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For classical music, spring was the season of solos
When the spring season began, on March 20, the coronavirus pandemic had just brought much of the world to a standstill. In the months that have followed, classical music — an industry more precarious than its moneyed veneer lets on — has been devastated. Ping Zhu/The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- At a time when days can feel longer than months, a reminder: Spring has come and gone.

When that season began, on March 20, the coronavirus pandemic had just brought much of the world to a standstill. In the months that have followed, classical music — an industry more precarious than its moneyed veneer lets on — has been devastated. In this country, live performances probably won’t return before next year, at the earliest. Some institutions have continued to pay their musicians, but indefinite furloughs have become the norm. Freelance artists are suffering most.

With the arrival of summer, bits of prelockdown life are returning. Restaurants are open for more than just takeout. You can get a haircut. And while American theaters remain dark, some European ones are beginning to offer live music to houses that are half empty — or half full, depending on your worldview.

But all spring, musicians globally were isolated. For months when orchestras and opera companies would have dominated the classical calendar, the spotlight shifted to individual performers. Call it the season of the solo.

It’s a phenomenon that wasn’t limited to music. In the forced solitude of quarantine, writers published personal essays; actors filmed monologues; ballet dancers posted their barre exercises on Instagram.

Musicians, through individually recorded videos edited together, occasionally approximated the ensemble experience. The Metropolitan Opera’s orchestra, which hasn’t been paid since March, gave a lush and lovely performance of the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” for the company’s At-Home Gala. And Alan Pierson of the group Alarm Will Sound adapted John Luther Adams’ “Ten Thousand Birds” as “Ten Thousand Screens” — cleverly filmed in an apartment, with birdsong coming from players shown on smartphones and tablets perched throughout.

Yet when I look back on the spring, it’s the solos I’ll truly remember.

These performances were some of the most revealing I’ve ever seen. Artists were entirely in control of their repertoire, not following the program of their orchestra or touring the same handful of concertos. They talked to the camera, in mufti, in their homes.

Solos amplified the qualities we only get glimpses of onstage. The soprano Erin Morley has enchanted as Olympia in Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” and Cunegonde in Bernstein’s “Candide.” At home in Connecticut for the Met’s gala, though, she was more charismatic than ever in “Chacun le sait,” from Donizetti’s “La Fille du Régiment.” She accompanied herself at the piano, smiling at the camera through awe-inspiring coloratura with the charisma of a cabaret singer.

The violinist Alexi Kenney performs with a charm and virtuosity that have made his quarantine videos glimmers of joy. He has already shown precocious mastery in the solo canon, like Bach’s sonatas and partitas. But his latest offerings have been transcriptions. Bach hasn’t been absent — he played an arrangement of a piano work in a closet — yet Kenney has also made room for Ariana Grande and Joni Mitchell.

As Liszt did in the 19th century, Kenney has been expanding on the melodies of popular songs — “Thank U, Next,” “Blue” — with elaborate accompaniment that creates a Bachian illusion of polyphony. Kenney also wrote a busy yet lyrical transcription of Robert Schumann’s “Widmung,” as Liszt famously did for the piano.

Kenney’s videos include links to purchase the sheet music of his arrangements; this may be more helpful to fellow violinists than the general public, but giving money to artists online is vital as classical music continues to be available almost entirely for free during the pandemic. “Donate here” buttons accompany many livestreams; click them, and pay what you can.

Before the lockdown, pianist Igor Levit’s albums and concerts were demanding intellectual thrill rides; alone in his Berlin apartment, Levit’s maximalist tendencies have run free. Originally, his 2020 calendar had been full of Beethoven, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of that composer’s birth. But instead he gave more than 50 daily livestreamed performances of whatever he wanted — largely to save his own sanity, he said. Yes, that included Beethoven, but also rarities like Ronald Stevenson’s exhausting “Passacaglia on DSCH.”




