Leading the line in Covid: A music director writes

Fabio Luisi, music director at Zurich Opera and Dallas Symphony and principal conductor of the Danish National Symphony, responds to my criticisms of the multi-job maestro with this account of his activities in the Covid year:

At the end of June I had to convince the administration of Zurich Opera not to end the season silent since the government had given permission to hold indoor events with 200-400 people in the audience, I managed to organise two orchestra concerts, the first with string orchestra – Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” and Strauss’ “Metamorphosen”, which we also recorded – and the second with two singers, Piotr Beczala and Camilla Nylund, an operetta gala.

In September the Opera Zurich reopened with the orchestra playing in a remote venue and being broadcast live into the Opera House: Boris Godunov was the opening (I didn’t conduct, it was the brilliant Kirill Karabits). Instead of a Vespri Siciliani revival that we couldn’t do in the spring, I conducted some Verdi-Concerts. Slippedisc reported Boris with a nasty review – the only negative one – which didn’t understand the importance of this opening and the efforts everybody put in place in order to give music and opera to the audience and to the city.

In August I was in Copenhagen, we played Bruckner’s 4th Symphony with social distancing. I returned there weeks later for two performances of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony (with orchestra and chorus distanced of course), which was the opening of the season.

In the US, Dallas Symphony Orchestra is one of the few orchestras, and the only one of the bigger ones, which started its season regularly albeit with changed programs. Because of the very strict, self-imposed protocols and rules (everybody, from the usher to the MD and CEO, has to be Covid-tested every day) we gave access to our first subscription concert to only 75 people in the audience, also reducing the size of the orchestra because of the social distancing. The orchestra accepted a salary reduction, so did the administration: CEO and myself also cut sensibly our salary (twice as much as the administration cuts). I was the only music director in the US to open the season with his or her own orchestra. Our CEO, Kim Noltemy, did a great job keeping the orchestra’s musicians busy during the summer, playing small concerts in a number of locations and for diverse audiences. I am very proud of her efforts and of my musicians’ sense of responsibility.

For all these institutions it was important not to stop, to do our best to keep offering music, first in streaming (during the European lockdowns) and as soon as possible live, so personally I can’t fully understand the decision of other orchestras or opera houses to shut down completely their activity without even trying to do anything.

I have to say, in order not to be dangerous to my colleagues, that I have been tested, mostly voluntarily, 21 times in the last 70 days. Thanks to the strict protocols in Switzerland, Denmark and in Dallas we had no positive cases in these orchestras to the best of my knowledge.

 

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    • I am not proud of myself. I am proud of the people around me, first of all musicians and some administrations, to have fought in order to keep live music going on, resp. resuming asap caring for the jobs and the safety of everybody involved. Both are important: jobs and safety, and we showed that it was possible to save jobs and guarantee safety.

      • Kudos to you for your committed efforts to truly keep running the organizations you lead during this horrible pandemic, and against the NL’s insidious claims of the real need for multi-post music directors these days. You deserve much praise just based on the above.
        I only take issue with one of your claims “I was the only music director in the US to open the season with his or her own orchestra.” This is obviously a gross exaggeration that can easily be fact-checked. I personally know of several US orchestras whose music directors opened their respective current season. The fact that you write it “I was” maybe refers to the fact that for a certain amount of (short) time you were indeed the only music director in the US to open the current season leading the orchestra you are associated with, which I seriously doubt as well.
        But a bigger issue is talking about “his (or her) own orchestra.” It is well known in the profession that you are a true gentleman and outstanding professional. Referring to the orchestras you lead as “your own orchestras” only substantially weakens the powerful statement you are trying to make. Other than that, I admire your dedication!
        Keep up the good work and we will all rejoice in the pride of your well-deserved accomplishments.

      • I love it when these no-name, no-talent wanabees write about these great musicians and make the comments they do. Ignorance is what you would call that. I could just see “Ken” shrinking when Maestro Luisi answered his idiotic comment. You people are amusing.

