IN: News & Features

A Return Engagement of an Adversary


CEO Volpe has a lot on his mind.

A BSO insider muses on plagues, players, and pay in the context of management’s recent staff reductions and Tuesday’s upcoming vote on player salary givebacks.

Like every other American symphony orchestra, the Boston Symphony is challenged to find an artistic and financial path forward through the labyrinth of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An invisible quasi-living microorganism, relentlessly infectious, spreads fear and death among vast populations. Lockdowns, self-isolation, quarantines, contact tracing, and facemasks prove controversial and only partially effective. Social dislocation, anxiety, staggering loss of life, and massive economic downturn threaten to bring a major power to its knees as it struggles to retain its international preeminence. The US in 2020? How about Venice in the 17th century?        

The other day, I was practicing the dazzling finale of the Vivaldi Violin Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 10. Though in the score Vivaldi refers to the movement as a Giga, it has all the frenetic fever of a traditional Italian whirling tarantella. I like to think he opted to call it a Giga, a more acceptable designation than the pagan tarantella, in deference to the sensitivities of his Catholic employers at the Ospedale della Pietà, who nevertheless found reason to fire him on more than one occasion.  

Trying to dance away the hysteria from the bite of a poisonous spider was one thing, but Venetians had far greater apprehensions about a more formidable, invisible enemy, an enemy that had literally plagued them and all of Europe on and off for centuries. It was the bubonic plague or, more poetically, the Black Death.         

That Vivaldi survived infancy at all has been our great good fortune. Born in 1678, he was only two generations removed from a catastrophic visitation of the bubonic plague which had attacked the Venetian Republic in 1630. He also dodged a bullet geographically. The Great Plague of Vienna in 1679 killed 76,000 and the 1681 Prague epidemic claimed 83,000 victims.        

However, because Vivaldi was born in a weakened state—he had lifelong bronchial struggles—the midwife who delivered him baptized him immediately out of concern he wouldn’t last long enough to be baptized in the church. If the plague had been raging when he was an infant, he undoubtedly would have been classified in what we currently term the high risk population, and chances are he would not have survived to compose the thousands of masterpieces with which we are now blessed. In another sense, the timing of his birth couldn’t have been more precarious, because on that day, March 4, 1678, there was an earthquake in Venice. That might also be the reason the midwife was anxious to baptize the infant Antonio. When it rains, it pours.           

In those days, no one had any concept of microorganisms like bacteria or viruses. They hadn’t even yet grasped the concepts of presymptomatic or asymptomatic disease carriers. Still, the Venetians were organized, and somewhat successful, in their efforts to control the epidemics.

How did they do it? In ways that sound familiar: sequestering people who displayed symptoms in cordoned-off facilities (the word quarantine itself comes from the Venetians requirement to isolate infected people for 40 days), locking down entire islands on their critical trade routes when an infection was detected, interviewing sailors and passengers on incoming ships to find out who they might have spread the disease to.

Though their advanced, strict policies no doubt saved an untold number of lives, the plague of 1630 killed approximately forty thousand Venetians (almost a third of the population) and broke the back of the dominance of The Most Serene Republic of Venice as a maritime power that had lasted for a millennium, eventually succumbing to might of Napoleon as an independent state at the end of the eighteenth century.

Fast forward to 2020.           

It’s always a delicate balance. The pleading clarinet solo in Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, the lusty horn trio in Beethoven’s Eroica, the braggadocio of the concertmaster solo in Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. Too much of this or too little of that from the supporting cast will spoil the balance and ruin the performance. Everything the musicians need to know about balance comes from the tip of the conductor’s baton. Great conductors don’t need to talk very much; they communicate everything that’s needed with their gestures.         

These days, however, things are different. Balance is dictated not by the maestro, but by an invisible, microscopic virus named COVID-19. The future of symphony orchestras is in the hands of this unpredictable music director.           

In some ways, the world today looks chillingly similar to Vivaldi’s. There is currently no cure, no effective treatment, no vaccine for COVID-19, just as there wasn’t for the plague. Though there is a good chance of recovery and though many may avoid infection altogether, no individual is physically immune. Likewise, no institution is immune from its repercussions, which reverberate through every level of society. For all businesses and organizations, particularly in the performing arts, survival is the name of the game. Even rock solid, venerable institutions like the Boston Symphony, with seemingly impervious financial firewalls, have taken a punch to the gut, which make their immediate futures precarious and their long-term outlooks a question mark.        

At the same time, is it possible that even in the midst of all this justifiable angst there is also an opportunity to re-envision the whole notion of classical concert music: how it is performed, what is performed, how it relates to its audiences? After all, even with the millions of lives that were lost to the plague, from the Black Death in the 1300s and through its multiple unwelcome reprises into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, music did not come to an end. It thrived. The Baroque period, which began approximately concurrent with the devastating plague outbreak of 1630, was a golden era in the history of European music.        

