This article first appeared in the Spokesman Review on March 4th, 2021
Conductor’s lives are punctuated by travel. Comings and going’s are part of our natural rhythm. Almost a year ago I left Spokane expecting to be back the following month for the last three concerts of our 19/20 season, a tantalizing menu of Tchaikovsky, Bruckner and Mahler. Well, tantalizing for a megalomanic conductor at any rate. I landed in London, spent a weekend with my fiancée Charlotte and friends, and then continued on for more work in Finland. It was at the end of that week the ban on US entry for people who had been in the European Schengen zone took effect. I flew back to Scotland and until this week I’ve been there for the past year. I haven’t been in one place for so long since I left home for university. I’m happy to report that all this time at home didn’t go too badly – Charlotte and I married between lockdowns in August so I guess you can say we survived the Mars Capsule Test. I’m not sure I would want to face that challenge with Elon Musk.
As I write I’m on day two of a fourteen-day hard quarantine in Seattle, the last of number of hurdles I’ve had to clear in order to get back to my orchestra. The only exception to the travel ban is to get a National Interest Exemption that allows entry under very limited conditions. Thanks to the help of Congresswoman McMorris-Rodgers and Senator Cantwell I was granted the NIE and flew last Sunday on an mostly empty flight from London to Seattle. A flight attendant told me there was more smoked Scottish salmon on the plane than people. How airlines are surviving this time is beyond me although their predicament is similar to the one we find ourselves in the Arts.
If there’s an image that captures the knack of running an orchestra I’d say it’s rather like a clairvoyant juggling knives while walking a tightrope. We have to predict with some accuracy how well individual concerts will do and how, over a series, we can balance more commercial programs with more heavyweight events that tend to draw a more specialized crowd, a practice sometimes called the “Mahler Tax” by players. We have to have a good idea of how much we will earn from renting out our hall and working as promotor for our guest artist series Fox Presents. We have to accurately predict what our generous benefactors and corporations will help us with in donated income, all the while keeping track of the complicated rules and regulations that control the way we work. We were pretty good at making these predictions, but the pandemic has churned up an impossible array of unknown variables: What proportion of our hall will we be able to sell next season? Will we be back to 100% or as is more likely have a capped capacity? What will that cap be and when might that change? Will people be willing to come back into a concert hall in the near future or is this something that will take a while to re-balance? Like the airlines our revenue is tied to how many people we serve – how long will it take before we be able to get our earned income back to pre-Covid levels?
The way orchestras run has changed little in the last decades, adhering to the idea that we must plan at least a year or two in advance, perform on set days of the week and expect our patrons to pay for a subscription that commits them to events to be held on evenings many months away. The Covid disruption could be a chance to reassess some fundamentally held beliefs to the benefit of everyone.
Now we find ourselves in an interim period that seems to extend beyond any visible horizon. Over the next few weeks we will record a series of digital concerts with various combinations of players. It’s impossible to translate the experience of live music on to a screen and so rather than just throw a bunch of musicians on stage and film them, we will surround the music with discussions on linked topics with a variety of smart engaging people. Each episode will follow a theme and we’ll explore how the same ideas have expressed themselves in art, literature, religion and science.
There’s a great deal to do and it’s nice to be busy with artistic work again. But this year has taught me something very precious. There’s a danger in being busy – it stops you from contemplation, from engaging meaningfully with the world outside our own head.
The year in Scotland has connected me deeply to the nature there, inspired by my new parents-in-law Laura and Simon Blackwood, both artists who take inspiration from the natural world around them. The way they see and celebrate the incremental passage of time has been an inspiration: The first appearance of daffodils in March, the azaleas exploding into riotous bloom in May, tasting the first strawberry of Summer, catching leaves to make wishes in the Fall, burning the Yule Log on the winter solstice, making marmalade with the new crop of Oranges from Seville in January. These have all been markers of the passing year and I’m far richer for them.
The week before I flew the first Snowdrops started to poke through the cold earth. Impossibly delicate, these plucky little honey-scented flowers huddle in platoons braving all weathers. A couple of weeks ago we had a huge fall of snow and temperatures plummeted to well below freezing for days on end. Roads near us became impassable (we had to help the local Postie dig out a slightly too intrepid driver), and the force of the ice cracked the potholes in our road ever wider. But as the ice thawed, the snow withdrew to reveal that the Snowdrops still there. Delicately defiant, their heads bowed but unyielding. A tiny symbol of hope and perseverance and a sure sign that this long winter is almost over.