from Carnegie Hall to the Berlin Philharmonie. The orchestra has established a fund for members who need help the most. The Oregon Symphony has already laid off all its musicians. They cannot practice together and — especially in the United States, where the government does little to subsidize the arts — some of their groups face extinction. Levit launched into the piece at an even faster pace than his already frenetic recording, released last year by Sony Classical. With so much uncertainty in the world, his joyous performance provided a half hour of reprieve, disassociating us from the fear of contagion. “We have no idea when we’ll work again,” says Koh. What if scientists fail to come up with a vaccine, and this becomes the new normal? Musicians in particular have provided solace to a population on edge, and Drescher believes we will emerge from this strange confinement with a greater appreciation for music. This month, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra furloughed its entire orchestra and 100 of its administrative staff. Originally set to begin in April, he had to cancel it one week before its first performance. The group defines itself as a “nomadic collective” — an impossible proposition when air travel has now plunged by 90 percent. Studies show how smartphone and social media use exacerbates depression, anxiety, and loneliness. In his broadcasts, he often reflects aloud on how he’s feeling. One Saturday evening from her New York apartment, she played a piece entitled “You Are Still Here,” by Sarah Gibson. 9 at the New York Philharmonic. Tuning in to his performances feels like checking in on his daily mood. With the hashtag #KeepPlaying, musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO) perform on social media — though always accompanied with the unsettling message that “our situation is critical. 21 in C major, Op. Phil, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And everywhere, music instructors for students of all ages have taken to providing virtual lessons. The communion happens “on this weird, social media level,” he tells me. But in these times, classical musicians have turned to the technology as much as anyone else. But even that will not be enough. Musicians “were the first to be shut down, and we will be the last to be opened.”
Meanwhile, Levit has been stuck in his apartment for the longest stretch of his life, and what initially felt like a much needed break from his unrelenting travel schedule has now made him restless. 53, commonly known as the “Waldstein” Sonata. It is passion, then, not pay, that drives people to play professionally. But in this pandemic, technology has served as a lifeline, bringing people together from around the world or just around the block. An entire ecosystem falls apart. DONATE NOW to save the MCO.” Violinist Jennifer Koh has launched the online project Alone Together, in which she commissions violin solos and premieres them from her living room via Instagram. Meanwhile, musicians continue to play online — mostly for free — occupying a liminal space with their listeners, somewhere between connection and separation, with no end in sight. Their beeps and rings disrupt concentration and collective audience meditation, the sounds magnified in the sacrosanct, spacious halls. Even the Metropolitan Opera has asked the public for money. Will venues start by selling for a quarter capacity, or ticketing only alternate seats? One night, he decided to play Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, a two-and-a-half-hour endeavor. That is partly true — no one enters such an unstable industry for the money. Most players showed early talent as toddlers, and have practiced every day ever since. “Listening and experiencing music together is not possible.” It was mid-March — what feels like eons ago — and on both sides of the Atlantic, governments were starting to roll out isolation measures, suddenly putting all of us into suspended animation. Orchestra members feel even more adrift with anxiety. Instead, he’s in isolation at his home in Berlin. Some may still recall the offending iPhone tinkle eight years ago during the final bars of Mahler’s Symphony No. She is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Centre and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations. For now, he’s organized free digital concerts, but he doesn’t think audiences will be “in the mood to pay for online performances” as the global economic downturn deepens. 
In the United States, where orchestras rely more on philanthropy instead of government funding to subsidize ticket sales, the fortunes of musicians depend on how the stock market performs. On his second night, he dove into Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United, Shall Never Be Defeated,” a set of 36 variations based on a revolutionary Chilean anthem, its message taking on new meaning in this pandemic. He was about to begin a livestream on Twitter. “Playing these gigs every night is really fundamentally lifesaving.”
