Saturday afternoon’s checklist was a bit more thorough.
I was preparing to head to Old Town Alexandria, where the local orchestral and choral touring company Classical Movements was hosting “Sounds of Hope & Harmony,” an outdoor trio of hour-long chamber concerts in the “Secret Garden” tucked behind its former-rectory headquarters on Princess Street. But it felt like I was preparing for battle.
I had my mask — two of them, actually — a blue plaid number that seemed formal enough to block pathogens at a garden party. I had a small bottle of Purell. A big bottle of water. A hankie for lens fog. An umbrella and a raincoat for the looming thunderheads. A printout of my assigned location in the garden (No. 11 of 35 or so reserved spots). And my usual kit of reporter stuff — phone, pad, pen. I also had a serious case of nerves.
Riding to the rectory in the back of a Lyft, I took shallow breaths (which I’m sure is effective) and hung my head halfway out the open window with all the enthusiasm of a golden retriever en route to the vet. It was raining, and the ominous droplets pelting my forehead felt like tiny omens that I should turn around and go back to the apartment, that this was all too soon, that it was actually crazy. My phone said crowds were starting to form at President Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa, and I felt around my tote bag to make sure I had my inhaler.
But upon reaching the garden, the rain stalled, the clouds parted, the sun glimmered through the trees, and the sounds of nearly two dozen musicians tuning in the various rooms of the 235-year-old rectory filtered into the courtyard. It was the sound of music preparing to return; and just like that, my jitters subsided.
Classical Movements isn’t in the business of throwing garden parties, but its fledgling attempt to bring music back to real life, led by founder Neeta Helms, was an ambitious model for what live music might look like for the foreseeable future. As Phase 2 of reopening relaxed some restrictions in the District starting Monday, it’s likely that more attempts to gather skittish audiences will spring up around the area. Even so, the baby steps of Saturday’s gathering in the garden felt like a giant leap.
“There are a lot of reasons to worry,” Helms would tell me in a debrief on the phone the next day. “But I feel like we have to try to go ahead.”
This time out, hand-sanitizing stations stood at the ready and little flags staked out each listener’s spot for standing, six feet apart (though couples could cluster). It felt odd at first, but also oddly luxurious if you’ve ever been vexed by the personal space afforded by seats in a concert hall. Attendees improvised their hey-I-know-you reunions in the rows through a mix of elbow bumps and weird waves and salutes.
The musicians, too, had some improvising to do. Ensembles representing the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the New Orchestra of Washington, as well as the Barclay Brass ensemble (which includes members of the Maryland, Annapolis and Fairfax symphony orchestras) were staggered across the three programs and spread around the stage — the unfamiliar acoustics of socially distant performance requiring more reliance on visual cues between the players.
A quintet of horn players from the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra opened the evening easing into selections from Giles Farnaby’s “Fancies, Toyes, and Dreams” before seguing into “That’s a Plenty,” a 1914 rag-turned-jazz-standard by Lew Pollack, and one of a few detours into ragtime that lent the program a disarming lightness. Members of the NSO later took on Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and Barclay Brass chased the second suite from Handel’s “Water Music” with Allen Toussaint’s “Java.” (And in all cases, even when a rag sounds a little rusty, it feels right.)
The wind quintet of National Symphony Orchestra players also gave a brilliant account of Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja” (written for Imani Winds) that held court against the noisy birds in the tulip magnolia above us. And a quintet of string players from the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra showcased the skilled interplay of concertmaster Claudia Chudacoff and violinist Peter Haase, delivering a stirringly beautiful selection from Mozart’s Divertimento No. 1 in D.
Their take on Shostakovich’s lovably stumbling polka from “The Golden Age” — and its grasping toward a familiar form — felt freshly relatable; and likewise, their closing selection of “Toreador Song” from “Carmen” felt appropriately victorious for the occasion. After all, we’d made it!
Much like those nervously gathered to listen, the program was a little all over the place; but the intimacy of the experience — and our collective hunger to hear just about anything — gave the feeling that audience and performers were conducting the same experiment: just being there. Even before the first notes were played, I found myself getting lost in the music of chitchat and laughter — our own birdsong.
And while there were little reminders of the virus — the wiping down of musicians’ seats between sets, the concerted effort to avoid touching the microphone, somewhat-matchy masks — it never overshadowed the evening. (The sun sails hung overhead did that, while helping keep the music contained from the roar of landing planes.)
For audience and musicians alike — and especially for Helms and her team, who found themselves immediately fielding questions about when the next concert will be (they’re figuring it out) — the various tweaks, compromises and precautions required to realize something as simple as a night of music felt like a major achievement. I was tempted to high-five my neighbors in audience but, well, you know.