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With Guns N’ Roses and the BSO, two indoor concerts herald the return of live music in a big way to Baltimore

Whether headbanging to heavy metal or more demurely applauding at the symphony, music lovers had reason to celebrate this weekend in Baltimore, where after 18 months of pandemic restrictions, two venues hosted large, live performances.

“I’ve missed the energy that can just fill up an arena during a concert,” said Jeff Evanglista, 41, who drove from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Royal Farms Arena to see Guns N’ Roses on Sunday.

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The pent-up demand to hear music amid fellow fans was palpable, as well, about a mile to the north, where the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra opened its 2021-2022 subscription season with concerts Saturday and Sunday featuring rising young musician Randall Goosby performing Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

Before playing a single note, he was met with several rounds of applause as he stood with the orchestra at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, where musicians and audience members alike wore masks.

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Masks also were a must at the arena, as they are required in indoor public spaces in Baltimore, although many people removed them during the headliner’s more than 3½-hour show. At the BSO, there was an additional requirement for entry: concertgoers had to show proof of vaccination that matched their ID.

“It’s good to be back,” Judy Binkley, 57, of Lutherville, said Saturday night at the Meyerhoff. “We missed it.”

She and her husband enjoyed virtual performances during the months when large indoor gatherings were restricted. But it wasn’t the same.

“When you have a ticket, you come to it,” Binkley said. “When you’re at home, life tends to get in the way.”

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But if the music played on in Baltimore this weekend, whether it will continue here and elsewhere — and how many fans will turn out — remains as unpredictable as COVID-19 itself.

Even as it performed to a raucous crowd here, Guns N’ Roses announced that due to the virus’ resurgence, eight concerts in November in Australia and New Zealand were postponed until next summer. The band previously delayed shows in Europe and Mexico.

Dr. Amesh Adalja said he would have gone to see the band if he had tickets. In addition to being the kind of fan who once drove to see Guns N’ Roses in Toronto on a Sunday and got back to Pittsburgh in time for class on Monday, Adalja is a leading infectious disease specialist.

The senior scholar at the Center for Health Security, part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health School, said he would prefer venues to require proof of vaccination. But Adalja said masking and requiring proof of a negative COVID test can help lower risk into the acceptable range — something that varies depending on age, medical conditions and vaccination status.

“There’s no way to eliminate all COVID risk at a mass gathering,” Adalja said. “But I think we have to transition as a society into asking how we can make these events safer.”

Outdoor events are largely considered safer, and indeed, last weekend the city hosted its first capacity Ravens game at M&T Bank Stadium, which holds more than 71,000 people, since the pandemic began.

Janice Sierra, left, of Stafford, Virginia, and husband, Juan Sosa, center, bought their sons, Dylan, 12, and Jayden, 10, right, to Guns N' Roses at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore.
Janice Sierra, left, of Stafford, Virginia, and husband, Juan Sosa, center, bought their sons, Dylan, 12, and Jayden, 10, right, to Guns N' Roses at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Vaccinations are key because in the event of a breakthrough infection, the risk of serious illness or hospitalization is exceedingly low, Adalja said. Rather than government mandates, which he believes could trigger lengthy litigation and backlash, Adalja said the chance of compliance might be better if the venues or artists themselves required vaccinations for concertgoers.

With masking, he said, “the question is how effectively were people wearing them.” In a darkened arena, enforcing mask-wearing would be difficult, Adalja said, and the expected “singing and screaming” increases the chance that viral particles will be released and spread.

And indeed, as a reporter observed at the Royal Farms Arena, as soon as Guns N’ Roses took to the stage amid flashing lights and an electric atmosphere, many people jumped up from their seats, eventually losing their masks as they sang along and cheered.

The crowd included Janice Sierra, 44, of Stafford, Virginia. She and her husband, Juan Sosa, 45, brought the family’s next generation of Guns N’ Roses fans, their 12- and 10-year-old sons.

“We are ecstatic,” Sierra said. “We are slowly getting back to normal after COVID. We spent so much time at home, it’s just great to be out.”

“I can’t wait to rock out and get loud. This concert is about to be fire,” predicted Dylan Sosa, 12.

