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In a pandemic, musicians play in empty halls for audiences online
The Metropolitan Opera in New York, March 12, 2020. The Met likely faces the loss of between $8 million and $12 million in box office revenues through the end of March, and more if the closure continues. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Anthony Tommasini

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- I was watching on my computer at home on Thursday afternoon as the Berlin Philharmonic finished a streamed performance of Luciano Berio’s “Sinfonia.” The cameras panned over rows of seats. No one was there. The musicians, dressed in their black-tie best, seemed not to know quite what to do. Finally, they began greeting each other cheerily, then stood and faced the empty hall.

It was one of the most disorienting yet profound views of a performance I’ve ever had.

Since the Metropolitan Opera began broadcasting performances over the radio in the 1930s, the ways in which music can be disseminated have grown far more sophisticated. But the goal has remained the same: to bring you — the listener, and more recently the viewer — into the opera house or concert hall, to make you feel you’re almost part of the “real” audience in the theater.

On Thursday, however, those who tuned in to watch streams of operas, orchestral concerts and chamber music programs, from Berlin to Philadelphia, weren’t aping the live audience. They were the audience — the only audience.

A wide range of institutions, responding to bans on large public gatherings aimed at combating the coronavirus pandemic, could have canceled their performances entirely. (Many did.) But some went ahead with their planned programs, playing to empty houses and streaming the results around the world.

It was an odd, poignant spectacle: dedicated musicians donning costumes or tuxedos to perform for people at home. It felt like music had entered a new realm, with a new bond between artists and audiences — temporary, to be sure, but with implications for the future beyond the pandemic.

In the past, I have praised radio transmissions and high-definition broadcasts as powerful tools for serving devotees of classical music, and perhaps for enticing newcomers. At the same time, I have emphasized that this is an art form that should ideally be experienced live — in halls with natural acoustics, the more intimate the better.

But on Thursday, dipping into six different streamed performances over the afternoon and evening, I felt privileged to be part of this online-only audience. I listened with heightened attentiveness and gratitude. This episode may call more attention to digital streaming services that have been available for years. And when the immediate crisis passes, we may well have taken a new step in acclimating to the idea that streaming is not just an alternative to the “right” way of appreciating classical music, but also a viable performance medium in its own right.

As the cancellations proliferated over the past few days, then exploded Thursday in the New York area, streaming announcements began to pile up. (The public radio station WKAR published an extensive list of them.) In the space of a few hours, there ended up being offerings galore, which made it necessary for me to jump around. I started with the Berlin State Opera’s performance of Bizet’s “Carmen,” which took place in the early evening in Germany and the middle of the afternoon for me; it is archived at

During the orchestral prelude, Daniel Barenboim drew a crisp, clean and fleet performance from the players. The singers could not have been better: The tenor Michael Fabiano, with the drab clothes and grimy face of a restless grifter, sang Don José with youthful energy and ringing sound. The mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili’s voice was soaring and voluptuous. Among the most thrilling opera artists of our time, she was able to sing with subtle allure and intimacy and still suggest that Carmen was willful and dangerous.

As “Carmen” was going, I periodically tuned in to what the superb pianist Igor Levit was calling a “social media house concert”: a performance of Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata, which he played from his apartment in Berlin and streamed over his Twitter account. The piano’s sound was a little tinny over the stream, but the performance was inspired, and moving. While it wasn’t ideal, it would have to suffice, he told his viewers, until “we can meet again to do this in real life.”

Then I tuned into the Berlin Philharmonic’s concert. The orchestra’s home, the Philharmonie, has seating around the stage, which made the special circumstances of this performance all the more obvious. (On Friday, Philharmonic announced that the entirety of its Digital Concert Hall streaming platform would be made available for free.)

Simon Rattle led a program that had long been planned but felt custom-made for this moment: Berio’s “Sinfonia” and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. The Berio work — from 1968, another period of upheaval — is like an “exploration of memory,” Rattle told the virtual audience. Featuring a group of singers as well as orchestra, the piece is a cosmic jumble of texts and musical quotations, with references to Beethoven, Berg, Boulez and more; it’s music that captures chaos.

After intermission came the Bartok, which, as Rattle mentioned, was a piece “written in the middle of World War II by a dying refugee.” Indeed, Bartok, having fled Hungary, was living in New York and feeling displaced and ill when he wrote this piece, with its musical references to his Eastern European homeland. He was grappling, Rattle said, with a question refugees still face today: “How do you take what is deeply important to yourself into a strange place?” The performance was magnificent.

A Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center program, in the intimate Rose Theater, included Schoenberg’s late String Trio, a piece written following a heart attack, of harrowing intensity and stretches of bittersweet lyricism. (A different program will be streamed Sunday afternoon at At the Miller Theater, the pianist Simone Dinnerstein presented a Bach program with players from the Baroklyn ensemble.

Bach is always emotional. But at this particularly unsettled moment, hearing the cantata “Ich habe genug” — about someone who, having experienced her savior’s embrace, no longer feels part of this troubled world — sung by the mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn was overwhelming.

And Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Philadelphia Orchestra at its home, the Kimmel Center, in stirring, incisive accounts of Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth (“Pastoral”) symphonies, and the premiere of Iman Habibi’s “Jeder Baum spricht,” to begin its survey of the complete Beethoven symphonies. (The program, minus the premiere, was scheduled to travel to Carnegie Hall on Friday, but performances there have been canceled through the end of the month.)

I was able to hear almost all of the “Pastoral,” and the performance was infused with fresh, almost rowdy, truly rustic energy, palpable even over my computer screen. At the end, the musicians rose in silence, faced forward, and bowed to us. The real audience.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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