In February 2021, Isaacson and countertenor Reginald Mobley created Amazing Grace: The American Spiritual, a multimedia concert that traces the history of Black spirituals from Pre-Emancipation folk singing to the Black Lives Matter movement. The video has been viewed over 6,000 times.
the stories you’ve seen about artists struggling during the pandemic are also my story. I am a conductor of classical music and the artistic director of a performing arts company, Classical Uprising. In 2020–21 all my events from March to June—more than 75 performances—were canceled. For nearly two years, my work has mirrored the infection rate charts as I have planned, canceled, grieved, rebuilt, re-planned and pivoted nearly every two weeks.
I’m exhausted, and yet, while my news feed grieves the silence of the concert hall and the pausing of normal performances, I am (strangely?) excited for the arts. Is something wrong with me?
The classical music world needed oxygen even before the pandemic. We’ve all read the articles, usually titled something along the lines of “Is Classical Music Dead?” The performing arts, classical music especially, are operating on societal conventions created 125 years ago. That model has been incomplete, if not flat-out broken: Put your life on pause for three hours, sit quietly (no date-night chit-chat, no kids), know the etiquette (don’t you dare clap between movements!) to worship a bunch of dead white guys (I mean that lovingly) in the cathedral of a symphony hall.
The musician pipeline has favored the mostly white, mostly male artists who trained at mostly the same institutions. Classical music can be the ultimate old-boys’ club and, as a young(ish) “girl,” I have often been told I am not allowed in. (I believe the phrase was “you won’t be a conductor because women are incapable of conducting.”) But as with other systems thrown into question by health and racial disparities, the pandemic has exposed cracks in an already-crumbling edifice and has made way for a better normal.
Artistic Director Emily Isaacson.
Only 9 percent of music directors (the CEO equivalent in classical music) in the U.S. are women, according to data from the League of American Orchestras, and of the highest-budget orchestras, only one features a woman at the helm. Isaacson started her own organization, Classical Uprising, in part, because she encountered bias while trying to navigate a traditional career.
While recognizing the incredible destruction COVID-19 has caused, the pandemic has been a bizarre gift from the universe. It has shown us why we need music, why we need live performance, how the arts connect us to each other and to ourselves. The absence of “normal” creates space to ask if normal was working, and for whom; and if it wasn’t working, how can we maintain the artistic integrity and emotional authenticity at the center of great performances, while bringing it to new places and including more people in the conversation?
Before the pandemic, these questions were peripheral at best; now they are at the center of the conversation.
I am (again, strangely?) excited because it feels like my approach to making art was built for these times: First, my team views art as in service to the community, so during difficult moments not only can we make art, but that the community needs the healing power of art. Second, we have been working outside the metaphorical box for nearly a decade, re-envisioning where and how to present classical music for a 21st-century audience. Innovating and adapting are the DNA of our creative process, so while COVID-19 presents some new challenges, we have been trying to change the concept of the concert for years now.
While previously our work focused on excellence, approachability and accessibility, now we needed to add the extra focus on safety.
In April of 2020, my trained brain went into action. I made the mistake of getting two master’s degrees and a doctorate, so my brain is trained to approach questions like an academic: state the problem, refine your research questions, analyze the literature and data, develop a hypothesis, add lots of footnotes in Chicago Manual of Style format (be consistent!). I approached the problem of making art during a pandemic in the same way I would approach a research paper:
State the problem
The normal way of presenting classical music was not working for many people and now is unsafe.
- How can we amplify music’s capacity to offer comfort, hope and inspiration so it is of service to the community?
- How can we use the safety restrictions as an opportunity for invention and creativity rather than as a limitation?
- In what ways can we redefine the concert experience to make it more inclusive and approachable for a greater audience?
- Bring music to people, don’t ask people to come to the music (perform in established community spaces; partner with other organizations in the community).
- Tear down the barriers (cost, location, time of day, length of commitment, dress code, etiquette) and change the ‘for’ factors (free, outside, come-and-go-as-you-please, kids welcome, no shushing, when possible add food and drink) so people of all ages and socio-economic groups can enjoy it.
- Focus on content that reflects our current experience, so that we may grieve and process as a community; or that escapes it, to provide respite; or that inspires, so we may nurture gratitude and hope.
I am so proud of my team’s fortitude and conviction. Over the last 20 months, using this framework, Classical Uprising has produced over 20 projects and events, serving inspiring art to over 6,000 people.
In June 2021, to safely bring music to young and old, Isaacson created the Carnival Concert: a street-fair-style concert and community celebration featuring over 25 local arts organizations and eateries. The intergenerational event included a parade with giant puppets, a Fairy Queen drag show, a drunken poet (Ryne Cherry seen here) and a community dance party.
We are not the only ones who view this moment as a catalyst for change. Across the globe, in all industries, people are challenging conventions that no longer serve our modern society; classical music has needed to do the same, but has been sluggish. I have long believed that classical music must rise up, challenge its rules and conventions, and re-envision where and how to present classical music for a 21st-century audience. The pandemic has forced us to question our industry’s norms and re-envisions where, how and for whom we are making music.
Rather than being despondent, I am strangely grateful for the pandemic and the ways it can and has reshaped the arts. This is a time of great societal change, of redefining the world we want to live in, and of working together to make that world a reality. I have been training for this moment my whole life. I am inspired by the challenge and sprinting to make use of this moment. I just need to take a nap first.
. . .