Symphonies Silenced, Sonatas Streamed: The State of Classical Music During COVID-19

By Melissa ChanApril 27, 2020

Symphonies Silenced, Sonatas Streamed: The State of Classical Music During COVID-19
Banner image: The Mahler Chamber Orchestra in pre-pandemic times. “For us, #KeepPlaying is kind of a moral imperative,” says managing director Michael Adick, of the online performances the musicians have played. Image by Geoffroy Schied.

Featured image: Igor Levit was scheduled to play with the London Philharmonic Orchestra this week. Instead, he’s in isolation at his home in Berlin. Image by Robbie Lawrence.


“I AM NERVOUS as fuck,” read the text message. It was from Igor Levit, my friend and the renowned pianist, who’s played concert venues from Carnegie Hall to the Berlin Philharmonie. But he wasn’t about to step on stage. He was about to begin a livestream on Twitter.

In what he called his first “social media house concert,” he played Beethoven’s Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53, commonly known as the “Waldstein” Sonata. Levit launched into the piece at an even faster pace than his already frenetic recording, released last year by Sony Classical.

Notwithstanding the quality of the audio — piped through his iPhone — the music felt exuberant, and also demanding and manic. “The concert halls are empty,” Levit had tweeted earlier. “Listening and experiencing music together is not possible.” It was mid-March — what feels like eons ago — and on both sides of the Atlantic, governments were starting to roll out isolation measures, suddenly putting all of us into suspended animation. With so much uncertainty in the world, his joyous performance provided a half hour of reprieve, disassociating us from the fear of contagion. Three hundred and twenty thousand users on Twitter and Instagram tuned in — more than at any venue he’s ever performed.

As with everything else, the pandemic has upended the classical music world. Soloists like Levit are literally playing solo, with neither an orchestra to accompany them nor crowds to applaud them. Orchestra members feel even more adrift with anxiety. They cannot practice together and — especially in the United States, where the government does little to subsidize the arts — some of their groups face extinction. The Oregon Symphony has already laid off all its musicians. Even the Metropolitan Opera has asked the public for money. “We cannot ensure the future of Met performances or seasons without your help,” wrote Peter Gelb, its general manager, in a fundraising email. And through all this upheaval, musicians, like everybody else, have had to grapple with the isolation that comes with lockdown.

Musicians dislike smartphones — at least during performances. Their beeps and rings disrupt concentration and collective audience meditation, the sounds magnified in the sacrosanct, spacious halls. Some may still recall the offending iPhone tinkle eight years ago during the final bars of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 at the New York Philharmonic. But in these times, classical musicians have turned to the technology as much as anyone else.

Cellist Johannes Moser not only performs on YouTube, but offers master classes, addressing questions amateurs message him. With the hashtag #KeepPlaying, musicians of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (MCO) perform on social media — though always accompanied with the unsettling message that “our situation is critical. DONATE NOW to save the MCO.” Violinist Jennifer Koh has launched the online project Alone Together, in which she commissions violin solos and premieres them from her living room via Instagram. On Twitter, Yo-Yo Ma has appealed to musicians to post #SongsofComfort. And everywhere, music instructors for students of all ages have taken to providing virtual lessons. They have all adopted upbeat attitudes, but in the back of everyone’s minds is how sustainable all of this really is.

“It’s complicated, this idea of free content,” says Koh. “If this does continue for a while, I don’t think it can sustain itself.” Koh has played as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, the L.A. Phil, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Now, like so many other Americans, she has applied for unemployment. But any worry she may feel is imperceptible as she performs. One Saturday evening from her New York apartment, she played a piece entitled “You Are Still Here,” by Sarah Gibson. The notes replicate the way my thoughts seem to bounce around my mind these days, preoccupied by the pandemic.

“The longer it takes, the more difficult it gets,” says Michael Adick, managing director of the MCO. The group defines itself as a “nomadic collective” — an impossible proposition when air travel has now plunged by 90 percent. Made up of more than 50 musicians in some dozen countries, grounded and without ticket sales, they now “depend very much on their systems in their home countries for help,” whether those are unemployment checks or financial loans. The orchestra has established a fund for members who need help the most.

We romanticize musicians, and imagine them as emotionally driven aesthetes who must make music. That is partly true — no one enters such an unstable industry for the money. I often think about the time one must invest to have a music career. Most players showed early talent as toddlers, and have practiced every day ever since. Few other disciplines demand such preparation — essentially two decades of training before even starting work. Yet anyone with a two-year MBA likely makes much more money. It is passion, then, not pay, that drives people to play professionally.

But everyone needs food and shelter, and this pandemic has revealed the precarious financial tightrope so many musicians walk. If we’re now seeing vulnerabilities in the global supply chain for products like masks and pharmaceuticals, the same domino effect plays out in the music world: a canceled festival means musicians don’t make money, and when musicians don’t make money, neither do their agents, managers, publicists — nor do their piano tuners, or sound and light technicians. In opera, seamstresses, makeup artists, and stage hands now have nothing to do. An entire ecosystem falls apart. In Germany, the government has stepped in with a multi-billion-dollar aid package to help freelancers, including those in the arts. But even that will not be enough.

