Thursday afternoon, March 12, I was heading out to get my hair cut then on to the Rose Studio in Lincoln Center—I was going to review a concert from the Chamber Music Society. Then the cancellations cascaded into my email inbox: Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, museums, and Lincoln Center itself, including CMS.
But the concert was scheduled for just hours away, everything prepared, everyone ready. Then the hall was shut, quarantined from the audience, the audience quarantined from each other—social distancing. CMS has been live streaming their concerts for years, and the organization went on with the show (and a following Sunday matinee), with the obvious idea that this was what they normally do—why not continue.
Of course, this was not what they, or any other live music organization, normally does. Live streaming is integrated into the concert experience, a way for those who can’t join the audience to experience it from a distance. A live performance with no audience other than literally isolated individuals on the other end of an internet connection is something new.
And so Rose Studio became Quarantine Hall, with a New Milestones series performance to start at 7:30 p.m. CMS wasn’t the only quarantined outpost of live music that night; Miller Theatre went on with their Bach Collection concert, led by Simone Dinnerstein and with oboist Alecia Lawyer, mezzo-soprano Kady Evanshyn, violinist Rebecca Fischer, and the ensemble Baroklyn. For Miller, it was an impromptu decision, made at the beginning of the week and, as executive director Melissa Smey announced during her on-camera introduction, the first time Miller had ever live streamed a performance.
The technology isn’t the thing, though—it's a media tool that's been available for years (Lawyer is the founder and Artistic Director of ROCO, an innovative chamber orchestra in Houston that, like CMS, live streams all their performances). The thing is the audience—what made one concert different from another in the past was the musicians who were playing and what music they were making. What made Quarantine Hall concerts different has nothing to do with the music and everything to do with the fact that no one was there.
They were someplace. Watching the live feed from Miller, I could see there were 200 other connected screens at the start, while CMS had 9200 connections when the concert began at 7:30 p.m. sharp (none of the normal 5-10 minute delay for late-comers). The opening piece in the Rose Studio was Arnold Schoenberg's Trio for Strings, Op. 45, and very much like the common experience of a live concert, the distanced audience fled Schoenberg's explosive, haunting mix of atonality and hyper-expressive lyricism. By the end of the piece, the number of connections had dropped below 3000.
That had no effect, though. No one shuffled through a row to escape the hall, no one fidgeted or coughed with boredom and frustration. Not a smartphone was heard chiming a call or text message.
Certain things happen in a live music situation that can only happen in such a situation: there is a brain-body reaction that builds social connections between performers and audience, and among audience members. That social closeness, the spiritual and aesthetic intimacy of live music, is proscribed right now, and it would seem impossible to experience audience-free live streaming as something other than a distant (emotionally as well as geographically) spectacle.
Yet this CMS performance, the Miller Bach concert, and others I caught through the March 14–15 weekend, were acutely intimate. I had no connection with any other viewer, but the musicians gripped me through the screen and speakers. Their own playing was remarkably intimate in a way impossible with an audience—it was like a rehearsal, but more so, and better.
The playing was agile, sensitive, transparent. The musicians were completely open to the experience, sincere, eschewing all gesture and affect. There was an ongoing feeling that every line and phrase was part of a seminar, relaxed but with focused energy, every word not only spoken with meaning but placed in the most perfect grammatical and syntactical structure.
In rehearsal, the musicians will offer each other their ideas about the music by shaping their attacks, dynamics, rise and fall of a melody, all the basic details of musicianship. Nothing is settled, everything is full of life. That was happening in the String Trio, and that was only happening because the musicians had only their own pleasure and satisfaction to play for.
Old rituals die hard, and after each work, the players got up to bow toward the empty chairs. This was touching, a gesture of both joy and humility that had me spontaneously clapping (and I’m sure I was not alone). Most remarkable was that after playing the world premiere of Alexandra Du Bois’s gorgeous, haunting Heron. Rain. Blossom., the composer climbed the stage, greeted the musicians with silent gestures of thanks, and then herself bowed to the empty room.
Quarantine Hall, then, turned out to be a fantastic venue for music. The cameras and microphones didn’t just invite in viewers, the musicians themselves did. They put their absolute trust in the music they were making and exposed themselves, at least as performers, with an immediate and unmediated engagement infrequently found in anyone other than infants. I’m sure when we can all gather together again, that social contact will be like water in the desert, but I already know I’m going to miss Quarantine Hall.