Music·Point of View

Classical concerts are starting up again. This is what they're like now

Shorter programs, smaller audiences, no intermission — but live music is back at last.

Shorter programs, smaller audiences, no intermission — but live music is back at last

The New Orford String Quartet performs at Bourgie Hall in Montreal on Sept. 16, 2020. (Tam Lan Truong/tamphotography.ca)

On Sept. 16, I attended a concert given by the New Orford String Quartet (NOSQ) at Montreal's Bourgie Hall, one of the city's busiest venues for classical music.

It's the first concert I've attended since mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered concert halls in Canada and around the world.

Bourgie Hall is among the first venues in Montreal to resume public concerts — the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal's new season began on Sept. 11 — and has announced 56 events to take place between now and the end of 2020, a completely and hastily revamped lineup reflecting our new COVID-19 reality.

The occasion was decidedly subdued compared to the splashy celebration organizers had surely planned for the launch of their 10th season. Nevertheless, a capacity crowd showed up. And by capacity, I mean 125 people — roughly 20 per cent of the hall's seats were occupied, in accordance with public health guidelines.

Of course I had qualms, despite assurances that every precaution would be taken to protect musicians and audience members. But my desire to hear live music outweighed those concerns.

Below, I describe my experience (enhanced with photos by Tam Lan Truong) to help you make an informed decision about returning to the concert hall.

A woman uses hand sanitizer before entering Montreal's Bourgie Hall on Sept. 16, 2020. (Tam Lan Truong/tamphotography.ca)

To avoid lineups, organizers admitted the public via the artists' entrance at Bourgie Hall in addition to the usual main entrance.

It was a juggling act to manage my phone while applying the obligatory hand sanitizer. I suppose I could have pocketed my phone, but I needed it handy to display my electronic ticket for scanning. (No paper tickets were issued.)

There was no coat check, box office or bar — nothing to encourage the public to linger in the lobby.

Isolde Lagacé (right) greets a member of the public as he arrives for a concert at Montreal"s Bourgie Hall on Sept. 16, 2020. (Tam Lan Truong/tamphotography.ca)

Even though the occasion represented an emotional reunion for Bourgie Hall personnel and their public, elbow bumps had to suffice instead of the customary hugs and kisses.

Ticket holders were advised in advance by email about safety procedures, including the importance of face coverings.

"Wearing a face covering is mandatory from the moment you enter the building until you sit down," read the instructions. "Once seated in the hall you may remove your face covering."

A physically distanced audience awaits the arrival onstage of the New Orford String Quartet at Montreal's Bourgie Hall on Sept. 16, 2020. (Tam Lan Truong/tamphotography.ca)

To avoid contact between ushers and concertgoers, printed programs were provided only to those who requested one, and were placed on their seats by ushers wearing gloves. For everyone else, a digital program was provided ahead of time.

A bonus: the reduced number of printed programs helped prevent the inevitable thwack of somebody dropping theirs mid-performance.

Perhaps online programs are the way of the future?

Projections remind concertgoers of safety precautions at Montreal's Bourgie Hall. (Tam Lan Truong/tamphotography.ca)

Once seated, the majority of concertgoers kept their masks on for the entire concert.

People from the same bubble were entitled to sit together. (I noticed ushers confirming this fact with them.) Otherwise, there were at least two empty seats between audience members.

Several rows of seats had been removed as well, giving extra leg room and the impression of first-class seating, as a friend pointed out.

Isolde Lagacé welcomes the public to the opening concert of Bourgie Hall's 10th season. (Tam Lan Truong/tamphotography.ca)

Lagacé, director of Bourgie Hall, made some opening remarks, trying to contain her emotions as she greeted her public for the first time in six months.

As she revealed in an interview earlier this summer, Lagacé and many of her staff contracted COVID-19 back in March, so the resumption of concerts represents not only a professional turning point for them but also a return to health following a worrisome time.

The members of the New Orford String Quartet walk onstage at Montreal's Bourgie Hall on Sept. 16, 2020. (Tam Lan Truong/tamphotography.ca)

Moments later, the masked members of NOSQ walked onstage to play a one-hour concert (without intermission). They are Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan (violin), Brian Manker (cello) and Douglas McNabney, replacing the quartet's regular violist, Eric Nowlin.

The applause that greeted them was fulsome, considering the hall was 20 per cent full, and lasted well after the musicians had taken their seats. It felt like an expression of solidarity.

Their concise program comprised two works played without an intermission: Jacques Hétu's String Quartet No. 2 and Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet No. 9, Op. 59, No. 3.

The New Orford String Quartet plays music by Beethoven at Montreal's Bourgie Hall. (Tam Lan Truong/tamphotography.ca)

2020 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Hétu, whose String Quartet No. 2 was played with remarkable clarity by the NOSQ, who accentuated the work's warm harmonies and impeccable counterpoint. 

After a slightly tenuous introduction, their Beethoven was more rambunctious, its elegant melodies resonating more than usual in the hall. (Fewer seats and people give Bourgie Hall a more generous acoustic, apparently.) They took the final movement at a dangerously fast tempo, and it paid off.

The New Orford String Quartet takes a bow following its performance at Montreal's Bourgie Hall on Sept. 16, 2020. (Tam Lan Truong/tamphotography.ca)

Under normal circumstances, we would have enjoyed a glass of wine after the concert and mingled with the musicians in the lobby. Instead, by 8:40 p.m., I had left the premises and was on Sherbrooke Street waiting for the 24 bus.

I'm pleased to have attended the concert, and have already bought a ticket for a recital by pianist David Jalbert, coming up at Bourgie Hall on Sept. 24.

It's impossible to know whether a second wave of COVID-19 will interrupt the carefully laid plans of concert presenters such as Bourgie Hall. Clearly the best defence is the implementation of strict safety precautions — and a healthy dose of optimism.

About the Author

Robert Rowat

Producer

Robert Rowat has been a producer at CBC Music since 1997. He specializes in classical music.

now