In Venice, a city which had endured the plague five times, where thankful citizens gave money to “plague churches” in the hope their donations would ensure their continued survival, in a time when Purgatory and Hell were thought to be very real places, amazingly enough the terror of the plague could even be a source of artistic inspiration. As Daniel Harding wrote: “[Vivaldi’s] Credo is no rose-tinted joyous affirmation of faith; rather, it’s a fist-clenched proclamation, driven by a very real fear. The somber E Minor tonality broods throughout the first and last movements—there is no escape from its relentless grip.” (Passion Play: Discovering the Darkness at the Heart of Vivaldi This Easter, March 11, 2016)

For this article, I asked a series of questions to a cross section of the Boston Symphony community: musicians, staff, administration, freelance musicians, and audience members. The responses were generally cautious but insightful perspectives on the present and future of the Boston Symphony specifically, and on the state of the performing arts more broadly.         

There were those who chose not to respond, either tacitly or explicitly, because in addition to being involved in negotiations to figure out how to navigate through this pandemic, it’s also the case that the musicians and the Symphony are engaged in intense collective bargaining at the end of their current multi-year contract, which expired on August 23rd.  I completely understood the reluctance.

Back in the 1980s, when I was a full-time violinist with the BSO and chair of the musicians negotiating team, we explicitly instructed the musicians that any messages to the media (I guess I’m the media now) should be funneled through the official, single, unified voice of the Orchestra Committee. It makes sense. Personal opinions re-tooled by journalists can send mixed signals, cause confusion back at the bargaining table, and upend otherwise constructive negotiations. In consideration of sensitivity of the issues and people’s positions within the organization, I offered to not name any names and to minimize verbatim quotes for this article.        

Still, those responses I did receive about what the Symphony’s next steps should be were very revealing, and reflected, not surprisingly, a spectrum of views ranging from “let’s jump back in pool with our eyes wide open” to “discretion is the better part of valor.” Just as in the broader culture, there was no consensus among any of the affected parties on how to proceed. That’s also to be expected and appreciated, particularly among the musicians themselves. It’s a rare evening when there’s unanimity among the musicians onstage on the quality of a given composition, performance, conductor, or guest artist. Likewise, coming to grips with the reality of an unprecedented cultural lockdown will not have a one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, it will be the product of an ongoing process of intelligent, well-intentioned but not necessarily like-minded people sitting down and figuring things out on the fly.       

That’s not to say everyone is happy with the way things are going. Not by any means.

I had been engaged to play with the BSO on its February 2020 concert tour to Asia, which included concerts in Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, and Shanghai. Over the winter, the concern leading up to the tour was that political unrest in Hong Kong might create security problems for the orchestra. COVID-19 was hardly a blip on the radar.           

Wuhan changed everything. The tour was cancelled less than a week before departure. Then, in March, concerts in Boston were shut down until the end of the spring season. Then Pops. Then Tanglewood. Then the beginning of the 2020-21 Subscription Season. All of those cancellations created a gaping hole in revenue. Freelance musicians, for whom employment as extras and substitutes with the BSO provided the bulk of their annual income, were abruptly cut off without a lifeline and had to start re-planning their entire futures. With virtually no other live performing taking place, some are currently devoting more time to other activities like teaching (mostly online) while others are changing careers entirely, taking online courses in business and IT. Dozens of BSO staff have been furloughed since April with scant communication from the administration. On August 21st, the Boston Symphony announced it was laying off 50 full-time administrative staffers, close to a third of its full complement of 180 [BSO press release HERE]. While on furlough, employees were at least receiving health insurance. I have not found out how long that will continue.           

The administration took a cut in pay [see BMInt article HERE], and earlier this summer, the BSO’s full-time musicians commendably agreed to reduced salaries equal to 90% of the minimum base scale. (Understand that most of the musicians are overscale, with some of the principal players earning substantially more.) There’s no guarantee that this accommodation can be sustained past the expiration of the contract. In fact, it’s a given that salaries will come under increased pressure until live performances return to the stage. But who knows when that will be?         

Out of concerns for safety, some of the musicians share the Symphony’s “abundance of caution” approach to reopening, which means that in in all likelihood no live concerts will take place before 2021. Even January now seems optimistic. They have concerns about the logistics of resuming live performances: musicians spreading the virus among each other onstage; the effectiveness of Symphony Hall’s ventilation system; how to socially distance the audience as they enter and exit the hall; how to manage bathroom use for large numbers of people.         

The great unifying hope is that until such time that a vaccine is available, the trustees’ largesse and the Symphony’s cash reserves will be able to sustain the organization. In the interim, there is support for the Symphony to continue as it has for the last several months with its creative programs of online and archival performances, designed not only to keep the orchestra in the public eye, but also as an opportunity to develop new interactive ways of reaching out to the community, and to utilize new technologies innovatively to expand the scope of music performance. As a case in point they cite the popularity of the BSO’s quickly assembled Tanglewood Online. But no live performances.       