        • Maestro4, some of these “great musicians” are not great men; and behind the scenes they do much, much worse than many ordinary people imagine. Some literally live double lives. Disclaimer: I am NOT referring to Mr. Luisi, whom I do not know. Ordinary ethical standards should be applied to “great musicians”, especially when they are world-renowned ones, as they are applied to political leaders and economic leaders. Society is turning and time of reckoning may be coming soon for some of them.

    • And what music making and organising did you do exactly during this time that you feel entitled to make such a sour and baseless comment?

    • So have you actually listened to all of the performances mentioned by Maestro Luisi before making your obnoxious comment?

      And what makes you think you can write off the Opera Zurich’s Boris as a listening experience just because you didn’t like its director’s (Barrie Kosky’s) take on “Pelléas” in Berlin?

    • Oh Ken, you are a beautiful boy with beautiful thoughts. Please never stop sharing your good cheer and salient insights. I look forward to hearing your upcoming recording! Remind me of the label would you?

      All the very best,
      B. Poundbottom

    • Your comment reminds me of a wise old saying I once saw on a bumper sticker:

      “Just because you have one, that doesn’t mean you have to be one.”

    • Incredible that such comments bubble-up in the brains of a ‘music lover’. Why do deaf people want to listen to classical music?

    • this is one rude comment. having played more with fabio than any other conductor in my life… he is brilliant, prepared, kind and intensely musical. really, ken, eat dirt.

    • Well, I think we can all agree that this particular troll has been fed enough?

      Now he can go back under his bridge and wait for the next billy-goat.

    • Absolutely. Nothing against Nézet-Séguin, but I still don’t get why he is the second coming. I had hoped to hear more of Luisi’s conducting at the Met

  • This fashion of multi-MD’ing or mult-principal-conducting multiple orchestra will have to end: it is not good for orchestras, the conductor cannot really forge a real imprint in the orchestra, it is bad for the professional conductors who cannot have the opportunity to hold a position… it is even bad for the enviroment (all those flights!)!

    Luisi is a good conductor, I very much enjoyed played under his baton, but I believe he should let at least one of his jobs go…

  • “For all these institutions it was important not to stop, to do our best to keep offering music, first in streaming (during the European lockdowns) and as soon as possible live, so personally I can’t fully understand the decision of other orchestras or opera houses to shut down completely their activity without even trying to do anything.”

    Good man! Even if they have to close again, what were they playing at (or not playing at) for several months?

  • Bravo, Maestro Luisi!

    Congratulations on your accomplishments during this difficult time! We truly appreciate your sharing with us what you’ve done. So many of us in orchs. are floundering, looking for ways to get thru this. To hear from an experienced & respected Maestro like yourself is not only inspiring, it gives us new ideas and lots of new hope. Please know that musicians and administrations and orch. committees in places you’d never imagine will be reading your words and using your experiences to help plan our seasons and projects now. Your communication, your sharing your ideas is critically important to us now. Thank you and please stay safe and healthy. Your musicians are fortunate to have you. Bravo!

  • I apologize. I certainly should think twice (or more) before pushing “send.” And buy a less sardonic sense of humor. And drink less… Never expected the maestro to see it (obviously). And his response was very classy. I’ll be better on Wednesday, and will just stay quiet for a long while.

  • “In the US, Dallas Symphony Orchestra is … the only one of the bigger ones, which started its season regularly”

    Don’t even go there. Texas is one of the biggest covid denier states in the US, with its republican base, it’s willing to let 25% of its population die in order to keep businesses open as usual.

    I don’t believe the zero positive statistic for one second, they are as zero positive as the White House is zero positive, as zero as Trump’s rallies caused zero infection and zero death.

    • (a) It sounds like the Dallas Symphony people are trying to keep everyone in their organization working and safe, and are doing their best. Perhaps it’s possible that not everyone in Texas is crazy? Just a thought.

      (b) He did say they had zero positive cases “to the best of his knowledge.” I understood, by his use of the past tense rather than the present perfect, that he was referring to the time period of those rehearsals and performances; and it seems prudent to wait this long after the opening of the season to make such a claim, now that there’s been time for positive results to come to light. Of course we all know it could still happen, but if it does, it won’t be for lack of trying to avoid it (as opposed to the rallies, White House super-spreader events, etc. where people make a show of not caring).

