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Livestreaming the Seattle Symphony Became a Source of Connection in Dark Times

I pictured the musicians, dressed in their black suits and dresses, playing to the emptiness of a grand theater, while the rest of us gathered around our laptops — like the families, hungry for reassurance, who listened to F.D.R.’s fireside chats during the Great Depression. Another viewer thought of a different historical analogue: the musicians on the Titanic who kept playing music for the ship’s passengers even as it sank. “Getting big ‘Gentlemen, it has been a privilege’ vibes,” he wrote in the chat box that accompanied the video. “Thanks for this.”

In fact, the performance wasn’t to an empty theater, or technically live at all — it was a livestream of a concert filmed the previous September. Alexander White, the symphony’s associate principal trumpet and chairman of the musicians’ labor organization, told me that the idea of continuing performances without audiences, which was under consideration just two days earlier, evaporated the day before the livestream. The symphony had been rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 for its upcoming shows when the governor’s news conference announcing regulations on group gatherings began. “We realized the orchestra couldn’t actually safely be together,” White said. As a brass player, he was particularly aware of all the breath and moisture that regularly moves through a crowd of musicians. For the first time White could remember, everyone stopped playing mid-rehearsal, packed up and left.

In the chat box for the concert, viewers seemed puzzled. New arrivals kept asking why the video showed a live audience in a shuttered city. A commenter named David explained, “Not live, but not dead either.” Someone else wrote: “Yeah, it’s confusing. But hey, music.”

Over the next few days, as I stayed home and spent too much time reading the news, it began to seem that the more people were separated and confused and scared, the more there was music. Yo-Yo Ma started posting performances with the hashtag #SongsOfComfort, and more than three million people watched him play Antonin Dvorak’s “Going Home.” The Metropolitan Opera in New York announced it would be streaming previously filmed performances every night free; hundreds of thousands watched. High school students who wouldn’t get to perform the spring musicals they’d been practicing started singing for Twitter instead. A Seattle musician named Marina Albero, who suddenly found all her gigs canceled and the schools where she teaches closed, started organizing what she called “The Quarantine Sessions,” streamed performances that would allow musicians to still play and audiences to still support them. (When I called her, she stressed that the money, while welcome, wasn’t the main point. “It’s about being together and making something beautiful,” she said. “Nobody is anything alone. That’s what this situation is demonstrating.”)

And from Italy, where a cascade of deaths in overwhelmed hospitals presaged what we feared our own crisis would become, video after video emerged of people in lockdown, standing on their balconies or leaning out their windows, uniting the music of their violins and tambourines and accordions and saxophones. They played patriotic tunes and folk songs. They played “Smoke on the Water” and “Tequila.” Elderly women stuck inside stepped onto their balconies and danced.

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