Other musicians take a different point of view, believing that the Symphony has been excessively cautious and has not giving enough serious consideration to proposals for safely presenting live concerts. Some conjecture that the Symphony’s reluctance has been guided more by its insurer’s concern for liability than by the realities on the ground. Despite abundant, across-the-board appreciation for BSO President and CEO Mark Volpe’s stewardship of the organization for more than two decades, some musicians, fearing an irreparable severance of the connection between the orchestra and live audiences, believe it’s time for a more proactive approach to return to the stage. They believe that, given the state’s guidelines for safe assembly, it is possible and advisable to develop a roadmap right now that plans for a gradual reintroduction of live performances in a methodical, step-by-step way: first with small ensembles performing outdoors, live streamed but without a live audience; then outdoors with an audience; then moving indoors and ratcheting up both the ensemble and audience sizes, recognizing that at any point along the way it might be necessary to take a step back. They point to innovative efforts by European and American orchestras, like the Dallas Symphony, which have experimented presenting live concerts with small ensembles in various formats, including outdoor concerts, in consultation with local health specialists. Andris Nelsons, the BSO’s music director, has in fact spent the summer conducting in Leipzig, Amsterdam, and Salzburg.           

In order to ward off irrelevancy, a prospect that may or may not be unfounded, some musicians have organized their own small, live performances with the tacit consent of the BSO, though without approval to fly the BSO banner. Others have tried their hands putting together performances using new technologies, with mixed results. One group, boldly diving in to 21st-century technology (an app called Acapella) with 20th-century computer skills and 19th-century repertoire, attempted to record a string quartet remotely, which ended up being a “total disaster” and “traumatizing.” One member bemoaned the absence of the joy of making music in the same room together, responding each other’s body language, even how they breathe together.           

And what of the audiences? One devoted BSO concertgoer, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, expressed his eagerness to return to the concert hall, provided that proper social distancing protocols and effective ventilation could be in effect. On the other hand, it has been conjectured that younger music lovers, at lower risk and perhaps more willing to venture out into the brave new world, might be more persuadable to return. Might that suggest a sea change in programing or concert formatting, such a shorter concerts at different hours with less reliance on the old standby repertoire? This kind of thinking has been going on for years as technology and tastes change and as symphony orchestras search for that delicate balance between its core mission and its need to reach out to a broader public. The search for answers to the COVID-19 conundrum will likely only accelerate that process.

What is there to look forward to? For the BSO musicians, staff, and administration, a slow, baby step return to normalcy, starting with modest, live-streamed projects. The extra musicians, the freelancers will almost certainly not be part of this process for the foreseeable future. They’re on their own.         

What is there to be thankful for? The Boston Symphony has been as rock solid as any in the industry for over a century. It survived the Great Recession of 2008 in better financial condition than virtually any other American orchestra, and there is no lack of confidence it will endure long after this current crisis.           

What else? None of the musicians has yet been stricken with the virus—we can be thankful for that—but certainly, if the virus is not totally tamped down, the older players will be more at risk when they return to the stage. Will they return, or might they simply decide that after 30, 40, 50 years of dedicated service, the gamble is not worth it compared to retiring in safety on a well-earned, comfortable pension? It would be a serious loss to the organization to lose its veteran players, both in terms of morale and experience, but if other orchestras less able to wait out the storm were to close their doors permanently, there may well be a surfeit of unemployed musicians scouring the country, looking for new jobs. One musician, whose anxiety no doubt echoed many others, said, “Music has been my entire life. What else can I do?”           

Mark Volpe will be stepping down from his leadership position next February, after 23 years at the helm. The announcement of his retirement was timed with Shakespearean irony, while the orchestra was in rehearsal for its ill-fated Asia tour. A search for Volpe’s successor has been underway. It will be a daunting task for his replacement to rebuild the organization. But two things seem unanimous: Faith in the BSO’s ability to endure the turmoil and hardship of the times, and a recognition that a return to health of the BSO specifically and of the performing arts in general is linked to a clear national policy to control the virus and, at least in the interim, of government support of arts organizations.           

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, with people dropping by the hundreds and the thousands with the horrific symptoms of the bubonic plague, the world might truly have seemed like it was going to come to an end. But it didn’t.       

Humanity hasn’t changed much since then, nor has our response to invisible enemies. Yes, we now know how bacteria carried in fleas on rats’ backs caused the bubonic plague and we know all too well what a COVID-19 virus looks like. But musicians are still musicians. They still make their living much like they used to. They still have to get up in the morning, rosin up their bows and go to work. Music prevailed through it all. Emerging from of the ruins of 17th-century chaos were none other than Vivaldi and Bach, followed by Mozart and Haydn. And then by… We know the rest.        