Levit gives his all in these performances, treating his Twitter audience with no less respect than a physical audience. “We cannot ensure the future of Met performances or seasons without your help,” wrote Peter Gelb, its general manager, in a fundraising email. We romanticize musicians, and imagine them as emotionally driven aesthetes who must make music. But it helps fight the loneliness. “I don’t know,” he said. On Twitter, Yo-Yo Ma has appealed to musicians to post #SongsofComfort. APRIL 27, 2020

Banner image: The Mahler Chamber Orchestra in pre-pandemic times. Now, like so many other Americans, she has applied for unemployment. ¤
“I AM NERVOUS as fuck,” read the text message. He had lined up 60 concerts.   The diversity of his repertoire serves as a kind of music education, as he plays songs from wide-ranging composers, from Bach to jazz pianist Fred Hersch. No other classical musician has committed to the experimental enterprise quite like Levit has, a project requiring both endurance and dedication. But everyone needs food and shelter, and this pandemic has revealed the precarious financial tightrope so many musicians walk. Christoph Drescher manages the annual Thuringia Bach Festival in central Germany. If we’re now seeing vulnerabilities in the global supply chain for products like masks and pharmaceuticals, the same domino effect plays out in the music world: a canceled festival means musicians don’t make money, and when musicians don’t make money, neither do their agents, managers, publicists — nor do their piano tuners, or sound and light technicians. “If this does continue for a while, I don’t think it can sustain itself.” Koh has played as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, the L.A. But he wasn’t about to step on stage. Image by Geoffroy Schied. In opera, seamstresses, makeup artists, and stage hands now have nothing to do. It’s all about birth and life. In what he called his first “social media house concert,” he played Beethoven’s Sonata No. By mid-March, it had laid off all of its union members. Will concertgoers show up, given their demographic and particular vulnerability to the coronavirus? Few other disciplines demand such preparation — essentially two decades of training before even starting work. Sometimes, he would bang the keys so hard, the tripod on which his smartphone perched would shudder. But Levit has not stopped playing. “I think what’s difficult specifically also in this season is [that] it’s spring. If possible, he’s playing better, with more focus, ferocity, and honesty — for free — to faceless fans. The notes replicate the way my thoughts seem to bounce around my mind these days, preoccupied by the pandemic. Three hundred and twenty thousand users on Twitter and Instagram tuned in — more than at any venue he’s ever performed. “It’s complicated, this idea of free content,” says Koh. Until then, Drescher feels a “moral responsibility to find solutions for artists and partners,” and spends his days trying to come up with viable alternatives. And through all this upheaval, musicians, like everybody else, have had to grapple with the isolation that comes with lockdown. How can social distancing work in a music hall? ¤
Melissa Chan is a national and foreign affairs reporter based between Berlin and Los Angeles. “The longer it takes, the more difficult it gets,” says Michael Adick, managing director of the MCO. When Levit first started his nightly Twitter performances, I asked him when he intended to stop, suggesting it might not be feasible to play for the entire duration of “this thing” — whatever it is, exactly, that we’re going through. Image by Robbie Lawrence. Introducing a Schubert sonata, he called it “a piece of loneliness and pain.”
As a society, we worry about a generation of digital natives who spend so little time building relationships in person but so much time online. Made up of more than 50 musicians in some dozen countries, grounded and without ticket sales, they now “depend very much on their systems in their home countries for help,” whether those are unemployment checks or financial loans. New York’s Metropolitan Opera acted early, once the economic effects of the pandemic first began to become apparent. In Germany, the government has stepped in with a multi-billion-dollar aid package to help freelancers, including those in the arts. I often think about the time one must invest to have a music career. Musicians dislike smartphones — at least during performances. And exactly the opposite is happening right now.” She has faith that music and concerts will resume, but feels far less certain about which institutions and groups will survive. As a top performer, his career will resume after this long intermission, but for many people he knows, theirs may not. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has also announced layoffs and pay cuts. 
Even as orchestras deal with the immediate financial fallout, many musicians wonder about the day when they can play again. “It is a very, very grim time,” he says. “Everything is kind of confusing,” he began one day. The piece lasts an hour. Yet anyone with a two-year MBA likely makes much more money. But any worry she may feel is imperceptible as she performs. “For us, #KeepPlaying is kind of a moral imperative,” says managing director Michael Adick, of the online performances the musicians have played. Notwithstanding the quality of the audio — piped through his iPhone — the music felt exuberant, and also demanding and manic. “The concert halls are empty,” Levit had tweeted earlier. As with everything else, the pandemic has upended the classical music world. Featured image: Igor Levit was scheduled to play with the London Philharmonic Orchestra this week. They have all adopted upbeat attitudes, but in the back of everyone’s minds is how sustainable all of this really is. Cellist Johannes Moser not only performs on YouTube, but offers master classes, addressing questions amateurs message him. This thought occupies Levit’s mind as well. Those of us watching felt the same. Advanced planning for the event started almost two years ago — a common lead time in the industry.