    • It is worth pointing out that while there are certainly a lot of Republicans in Texas, and they control the state’s government, the state is far from being nothing but Republicans, and there are areas which have a substantial population of those who don’t fit the stereotype. You don’t have to take my word for this, but can simply look at all of the legal action being pursued by Republican officials trying to block large segments of the population from having their votes counted.

      Also, if they are doing daily testing it is likely that the DSO etc. are doing their own antigen-based testing, not using public testing, and there is not likely to be any political meddling in their results.

    • This is an ignorant statement: ” let 25% of the population die” Mortality rates for those under 65 is 99.97 percent. Under 25 less than mortality rates for influenza. I don’t see members of the Berlin Philharmonic dying. The Shostakovich 6th required a full orchestra and it was fabulous. The Bassoon cadenza would have killed 30 people if one believes your comment

  • Always good to hear from Maestro Luisi whose conducting I miss greatly here in New York (actually I miss a LOT of people’s music making right now). What’s most interesting to me in his post is that the DSO and associated personnel can get tested so often and apparently easily!!! This, I should not need to mention, is far from the norm in most places in the USA, let alone much of Texas…..somebody among the DSO’s affluent donors has “come to an arrangement” I would venture to suggest. Very much the American way……

    • All it takes is money and willingness. There are a number of companies willing to provide supplies and infrastructure for rapid testing and prices are coming down. One company’s offerings:

      “ Our kits:

      Are FDA authorized
      Provide rapid results in 10 minutes
      Can be sold in small sample sizes of 25 or 100 per pack
      Can be purchased in large quantities up to 1 million kits
      Have a 24-month shelf life
      Proven high sensitivity for current infection of the virus.
      Require a verification of use case prior to shipping is mandatory”

      and elsewhere they state that they can even provide personnel if needed.

      The DSO has been known as an orchestra with money for years, and this may represent a good example of Texan individualism, time will tell! Hopefully we can all agree that if the group is going to be playing, regular testing like this is a good thing to be doing.

  • I had the great honor and privilege to play under Mr. Luisi’s direction for five years. Not only is he a great conductor, he is a wonderful human being. A prince among mere mortals.

  • “(everybody (in Dallas), from the usher to the MD and CEO, has to be Covid-tested every day). So why has the Maestro not been tested every day unlike ushers?

    • MD = music director = Fabio Luisi

      He has been tested. If you are referring to his being tested 21 times in 70 days instead of 70 times in 70 days, I think it is likely that “tested every day” is short for “tested every day we were at work together” and that any work that could be done by email or telephone or Zoom instead of a face-to-face meeting probably was.

  • Way to go, Maestro Luisi! It can be done, but carefully.

    At the College of Music at the University of Colorado at Boulder, there have been no cases of infection connected to the music school, and they have been quite active, within parameters. CU has some of the leading scientists, aerosol engineers and whatnot. They tested the spread of aerosols through musical instruments, tested the air exchange rate of each classroom and recital hall, upgraded their HVAC systems, and determined protocols and spacing to reduce risk.

    The lesson here is that any institution, or music director, that wants to make music needs to invest in the knowledge and physical issues to be responsible and minimize the risk of spreading the infection. So the responsibility can not land squarely on the shoulders of the music directors.

    If you want to see a good aerosol calculator, Google the work of Dr. Jose-Luis Jimenez in Boulder. There’s an extensive spreadsheet where you can enter your parameters and see what the infection risk will be.

  • It says a lot for this blog when musicians of the calibre of Maestro Luisi contribute to it. I was stunned by his performance on record of a Franz Schmidt symphony and I look forward to seeing a boxed set of all his orchestral works conducted by Luisi. I know NL dislikes Schmidt’s music but I am sure he accepts that others don’t.
    I look forward to hearing more of his recordings and, before long, when this dreadful pandemic is over, seeing him conduct live concerts, maybe at the Proms. He deserves to be far better-known.
    I won’t comment on the few nauseating detractors at the top of this thread. Doing so bestows on them an entirely undeserved legitimacy.

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