An orchestra, a concert hall, and an evening of great live music.
For Seattle Symphony fans, this magical combination was once commonplace, but it has been unavailable for more than 14 months as the pandemic barred live audiences from Benaroya Hall.
Not anymore. On Thursday evening, about 150 mask-wearing, temperature-scanned, invited attendees — socially distanced around the 2,500-seat hall — heard the Symphony and conductor/pianist Inon Barnatan perform the first live concert with an audience in the hall since a “Celebrate Asia” program on March 8, 2020.
The experience was surreal in many respects: vast, empty spaces between the masked concertgoers, and around 30 masked musicians on the stage (the wind players removed their masks while playing). But the music was a revelation: two great piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, and a stellar piano soloist who also proved a nimble conductor from the keyboard. The hall’s acoustics were unusually reverberant with so few of the sound-absorbing patrons in the hall. The immediacy and power of live music was almost shocking.
A classical music critic since 1975, I’m long habituated to the live-concert experience — but I’ll never take it for granted again. The visceral thrill of hearing the actual sound waves of great music emanating from the Benaroya stage, after such a long absence, was indescribable. Looking around the resonant but sparsely populated hall, it was clear from the level of rapt attention that other music lovers were deeply affected as well.
What does the immediate future hold for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra? There’s still a lot of uncertainty. Publicist Dinah Lu says the SSO had been planning “very conservatively” for next season (2021-22), with audience sizes around 400 people. Newly updated guidelines, however, indicate a possible audience size of “about 1,000,” Lu noted.
The Symphony has instituted new protocols to reduce the possibility of virus transmission. Digital tickets are emailed to purchasers, and the QR codes are scanned upon entry at Benaroya Hall. Patrons’ temperatures are scanned, too, though no proof of vaccination is required. Access is available through the parking garage elevator (maximum capacity of four people, situated in the corners of the elevator), or through the Boeing Gallery at street level (off Third Avenue). At the end of the concert, patrons remain in their seats until cued, row by row, by ushers.
At present, the limited seats for in-person attendance are available to subscribers only. But new guidelines permitting larger audience sizes may change that.
Lu observes, “A lot of people have been fully vaccinated but they feel most comfortable not changing their behavior, out of an abundance of caution. We’ve been in this risk-minimizing mode for so long.”
In addition to allowing a limited, in-person audience, the Symphony will continue to livestream its weekly concerts with shortened programs and a smaller, socially distanced, PPE-protected orchestra; the season ends in July. Each weekly concert is also available for streaming on demand for seven days following the live broadcasts (seattlesymphony.org/watch-listen/live).
Other orchestras are taking their own cautious steps forward. Two weeks ago, the San Francisco Symphony reopened, with mandatory face coverings and patrons required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or full vaccination. The first SFO performances (May 6 and 7) allowed 366 attendees; the following week, that was increased to 1,371 (50% of the hall’s capacity). Pandemic protocols allowed only for masked string players — no winds — and a timpanist.
It’s an uncertain world, and the rules are in flux. But the music goes on.
Here’s a clip from Thursday’s concert: