Every time someone’s cough resonated through the plane cabin, the passengers around me shuddered, scrunched their shoulders and placed their hands in their lap. They wanted to hide because they were afraid. I was flying home for spring break. Coughs have never been this scary. Nor have planes. But concerts? 

My plane landed in the Atlanta airport just before 7 p.m., and my family picked me up. We drove directly to Symphony Hall to hear the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra perform three Romantic Period works: Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Liszt’s first piano concerto and Saint-Saens’s Organ Symphony. They’re lush and romantic and appeal to a wide variety of classical music fans. 

Here’s one of classical music’s most peculiar traditions: much of the audience coughs between each movement of a piece. My friends and I often joke about these mysterious coughs because nobody knows why they happen. In that respect, this concert felt no different. But this time, like in the plane cabin, I felt feet shuffle and fists tense. Coughs have never been this scary. The music resumes, though, and eases me out of my perceived apprehension.

We stood up and gave the orchestra a standing ovation at the concert’s end. Tell me that Western art music is dying as often as you’d like. I attend concerts that feature it at least once a week and don’t think that will ever change. But when I put my hands together to clap for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra following the Organ Symphony’s robust final chords, I did not know that this would mark my final live concert for the foreseeable future. 

I’d even put together a list of over 20 concerts I was looking forward to attending when I returned to New Haven after spring break. Then, emails from the Yale School of Music, Yale Department of Music, dean of the arts and others began to land in my inbox. These emails are the types of emails that I always see but never want to read. When I finally did read them, they read, “[Some arts group or organization] to cancel concerts through [date].” With each subsequent email, the dates grew later and later until they turned into cancellations, and I grew more and more hopeless.

As authorities began to restrict large gatherings of people — which include concerts, of course — orchestras and other performing arts groups wanted to continue sharing their art. But if no audience can attend their concerts, should they continue to perform their concerts in an empty hall? 

Major cities’ professional orchestras and the musicians that play in them already operate, for the most part, on a tight budget. They rely on ticket sales to generate a significant portion of their revenue, which they then must use to pay the musicians. It’s a delicate balancing act between the power of orchestra executives and players’ unions. But the orchestras did not have time to deliberate on the issue: most dealt with the circumstance by holding one or two “final” concerts and then abruptly ending their season, often with little or no compensation. 

These final, audience-less concerts were live-streamed on each orchestra’s website and on social media. These were virtual concerts, and they were accessible to everyone with an Internet connection — for free. 

Many label Western art music as an elitist, classist art form. There is truth to the statement. We’re talking about a tradition with a canon written by Western European male composers like Wagner, Liszt and Saint-Saens, the ones in that final Atlanta Symphony concert. But many, perhaps even more, of us strive to remove these elitist, classist labels that have plagued the genre for centuries. We want to break down the barriers to accessing classical music.

Now that orchestras were giving their concerts to the general public without any cost of admission, would that not be our chance to remove those barriers? Enthralled, I read about the rapidly increasing numbers of cost-free virtual concerts — from the Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society and countless other ensembles — and felt hopeful. I hoped that they would attract audiences beyond the usual concert-goers  because now, location and cost and time were no longer a barrier. I hoped that people who could not access or did not like Western art music would tune into the concerts and find the kind of solace I do in the music. That they would realize that yes, maybe Beethoven has been dead for centuries, but the musicians performing his sixth symphony are telling you a story of human emotion that’s undeniably full of life.

In the days that followed, organization after organization, musician after musician joined the crescendo of musicians making music for all to hear. When the orchestras stopped performing, individuals and chamber ensembles filled in the gaps. 

Musicians shared their music via live-stream and became each others’ audiences. Their concerts were free of the cultural norms that reinforce the classical music’s ugly stereotype — performers played from their cluttered living room in jeans and a T-shirt. They responded to questions, repertoire selections and other audience feedback. 

“Everyone’s making art these days,” my friend said to me (over the phone, of course). I agreed. Everyone was, indeed. During our current global pandemic, art can tend to the sick and the lonely. Though performers and audiences were scattered across the globe, these tiny concerts felt almost more communicative. Almost. 

And I even “attended” some concerts with friends. The event consisted of some variation of calling to establish a person-to-person connection, muting each other due to latency issues, and only talking (and coughing) during intermission, as if it were a “real” concert. But Something felt different.

When we’re listening to music streamed online through the speakers of our computer or phone, we aren’t getting the full picture. We have improved our ability to capture and reproduce acoustic sound since the time of Thomas Edison’s phonograph. But the sound that each musician produces has a series of overtones that are impossible to replicate completely through a recording — the audio files would take up too much space. As a result, we call audio compression technology “lossy.” This means that it takes advantage of the limited range of frequencies we can hear clearly and removes the ultra-high and ultra-low frequencies that comprise an ensemble’s sound. Recordings strip away the multi-dimensional feel of vibrations that emanate from musicians on stage and bounce off the walls, seats and people in the room. 

The performers did not know that we, the invisible audience, were there. As far as they knew, no one coughed between movements of Mahler’s first symphony. When the orchestra stood up at the end of their performance, I clapped loudly from my living room until I realized — they heard no applause. After their last notes stopped ringing, they stood and stared at the cameras all around them. They did not know what to do. Some bowed, others nodded and still others stood up and walked offstage. After their powerful performance brought comfort and distraction to new audiences, all they felt was silence. 

Phoebe Liu | phoebe.liu@yale.edu