In 1723, a year after the plague of Marseille, which killed 100,000 people, Bach composed a cantata in response to the horror, entitled Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe, (There is Nothing Sound in My Body, BWV 25). While dissonant and imbued with pathos, it also offered comfort and hope—in the next life if not in this one—to the sick and grieving in the darkest of times. It carries a message as relevant today as it was then:

Heal me, dear Lord, for I am ill and weak. My heart, sorely wounded, suffers great hardship. My bones are shaken. I have great fear and anxiety. My soul, too, is shaken.  Ah, Lord, why so long?

The entire world is just a hospital, where humanity in innumerable great throngs and also children in their cradles have been laid low with sickness.

Have mercy, you healer and helper of the sick, do not drive me away from Your    presence. My savior, make me pure from leprous sin, then I shall dedicate to you my entire heart in return and thank you lifelong for Your assistance.

What will symphony orchestras look like next year, next decade? Maybe part of the answer, with the current thinking of presenting small ensembles playing for small audiences in small venues, is to revisit the repertoire of those earlier pandemic times. Not only Bach cantatas and Vivaldi sonatas, but libraries full of first-rate repertoire that has been gathering dust and has gone virtually unplayed in the past 300 years. Just among Vivaldi’s fellow Venetians are composers like Porta, Gasparini, Bernasconi, Latilla, Sarti. I bet you’ve never heard of them or their music. You should! They were rock stars in their day and their music, worthy of the most discerning audience, has simply been waiting in the wings for the right venues. Why not a season of undiscovered masterpieces reaching out over the centuries from one pandemic to another, connecting us to another time when humanity had to confront its mortality in the face an intractable, invisible foe? Why not a season of Baroque world premieres?        

Or, on the opposite end, when future generations look back upon this time, maybe they’ll see how young contemporary composers, the new Bachs and Vivaldis, experimenting with new formats and new formulas, combining live and streamed performance, created an entirely new esthetic that arose like the phoenix out of the ashes of uncertainty.       

During this period of enforced transition, as long as we continue to be creative with the art that has not only endured but also has flourished throughout humankind’s most trying tribulations, we can still have hope for a vibrant future. We can be creative. We can be resourceful. I couldn’t say it better than this anonymous source:

The point is to remain active in a way that one can still serve the community and provide that much needed artistic activity, which, in my opinion, is what binds our society together. It is in difficult times when we must draw strength from the passion that we feel for music and what it gives us.

Gerald Elias, a former violinist with the Boston Symphony and associate concertmaster of the Utah Symphony, has written the prize-winning Daniel Jacobus mystery series, which takes place in the dark corners of the classical music world. His first political thriller, The Beethoven Sequence, about a mentally unstable president, will be released on September 8th by Level Best Books.


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thanks for this article. While it is still impossible to say just how and when the BSO and othr organizations will find their way to new seasons and new ways of presenting the music that feeds our souls, you’ve given us a very informative overview of plagues past and, in some odd way, a heartening sense that, as other generations have survived and thrived, we too will survive the current plague and figure out how to thrive in a world we will learn to recognize and cherish. Write on!

    Comment by Jaylyn — August 24, 2020 at 9:13 am

  2. It’s a good thing to think about the steps of recovery, even if what one dreams of may not be possible. Planning means we can begin to organize for what we imagine the future will hold. There’s nothing like looking to the past to predict the future. And it reassures is there will be a future, too.

    Comment by Priscilla Hallberg — August 24, 2020 at 1:33 pm

  3. On a tangential note, I’ve read all of the Daniel Jacobus mysteries and have greatly enjoyed them. The blind violinist is a wonderful creation, able to analyze a student’s mechanics from the sound produced, and a genuine artist in a world of flash and glitter. The discussions of the practice sessions with old friends are priceless, and excellent lessons in what musical performance can and should be.

    Comment by Leon Golub — August 29, 2020 at 8:04 pm

  4. For the record, Gasparini I had heard/read of by name; none of the others. A discussion of the inanities of WCRB-WGBH etc. is for another time, but that outfit is one of the reasons we haven’t head their music, but there were more Classical outlets on the radio 55 years ago when I entered my teens and the dissemination of Music has vastly changed since then. (The latest seems to be that WHRB is going soft with more rock music and abysmal staffing as in playing the wrong recordings then cutting mid-piece to the drivel of Record Hospital.) Just an idea, but the effects of the Wuhan/COVID-19 plague on cultural industries and not just live music may be more similar to what the two world wars did in permanently disrupting how things were done. The Big Problem is going to be how to support those who make a living doing this because that it how music happens. Thank you BMI for running this piece and thank you Mr. Elias for writing it and describing the facets of the problem so well.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — September 3, 2020 at 2:31 pm

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