As a steady drizzle turned to rain, a long line of cars full of Seattle Symphony fans ventured down the wet and winding roads to King County’s Marymoor Park Saturday. Music presenters often overuse the phrase “a concert like no other,” but for once, that was exactly what we got: a Symphony concert recorded earlier in the week in Benaroya Hall, watched on the park’s big drive-in screens, and streamed through a dedicated FM channel into the car radios.
There’s never been an opening night like this one. The 35 participating orchestra musicians in the video, most of them masked except for the wind players, sat at an approved “social distance” from each other and from the orchestra’s associate conductor, Lee Mills. (According to Seattle Symphony publicist Dinah Lu, experiments with woodwind bags placed over the instruments to reduce aerosols, and bell covers for brass instruments, earlier proved unsatisfactory, and plexiglass barriers had been found to impede ventilation, heating, and air conditioning.) The vocal soloist, Whitney Mongé, performed at a safe distance from the players, on a 32-foot extension from the stage.
The sound quality was only as good as your car’s FM-radio setup. In our case, it was acceptable, but it would have been a lot better on our home sound system. (The concert is also available for streaming, free, at live.seattlesymphony.org.) But there still was a welcome sense of occasion at the drive-in, as fellow drivers tooted horns and flashed lights in place of applause and standing ovations.
Prerecorded video clips from several orchestra players, expressing their gratitude for support, amplified the audience’s connection with the distant orchestra. Particularly moving was the brief segment from music director Thomas Dausgaard, who has seen months of exquisitely detailed planning vanish in the wake of the coronavirus: “I am counting down the hours until I am back on the Benaroya Hall stage with you. We will be back together soon.”
Mongé, a Seattle-based singer-songwriter and guitarist, opened the program by performing four of her songs with Mills and the Symphony, in orchestrations by Andrew Joslyn. She has a warm, distinctive, and rather husky contralto, and her songs are easy on the ear. (One of them, “Crash,” is reminiscent of an old Stephen Stills song, “Love the One You’re With.”)
Mills and the orchestra offered a short, pleasant piece by American composer Mary D. Watkins, “Soul of Remembrance” (from “Five Movements in Color”). The finale, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, was a fitting capstone to the evening: a remnant from the canceled Beethoven Festival that was planned for this past June, before COVID-19 changed everything.
The opening-night performance, streamed through everyone’s individual car speakers, had nothing like the presence of a Benaroya Hall concert — and yet it rang with authenticity and energy. The usual standing ovation, with its sense of communal joy and appreciation, was missing, but the cars were rocking with honks, headlight flashes and a few shouts out the dripping-wet windows — a response the orchestra could not hear but was joyous all the same. So far, and yet so near.
These are the times when we are grateful for the gift of beautiful sounds, even at a distance, and for the reminder that great music will outlast any pandemic.