As I write this the first weekend in May, the rate of new COVID-19 cases here in New York City, where some 20 percent of the population has caught the virus, has remained level for a week. Far from the recent peaks of infection and death, the numbers are nowhere near what’s needed to return to something recognizable as normal life. Still, it’s enough of an improvement that New York State governor Andrew Cuomo has started to discuss how that normalcy might return, and to lay out four phases of restarting commercial activity. The final phase is the entertainment industry and the arts. When society returns, live concerts will come last.
Concert life will indeed return; playing music in front of people has been a part of humanity since pre-history. But how that will look is hard to see. There are so many contingencies, the most essential ones beginning and ending with capacity: how many people on stage, how many in the audience?
In New York—and likely everywhere—the venues best able to answer these questions are the smallest ones. They are so because they present music often at the edge of economic and cultural viability, and are geared to survive with limited audiences. Reopening for tiny, restricted crowds would be pretty much par for the course.
“My motto has always been ‘too small to fail,’” said Glenn Cornett, who has been managing his own performance space, Spectrum, for over a decade. Spectrum is dedicated to experimental music, and was conceived as a salon from the beginning, sharing Cornett’s home or office space through three different locations: Chelsea, the Lower East side, and most recently an old garage across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “I am used to accommodating 20 people,” Cornett said, “usually less, which is now a plus.”
When Spectrum opens up again, it will be in a new home. Cornett is closing up the garage while anticipating how the recession might shake out. He expects commercial rents in New York City to drop. “I plan to move [Spectrum] back to Manhattan in the next year or so,” he said.
“My heart breaks for the dedicated art spaces,” he continued, that have no alternative but to wait things out as long as possible and then see what future might be salvaged. One of those spaces is National Sawdust, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But Paola Prestini, the co-founder and artistic director of the hall (as well as an accomplished composer), is also looking ahead with the expectation that concerts at the center will return.
While not as on the edge as Spectrum, National Sawdust has carved out a niche as a premiere new music space, and the organization still thinks small. “We have less moving parts,” Prestini told me. ”This did come as a huge blow, but every step of the way was hard. We’re equipped with resiliency for an ever-changing landscape.”
Though National Sawdust has a top capacity of 300, they are used to running at 50 percent. They’re prepared to handle a reduced audience, Prestini pointed out. The venue is designed to be flexible both in terms of audience size and in the basic positioning of the seating. “The good of this crisis is that we’re learning how to live in a remote way,” she said.
National Sawdust has set up feeds for streaming live performances from the empty room and remote locations, as well as showing their archives. “We got an incredible angel donation,” she told me, ”and we need to show people and possible donors that we exist and can do this.”
Their streams are coming together as a “kind of handshake between past curations and doing things live.” A major step has been a Live@National Sawdust Digital Discovery Festival which started at the end of April. The streams are free: “charging people right now would be gross.”
Prestini expects National Sawdust to continue streaming even when New York hits phase four, starting with streamed live performances without an audience, then seeing how many patrons might be allowed in, as well as what limits there may be for how many musicians can be on stage.
That’s also on the mind of Mark Peskanov, a violinist, composer, conductor, and the president and executive/artistic director of Bargemusic, a chamber music space with a unique location: it’s housed in a converted coffee barge that is moored at Fulton Ferry landing in Brooklyn and floats on the East River. This matters in one important way: instead of crowded buses and subways, patrons can take the ferry system on the East River to get to the landing. Their location isn’t free, though: they have to pay docking fees and, of course, utilities.
When the virus hit, Bargemusic was fortuitously closing down already for repairs on the interior and the roof, “for the possibility of outdoor concerts, with musicians on the roof and people on the pier,” Peskanov said. He has already set the summer schedule, and is waiting to see when they might be able to open.
“If we can bring in any people, even at six feet apart, we want to put on concerts,” he continued. “If we have to be exact [about capacity and stage space] we can do that, we’ve been planning that. We are ready at the drop of a hat!”
Bargemusic programs “the type of music that can work with social distancing restrictions. Our seats are removable, we can be flexible—the stage is not the biggest, that’s the biggest problem,” Peskanov said. But the density of the onstage orchestra is not an issue: “We’re like a commando!”
Chairs are, perhaps surprisingly, the key to it all. One vital advantage these places have over Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera boils down to that mundane feature. Based on current guidelines, and the example of restaurants in Hong Kong, allowable capacity will be reduced and there will have to be a six foot distance between patrons. Fixed seats not only means that each patron is going to be somewhat alone, but that venues will have to figure out the basic process of how to get people in and out of rows. And what happens to the cramped balcony sections, and standing room?
Though Bargemusic has never streamed concerts, it’s an idea that Peskanov is considering. Still, the stage is paramount. “We might be able to do some streaming, but I want to do it from the Bargemusic stage, not my bedroom,” he said. “I want people to see the stage and to see the New York skyline behind, from wherever they are, I want them to have that experience.”
For these spaces, the disadvantage of being in New York when the city is shut down is also an advantage for the future. The city is packed with an excess of good musicians, most of whom never had enough gigs to begin with. This talent is at hand and likely as ready to go as Bargemusic.
Prestini acknowledges this possibility, but still wants to work with as many international musicians as possible. “We do curating and programming up to one year in advance, maybe three months for the short term. That includes planning, mentorship, and funding,” she said. Prestini is hoping to reschedule as many non-local artists as she can.
Glenn Cornett is also an M.D. and PhD, a biotech entrepreneur, and a composer and performer exploring experimental possibilities of guitars, synthesizers, and voice. “We have the strategic advantage of being in New York City, and waiting for this to start again,” he acknowledged. Before New York musicians can tour regularly, they’ll be able to play here.
That these places, and others, are plausibly thinking about the return of concert life, not just as a far-off desire but something to plan and prepare for, is both relieving and encouraging. Venues like this, well off the radar of mainstream classical culture, have the agility and imagination to confront the shutdown. Their survival is premised on their ability to solve problems and handle adversity. It’s a contrast with massively funded institutions, which one would like to see redirect some of the flow of public funding and private donations.
While Lincoln Center and the like are closed for the imaginable future, Cornett, like his colleagues, is optimistic about the return of concerts. “Six months, a year, people will be burnt out on the streaming”—if they aren’t already—“and looking for more.” Still, he’s not as confident that the old ways of concert life will come back quickly. First, he sees a period of live music without audiences, then what he calls “social distancing concerts.” He speculates “that concerts will be like we treat [fine] restaurants. Maybe we jack up the ticket prices and make it a more rarified experience, something with which we can build up a benefactor base and provide more for the artists.”
That may be a “new model of salon-type concerts that become more economically viable. Then a return to the normal concert experience in two to three years,” Cornett told me. He can afford to take the longer view. “I’ve made a profit on maybe a handful of concerts, I’m not trying to make money,” he said. “I want to provide the space as a service.”
“It’s not a perfect model. It depends on what the government and, frankly, my friends in the health care field have to say,” he added. But there’s always going to be “something special about being in the same room with people.” ¶