The Benaroya Hall chimes are sounding, and the lights have dimmed: time to return to your seat for the Seattle Symphony concert.
Except that this season, the concert’s not at Benaroya Hall. Those chimes and chords are in your living room, or in any room — on your smartphone, your smart TV, your tablet or your computer.
The coronavirus pandemic may have stopped concert activity in its tracks, but it hasn’t stopped the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. This year, the orchestra has revamped its schedule, creating a subscription-based online streaming platform with high-definition video and high-fidelity audio. Every week, the symphony presents concerts with a smaller, socially distanced orchestra, whose players are masked (except for the wind players, who don masks whenever they aren’t playing). And so does the maestro; so does the featured soloist. The concerts are livestreamed on the initial airing (in this case, on Nov. 12), and then left up for a week afterward.
Those concerts have received more than 34,000 unique views since the series launched in September, with an average of about 3,400 people each week tuning in, some from as far away as France and Germany, according to the Seattle Symphony.
And how is this working? Is online streaming an equal substitute for live concerts?
No, a thousand times no! But online is infinitely better than no concerts at all, and for music lovers, this option offers some surprising joys. For example, we get a filmed-in-advance chat from the featured soloist (cellist Alisa Weilerstein, in the present case) that is full of interesting details and opinions about the power and the occasional vulgarity of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2 — something you’d never get in live performance.
And how about seeing the conductor (former SSO music director Ludovic Morlot, in this program) face-on, rather than always from the back? The cameras frequently zoom in on orchestra musicians who have important solo turns in the music, with a detailed view that live performance does not always offer. (Though often the camera doesn’t go where you wish it would.)
If you want to hear that tricky or gorgeous passage one more time, you can easily back up and do so. If you want to take the offered five-minute intermission, fine (you’ll hear the Benaroya Hall chimes and the musicians warming up, announcing its end). Otherwise, just fast-forward to the rest of the music.
As you listen to the program, the artists are not going to see you sipping your coffee and savoring a chocolate. They will not know if you stop and restart. You are the boss here, and that’s a startling development in such an established and formal art form. For the elderly, for people with disabilities, for those who don’t like to drive and park downtown, these streamed concerts are a particular boon.
Everywhere there also is the reality of COVID-19. There are elbow-bumps, not embraces, among the artists. Wind players slide their masks aside for their passages, and then whip the masks back on. The choice of smaller-scale works allows plenty of necessary separation on the stage. The conductor, soloist, and players poignantly make their bows to an empty house.
This current program has a lot to offer: a delightful, bittersweet “Entr’acte” by award-winning composer Caroline Shaw; the Shostakovich, one of the greatest of all contemporary concerti; and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, which Morlot led with fleet and buoyant energy. Hearing Weilerstein’s easy, unforced virtuosity and her spectacular command of musical details in the concerto was a revelation. Another replay with this program, perhaps?