Guns N' Roses played Sunday at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore.
Guns N' Roses played Sunday at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore. (Katarina Benzova/Handout)

It was the largest event the family had been to since the pandemic began. Sierra said they were a little worried, although, she, her husband and Dylan are vaccinated. Ten-year-old Jayden does not yet qualify for a vaccine.

“We tried not to move around too much and to wear masks,” said Sierra, a photographer, on Monday.

Frank Remesch, the arena’s general manager, said in a statement that “the energy level was insane” more 1 1/2 years after the venue went dark during the pandemic. When frontman Axl Rose “addressed fans and gave a shout out to Baltimore, the crowd went absolutely wild ... the band played for over 3 1/2 hours.”

Arena staff did not respond to questions about how many attended the concert nor how it enforced the mask requirement.

BSO staff said they haven’t had any to remove anyone for violating the mask requirement.

Under the city’s Health Department policy, performers can remove masks while speaking or if they can’t play instruments while wearing them. Adam Abadir, a department spokesman, said singers qualify for that exemption.

Abadir said health officials, lacking enough personnel, rely on venues to enforce the rule with audience members, although he acknowledged that could be difficult in a concert setting. He said reports of noncompliance prompt “conversations” with the venue that stress the importance of following protocols to limit the spread of COVID.

“Fundamentally, we’re the Health Department, not the police,” he said. “We do view our function as really just educating people.”

Saturday’s BSO audience was perhaps less vocal than the arena’s, even if there were occasional hoots, cheers and standing ovations for the orchestra and soloist. Still, the joy at being together again was clear, from the musicians themselves to audience members who arrived early to move smoothly through the COVID protocols.

With additional entrances opened, about 450 people on Saturday night and 800 on Sunday afternoon made their way into the 2,400-seat hall. There were no concessions, although there was a table full of tiny bottles of hand sanitizer.

The audience applauds as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's first classical subscription concert of the season begins Saturday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
The audience applauds as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's first classical subscription concert of the season begins Saturday at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Longtime subscribers Samira and Mark Phillips of Baltimore arrived before the doors opened at 6:45 p.m. for the 8 p.m. Saturday show. They had attended the season-opening concert Sept. 11 featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman and a donor appreciation concert Sept. 22. At the first, they were moved by the return from a long hiatus of musicians they’ve come to love.

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“I was really exhilarated, but I also felt tears at the opening notes,” said Samira Phillips, 59, a middle school teacher. “Not just that we were there with them, but that they were with each other.”

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“We’re fortunate to be in Maryland where a lot of people have gotten the vaccination,” said her husband Mark, 59, a family physician.

Another concertgoer, Martina Crocker, wore a sparkly mask for the occasion. She remembered when she last heard live music indoors: in March 2020, a Washington National Opera performance of “Don Giovanni” at the Kennedy Center.

“It was the last performance” before the rest of the run was canceled, said the 61-year-old therapist from Bethesda.

Only now are many performing arts groups dipping toes into the reopening waters with indoor, live performances. Venues have upgraded ventilation systems and enacted a range of requirements for audiences. As the delta variant continues to spread, Baltimore reinstituted the indoor mask mandate Aug. 9, but not previous capacity limits.

Despite concertgoers’ enthusiasm this weekend, performing groups such as the BSO expect smaller audiences, at least initially. Some patrons remain reluctant to venture back to indoor performances and COVID’s spread remains unpredictable. For them, and those who remain unvaccinated, the BSO is livestreaming concerts.

The orchestra staff is 100% vaccinated, said BSO spokeswoman Allison Burr-Livingstone. Still, all the musicians were masked, except for wind and brass players when they were performing.

The audience had to keep their masks on at all times — and to forgo that glass of champagne or other refreshments at intermission. Also, the typically mature classical music audience might have been even more so, with those under 12 and thus unable to be vaccinated yet barred from attending.

After months of adjusting to the ebb and flow of the pandemic, consulting with health experts and adjusting schedules, facilities and policies, the return to live performances was a welcome one.

“It’s been a very difficult 18 months for everybody,” said Tonya McBride Robles, the BSO’s chief operating officer. “I feel people need this more than ever.”

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