Christoph Drescher manages the annual Thuringia Bach Festival in central Germany. Originally set to begin in April, he had to cancel it one week before its first performance. He had lined up 60 concerts. Advanced planning for the event started almost two years ago — a common lead time in the industry. Once regular activities start to resume, the process of rescheduling everything will pose a considerable challenge. Until then, Drescher feels a “moral responsibility to find solutions for artists and partners,” and spends his days trying to come up with viable alternatives. For now, he’s organized free digital concerts, but he doesn’t think audiences will be “in the mood to pay for online performances” as the global economic downturn deepens. 

In the United States, where orchestras rely more on philanthropy instead of government funding to subsidize ticket sales, the fortunes of musicians depend on how the stock market performs. New York’s Metropolitan Opera acted early, once the economic effects of the pandemic first began to become apparent. By mid-March, it had laid off all of its union members. This month, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra furloughed its entire orchestra and 100 of its administrative staff. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has also announced layoffs and pay cuts

Even as orchestras deal with the immediate financial fallout, many musicians wonder about the day when they can play again. Will concertgoers show up, given their demographic and particular vulnerability to the coronavirus? How can social distancing work in a music hall? Will venues start by selling for a quarter capacity, or ticketing only alternate seats? What if scientists fail to come up with a vaccine, and this becomes the new normal?

“We have no idea when we’ll work again,” says Koh. “I think what’s difficult specifically also in this season is [that] it’s spring. It’s all about birth and life. And exactly the opposite is happening right now.” She has faith that music and concerts will resume, but feels far less certain about which institutions and groups will survive.

This thought occupies Levit’s mind as well. As a top performer, his career will resume after this long intermission, but for many people he knows, theirs may not.

“It is a very, very grim time,” he says. Musicians “were the first to be shut down, and we will be the last to be opened.”

Meanwhile, Levit has been stuck in his apartment for the longest stretch of his life, and what initially felt like a much needed break from his unrelenting travel schedule has now made him restless. But Levit has not stopped playing. On his second night, he dove into Frederic Rzewski’s “The People United, Shall Never Be Defeated,” a set of 36 variations based on a revolutionary Chilean anthem, its message taking on new meaning in this pandemic. The piece lasts an hour. The communion happens “on this weird, social media level,” he tells me. But it helps fight the loneliness. “Playing these gigs every night is really fundamentally lifesaving.”

Levit gives his all in these performances, treating his Twitter audience with no less respect than a physical audience. If possible, he’s playing better, with more focus, ferocity, and honesty — for free — to faceless fans. Other musicians perform online, but they mostly produce short clips. No other classical musician has committed to the experimental enterprise quite like Levit has, a project requiring both endurance and dedication. The diversity of his repertoire serves as a kind of music education, as he plays songs from wide-ranging composers, from Bach to jazz pianist Fred Hersch. One night, he decided to play Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, a two-and-a-half-hour endeavor. Sometimes, he would bang the keys so hard, the tripod on which his smartphone perched would shudder. Tuning in to his performances feels like checking in on his daily mood. In his broadcasts, he often reflects aloud on how he’s feeling. “Everything is kind of confusing,” he began one day. Those of us watching felt the same. Introducing a Schubert sonata, he called it “a piece of loneliness and pain.”

As a society, we worry about a generation of digital natives who spend so little time building relationships in person but so much time online. Studies show how smartphone and social media use exacerbates depression, anxiety, and loneliness. But in this pandemic, technology has served as a lifeline, bringing people together from around the world or just around the block. Musicians in particular have provided solace to a population on edge, and Drescher believes we will emerge from this strange confinement with a greater appreciation for music. Meanwhile, musicians continue to play online — mostly for free — occupying a liminal space with their listeners, somewhere between connection and separation, with no end in sight.

When Levit first started his nightly Twitter performances, I asked him when he intended to stop, suggesting it might not be feasible to play for the entire duration of “this thing” — whatever it is, exactly, that we’re going through. “I don’t know,” he said. He can only take it one day at a time, like all of us.


Melissa Chan is a national and foreign affairs reporter based between Berlin and Los Angeles. She is a collaborator with the Global Reporting Centre and a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.

LARB Contributor

Melissa Chan is an Emmy-nominated journalist based between Los Angeles and Berlin. Her debut graphic novel, You Must Take Part in Revolution, co-authored with activist artist Badiucao, is set for release in 2024. She has written for The New York Times, where she was nominated for a Loeb Award—business journalism’s highest honor—and for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Time, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and more. With Al Jazeera English, she served as a broadcast correspondent in China before her expulsion from the country for the channel’s reports. Her work there was recognized with two Human Rights Press Awards from Amnesty International and a citation from the Overseas Press Club.


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