Home » Stories » A classical music critic in New York City could conceivably never spend an evening at home, until now / The New York Times

Top 10 for May

A classical music critic in New York City could conceivably never spend an evening at home, until now / The New York Times

Bookmark and Share

Carnegie Hall presents the world's leading artists virtually every night during its season; Lincoln Center's theaters are almost never dark. Then there are the dozens of smaller venues scattered throughout town. Planning a concert-going calendar, then, has always been a balancing act, full of disappointment that you can't be in multiple places at once.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which caused performances to grind to a halt earlier this month.

I haven't had the heart to delete events in my own calendar, even though in the coming week there's no chance I'll see the premiere of a Kate Soper opera in Montclair, N.J., or hear Mitsuko Uchida play Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations at Carnegie.

But I also haven't had the time.

In-person performances have been replaced by a deluge of digital ones - live streams and recently unlocked archive recordings - that have made for a calendar hardly less busy than before concert halls closed. It's enough to keep a critic happily overwhelmed, yet also wondering whether the industry is making a mistake by giving away so much for free.

The live streams began immediately, with production values ranging from tinny iPhone videos to cinema-ready sophistication. On March 12, the day New York theaters shuttered, the pianist Igor Levit gave a lo-fi performance from his living room, while the Berlin Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra played to empty halls and audiences at home. (In retrospect, these groups of 100 or so musicians should probably have stayed as far apart as the rest of us.)

Since then, a day hasn't gone by without something to stream. In the past week alone, I've been able to watch older performances I missed; ones I had hoped to travel for this spring; ones that would otherwise seem unfathomable, like the pianist Maria João Pires coming out of retirement. If anything, I'm taking in more music than before; the only difference is that now I can be in multiple places - or at least multiple browser tabs - at once.

Many of these videos have had more charm than a typical classical concert, with banter, a casual dress code and imperfect production. Before a scorching streamed performance of Frederic Rzewski's "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!" for the 92nd Street Y - cut short because, hey, the technology isn't reliable - the pianist Conrad Tao worked through his feelings about the medium, talking to the camera in his apartment like a confessional vlogger.

On Monday, the publisher Boosey & Hawkes hosted a live score-reading of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" on YouTube; alongside the video was a candid chat that included artists like the composer David T. Little and the conductors Teddy Abrams, Christopher Rountree and Marin Alsop. (Ms. Alsop was openly, hilariously critical of the often slow tempos in the chosen recording, Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra.)

In breaks from live streams, you can watch archived films. The Industry, an experimental Los Angeles opera company, has made "Sweet Land," whose run was cut short by the closures, available on Vimeo for the more-than-worth-it cost of $14.99. (This is one of the few organizations putting a price tag on their work.)

Once you see how many operas are available online, your free time quickly evaporates. Beth Morrison Projects is putting one on its website every week; right now, you can watch Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek's "Song From the Uproar." (Another Mazzoli-Vavrek piece, "Breaking the Waves," is streaming on SoundCloud.) Rai, the Italian public broadcaster, is playing Gyorgy Kurtag's widely hailed "Fin de Partie," filmed during its premiere run in Milan in 2018.

And a production of Beethoven's "Fidelio" at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, originally planned for this month but then canceled, was thankfully recorded. The direction, by the actor Christoph Waltz, may be a bit chilly; but the sculptural set, by the architects Barkow Leibinger, is a subtle and mesmerizing reflection of the music, propulsive under the baton of Manfred Honeck.

Last weekend, live streams escalated to marathons. The cellist Jan Vogler organized a 24-hour event called Music Never Sleeps NYC, which coincided with Deutsche Grammophon's globe-trotting relay of solo performances for Piano Day. Never have I felt so productive spending hours on YouTube.

Among the Piano Day artists were Ms. Pires, out of retirement for an elegant and lucid reading of Beethoven's "Pathétique" Sonata; and Daniil Trifonov, both eerie and endearing in a mask and gloves as he introduced himself from the Dominican Republic with a selfie video. Music Never Sleeps was a feel-good miracle of coordination and collaboration across musical forms and genres. When it overlapped, at 7 p.m. Eastern time, with a moment for New Yorkers to applaud out their windows for those on the front lines of the pandemic, the conductor David Robertson and the pianist Orli Shaham cleverly offered Steve Reich's "Clapping Music." Later, Inon Barnatan gave an elegant, at times sublime performance of Schubert's Piano Sonata in B flat that I hope to one day hear in person.

The two marathons were studies in contrast. Music Never Sleeps was a soft fund-raiser - not quite a telethon, but presented with the suggestion that fans donate to the NYC Covid-19 Response & Impact Fund and the Local 802 Musicians' Emergency Relief Fund. Piano Day, however, was simply a celebration of top-shelf talent: artists who could - and have - sold out Carnegie, playing here at no cost to viewers.

Like almost every other live stream of the past month, Deutsche Grammophon's felt dangerously reminiscent of the internet's early days, when prestige journalism - including The New York Times - was available for free. Publishers later regretted not monetizing their work from the start; I hope the classical music industry doesn't end up in the same position.

Freelancers, whose incomes depend on live performance, are in crisis as even summer festivals begin to announce their cancellations. The New York Philharmonic is anticipating a loss of $10 million in revenue because of its closure; the Met Opera, up to $60 million.

And yet these are the same artists and organizations giving away their music for free. The Philharmonic launched a website of archived performances, NY Phil Plays On, and is broadcasting older concerts on Facebook every Thursday. The Met is digging into its collection of high-definition movie theater transmissions for nightly streams. It's heartening to witness, and the exposure may be helpful, but it doesn't even begin to cover lost revenue.

So if you like what you hear, donate. Think of the industry as a giant Central Park busker, happy to play but leaving that guitar case open and ready for tips.

The world of classical music has never been more accessible. Rarely, though, has it ever been so endangered. And it's up to all of us to decide just how much it's worth.

Joshua Barone is a senior staff editor on the Culture Desk, where he writes about classical music and other fields including dance, theater and visual art and architecture.