CHICAGO -- No one knows when we'll begin listening to live music again in the ways we did before the pandemic.
You know, with sprawling classical and jazz orchestras playing grand venues such as Symphony Center and the Auditorium Theatre; with huge casts performing in lavish productions at the Lyric Opera House; with crowds packed into clubs such as the Green Mill, the Jazz Showcase and the now aptly named SPACE.
But for the next several months, if not longer, we can count on one commonality among all these venues and musical languages: the return of intimacy. For social distancing demands not only that listeners be kept far apart but that musicians be, as well. Which means fewer artists performing for fewer listeners, a fundamental change in what we can expect to hear and how we hear it.
Gone, for now, are the tonal splendor of the full Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus; the spectacle of Lyric Opera's opulent productions of Verdi and Puccini; the plush brass-and-reed choirs of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra. Performances on that scale will be sorely missed and must return as soon as safely possible. We need these mighty forces to animate grand ideas that Beethoven and Brahms, Ellington and Mingus were uniquely capable of envisioning.
But in their stead comes something else: a soloist or string quartet or jazz trio communicating with a few dozen listeners, at most. A realm in which fortissimos can be less harsh, pianissimos can whisper still more softly, and everyone in the house can lean forward a bit to better catch sonic detail and artistic intent.
In classical music, this amounts to a wide return to the salon, an historic ideal in which a few listeners gathered to hear musicians performing just a few feet away. I never realized how fundamentally different music sounds in this context until I heard Chopin's music performed in my professor's studio at Northwestern University, when I studied piano there. To hear brilliant students playing Chopin's ballades and preludes and nocturnes on a superb instrument in a cramped space was to savor resonances, harmonies, dissonances and overtones as Chopin conceived them. Such extreme subtleties and delicacies of sound are mostly lost in the vast expanse of the enormous, modern concert hall.
Ditto the play of light and shadow in music by Ravel and Debussy, who ingeniously enabled the piano to convey a seemingly infinite array of shimmering colors most fully perceived in close quarters. Similarly, the rumble of Beethoven's piano sonatas rattles through your bones in a small room with a degree of force that cannot be conjured in a large hall, which by definition disperses sound widely. Even the 18th century music of J.S. Bach sings out with unalloyed clarity and tenderness at close range.
In jazz, we return to the aesthetics of the original jazz musicians who, at the turn of the previous century, played in the bordellos and saloons of New Orleans' Storyville vice district. That's where Jelly Roll Morton learned and perfected his art, capturing on 88 keys the sound and spirit of parade bands and blues shouters and all manner of street musicians. The barroom and brothel patrons heard the new art of jazz coming to life right in front of them, and today's tiny club performances -- before small, sparse audiences -- will preempt jazz concert presentations for the foreseeable future.
Everything that has happened since Illinois entered phase four of reopening points to the new intimacy of making and hearing music. When Chicago guitarist Andy Brown led his trio at Andy's Jazz Club this month, you could hear every minute interaction among him, pianist Jeremy Kahn and bassist Joe Policastro in a previously rambunctious room where the din of conversing diners often obscured the music. When Chicago guitarist Joel Paterson led his trio at the Green Mill last month, the limited audience meant the room's ferocious energy was diminished, but the warmth, plushness and vibrancy of its acoustics were more immediate than ever.
Even an outdoor concert by members of the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera Orchestras early this month proved less grandiose and more human-scaled than I expected. More than two dozen instrumentalists positioned themselves across two front lawns in Oak Park, with neighbors taking it all in on lawn chairs across the street and down the block. It all felt more like a musicale from John Philip Sousa's era than a concert from august musicians of our own time (the Sousa marches and Louis Armstrong classics helped).
None of which is to discount the artistic value and financial necessity of large ensembles playing major venues. Only economies of large scale can support an orchestra as consistently virtuosic as the CSO, an opera company as protean as Lyric Opera, a jazz band as definitive as the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
But our new reality is necessitating smaller dimensions and scaled-down performances, and there are gains to be heard.
It seems possible that listeners will come to appreciate more personal musical experiences than was the norm before and perhaps want more of them, after the pandemic is over. Perhaps performers will change, too, recalibrating their musical values and reconceiving how they reach listeners.
Understatement, restraint and proximity may be valued anew. And in our otherwise noisy world, that particular development would come not a moment too soon.
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