Levit followed his series of house concerts with what may be the peak of his gonzo artistry: a nearly 16-hour livestream of Erik Satie’s “Vexations,” which consists of a few lines of music, repeated 840 times. It’s agonizing to play — few have ever attempted it alone — yet Levit felt that the piece reflected the exasperation wrought by the pandemic. He printed out each of the work’s repetitions, which he will autograph and auction to raise money for out-of-work musicians.

Not as long, but similarly taxing, was a marathon by flutist Claire Chase that raised money for the New Music Solidarity Fund, an initiative that gave more than 1,000 emergency grants to artists affected by the pandemic. In a nearly four-hour livestream from her apartment in Brooklyn, Chase played selections from her commissioning project Density 2036 — named after Varèse’s “Density 21.5” and meant to redefine flute music for a new generation — as well as other works she keeps in rotation.

She opened with Steve Reich’s “Vermont Counterpoint,” which she called “one of the oldest things in my repertoire.” (It says something about this ever-busy advocate for contemporary music that she considers 1982 old.) And Chase remained indefatigable as she continued, with Marcos Balter’s mysteriously beautiful “Pessoa,” and enthusiastically introduced each piece through to Pauline Oliveros’ “20.15,” a breathless onslaught of extended technique and spoken text.

Chase was alone on camera, but community was at the heart of her performance — made literal by the closing piece, a recording of Oliveros’ “Tuning Meditation” adapted for Zoom. It has also been the spirit of “Alone Together,” a commissioning and performance project by violinist Jennifer Koh through her nonprofit, Arco Collaborative.

Created within 48 hours of Koh’s last concert before the closures began in March, “Alone Together” is her attempt to help artists whose careers are just getting started. “As soon as all this happened, it was like getting PTSD from when I was younger, because I was so poor,” she said in an interview. “If I had lost one single gig, I would not be able to make rent. My immediate reaction was: Oh my God, we have to help the younger generation.”

She reached out to 21 composers she knows with salaried jobs, like teaching posts, and commissioned tiny works for solo violin from them, while also asking each to recommend a younger composer for another micro-commission. Every Saturday since early April, Koh has been premiering four of the resulting pieces on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. The Library of Congress is planning to archive the videos.

Remarkable as a musical feat, “Alone Together” also provides a much-needed vision of the classical industry. All but one of the younger composers are people of color, female or nonbinary, with talent in abundance; Angélica Negrón’s joyfully bouncing “Cooper and Emma” held its own on a bill with Andrew Norman’s “Turns of Phrase” and Tania León’s passionate “Anima.”

The season of the solo reached its apex with little more than a minute of music. Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, recently published a black-and-white video on Facebook with a long post reflecting on the killing of George Floyd. In it, McGill plays a spare and mournful version of “America the Beautiful,” with an unexpected minor-key turn. He then takes a knee for 15 silent seconds.

“What I was trying to say,” McGill said in an interview, “is, we can worship these ideals, but I think the American way is to confront them when they don’t live up to the ultimate goal, which is equality for all. We can’t make everything be beautiful when it’s not.”

In his Facebook post, McGill challenged other artists to follow suit, with the hashtag #TakeTwoKnees. He said it was the most he’d done musically since the Philharmonic closed in March and he largely put aside his clarinet. When he made the video, he added, “I felt that for the first time I was able to use my music to reach out, to use that to communicate and start something.”

McGill has lost sleep trying to keep track of all the responses. Prominent artists have taken part, including the tenor Lawrence Brownlee. Lara Downes, kneeling at her piano, played Florence Price’s arrangement of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” And Billy Hunter, the Met Orchestra’s principal trumpet, offered a version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that mutes, and leaves unresolved, crucial phrases: silences where “free” and “brave” should be.

“The fact that people responded to it in that way — reaching across age groups, races, amateur and professional, classical and non — has been completely inspiring and overwhelming,” McGill said, “but it made me realize the power that we all have and what we can do.”

The power of the solo.

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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