We had a house concert at Birdsong last weekend, our first one inside the house since the start of the pandemic. It required checking vaccination passports and that everyone be masked in the concert space; both things made me uncomfortable for different reasons, but it was worth it to be able to present live music in the cooler days of fall.
All summer we had concerts outside, seven of them over nine weeks, and were lucky for the warmer weather that held for every one of them. In our yard we can fit 65 people comfortably, and each our shows was sold out. After a winter and spring of deep isolation, the audiences for our shows were emotional, and deeply appreciative (if a bit weirded out) to be in company again. After the first couple of shows in particular, people effused praise, teary from the impact. Through the summer I was moved over and over again by the courage of musical performance, the generosity on display from the stage as musicians gave themselves wholly to their audiences for a few hours.
I had forgotten until this summer, about the magic of live performance, the unpredictable gaffes, the funny ones, the tiny crisis of a broken string or lost guitar pick. Not to mention the moments when it seems as though the performer is singing directly to your own experience, playing music reminiscent of a lost time, sharing glimpses of a world that could be through the clarity of their lyric buoyed by just the right run of notes. We can forge such a strong connection in those moments which pass between performer and audience. I think I had buried this yearning to connect during the months we turned inward, pushing them off rather than acknowledging the loss I felt.
During the flurry of cancellations in March 2020, one of the tickets I was most disappointed about giving up was for a Vancouver Opera production of Another Brick in The Wall (based on lyrics by Roger Waters). We had planned to make a weekend in the city with friends and see the Sunday matinee of the production, but as with everything else that spring we stayed home instead. I was disappointed but thought perhaps by fall we would be able to rebook those tickets. As we know, that’s not how the story turned out and here we are 18 months later, still unsure about being indoors with others.
The other night, with Shari Ulrich (a very well-known/much loved west coast performer) at the front of our dining room/parlour that passes for a concert space, I stood at the back of the at-capacity room (25 seats) and watched the assembled audience. All of them willing to take the risk of being inside together in order to participate in the intimacy, the rarity, of this opportunity. They leaned in, laughed at Shari’s stories, passed around the box of tissues after she sang her her adoption song. While live performance is always a blessing, a small audience in a small space is something else again. The concentration of energy, the directed focus – there is an electricity generated between participants that is palpable when you tune into it.
I found myself teary on Saturday night, with the performance itself, but more than that I felt the fragility of each of us in our need to be threaded through by shared experience and a culture we recognize from “before”. It is still a risk to be together like this, though lessened by the vaccine, but I wonder about the risks of not coming together during another long winter. More years without music, theatre, dance? More years without the exchange of energy between creatives? I don’t think we can do it and survive. For as long as we have been humans, we have made and shared art. We have sung together and danced around fires. We have told stories to pass the time on deep winter nights. Have travelled between towns and homes, sharing the latest news through lyric. And we have been audiences holding each other and the performer up as the glittering treasure that we are together. This is central, and it continues to feel like a threat at the same time. I’m not sure how to reconcile this exactly, except to be open to the small risks that might keep our fires alive as we head into winter.