Coronavirus Conditions Make Us Rethink Classical Music for Decade Ahead

Photo courtesy of Pacific Symphony

The Pacific Symphony and the Pacific Chorale perform Orff’s “Carmina Burana” in the Henry and Renee Segerstrom Concert Hall in September 2019.

Arts & Culture Series:

THE DECADE AHEAD

At the end of last year, it seemed like every beat journalist in America was making grand summations of the previous decade. We opted not to follow that trend. Instead, the arts team at Voice of OC has decided to look ahead and make some predictions about what’s going to happen in Orange County between now and the end of 2029.

This month, we focus on the county’s classical music scene. This is the final story in this series

SERIES SCHEDULE

February: Theater/big stages, by Paul Hodgins

March: Visual Arts, by Richard Chang

April: Dance, by Laura Bleiberg

Good day, dear readers, and welcome to my bunker. It’s six feet underground in my backyard and I have enough coffee and sardines in stock to last me until 2024. I have a desk and a lamp and a laptop and wifi. It is from here that I will undertake my prognostications on the decade ahead for classical music in Orange County. Breath deeply (through a mask).

Just right now, as it happens, we’re in an unpredictable moment, in every sphere of life. The world of classical music, hit hard by the COVID-19 challenges, is no different. There’s no one that can tell you what the next decade will bring for our orchestras, opera companies, chamber ensembles, recitalists and the like, not you, not the heads of these performing groups, not the musicians and certainly not me. However, we can all imagine certain scenarios.

My inbox is currently filled with links to streaming events, both past and present. This has seemed the logical way, for many performing ensembles and solo musicians, to share their artistry. Whether they know it or not, it’s no long-term solution to the problem of safe-at-home restrictions and social distancing, etc., and it’s not even a very good short term solution either. Frankly, I couldn’t care less about a live music event on Facebook or Twitter, or your orchestra members all playing Beethoven’s Seventh from their homes on YouTube, coordinated by a video tape of the conductor back in January (as Orange County’s Pacific Symphony and Carl St.Clair have done). I want to be there in the concert hall with the musicians and audience, bask in the acoustics and immediacy and community, and hear a performance take shape as it happens.

In some ways, classical music groups face the same challenges as sports teams do, and in other ways it’s different. There’s the problem of large crowds congregating in an enclosed space, crowds necessary for these musical institutions to survive. There’s the problem of the musicians in close proximity to each other onstage, made even worse in an orchestra with half of the musicians (the woodwinds and the brass) blowing moist air through their instruments on everyone around them. You could space out the audience and achieve social distancing requirements by letting fewer people into each concert, but an orchestra and other ensembles generally have to play with the musicians in a tight unit. Brahms, like football, can’t be performed yards apart.

Which brings us back to sports. There’s talk about bringing some of that back without fans in the stands. You’d presumably test the players first. The games would be broadcast on TV. I think most sports fans would be perfectly pleased with that; in some ways, sports on TV are an improvement over watching games in the stands. Not so with classical music. The experience of hearing a Mahler symphony or a Verdi opera on your computer screen is vastly different than being in the same room as it happens, the difference being a part of the experience that is crucial to enjoying it. Besides — and here’s the bottom line — no one is ever going to pay to hear your group perform online. There’s too much free there already. What’s more, online the Pacific Symphony, say, competes for viewers on equal terms with the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony and whoever you’d like to name. It’s not a recipe for survival.

Organizations such as the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which presents a vigorous season of touring orchestras, chamber ensembles and recitalists at Segerstrom Concert Hall and other venues, face slightly different issues still. Their seasons are planned years in advance and slate groups from all over the world. What if these viruses keeping popping up here, there and everywhere over the next few years? The announcement of your upcoming subscription season, for a group like the Philharmonic Society, will begin to look like a list of possible and probable cancellations, and how many listeners want to buy into that? And if you can’t sell your subscription season, well …

So far, we’ve been assuming that there will continue to be problems that, at least now and then, require social distancing and home quarantines. It’s definitely something all these groups are going to have to consider over the next decade. Something good could come out of it, though, and that would be the end of subscription seasons as we know them. Subscription seasons, designed to attract a particular kind of listener, older, moneyed, more conservative, able to fork out for a year’s worth of tickets in advance, have long been holding classical music back from its better, more exciting and interesting self.

What if concerts were announced one or two at a time, just a week or two in advance? The tickets would be sold per concert, not per season, and the marketing would be heavy on social media. Concert programs could be designed to attract different communities in the county, rather than the monolithic subscription crowd. What’s more, it would allow the groups to perform exactly when circumstances allowed, rather than cancel concerts when they didn’t. (What Pacific Symphony could do this summer, for instance, if the virus takes a break, is perform a number of such “last minute” concerts, making up for all those missed during the shutdown.)

We’re now going through the worst economic downturn since the Great Recession. We lost one of our biggest groups then (Opera Pacific, and it never came back), and we’ll possibly lose one or two this time as well. The economic impact of the shutdown will no doubt be felt for years to come for our classical organizations because so much of their money comes from donors, who donate excess funds from their investments as tax write-offs. When those investments suffer, there’s not enough to give. That’s what happened to Opera Pacific — the donors were tapped out, so they pulled the plug. Even if none of our organizations shut down operations, layoffs and less ambitious presentations may be in the offing.

And what if all goes back to normal, as we all hope, that there’s a vaccine and no more viruses and the birds chirp merrily and we all romp on the beach and everything is sweetness and light? The experience of this pandemic will certainly not be forgotten by our classical music organizations, and one hopes they will be better prepared for another one if it hits.

Beyond that, what might we see in the decade to come? In 2022, Carl St.Clair, music director of the Pacific Symphony since the George H. W. Bush administration, will turn 70. Look for him to retire (at some point) and take up a position as conductor laureate, and look for some other young gun to take over the top spot at our largest classical music institution. That’ll be interesting to watch.

Who will survive, who will thrive? It will be interesting to see the creative responses to the challenges ahead. Is it likely that solo recitals and chamber music will come to the fore (fewer musicians, smaller audiences)? Trio Céleste might be ideally positioned. At Soka Performing Arts Center, the superb piano recital series might be presented with the audience practicing social distancing throughout the hall. Perhaps an enterprising group such as the Choral Arts Initiative could commission some spatial music, pieces performed with the musicians spaced widely apart. (A coronavirus cantata?)

The possibilities are intriguing. But no one’s paying me to come up with them, so I’ll stop here.

Now, back to my sardines.

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at [email protected].