Bienen concert ‘The Last Message Received’ becomes a superspreader event


Seeger Gray/The Daily Northwestern

“The Last Message Received” concert became a COVID-19 superspreader among Bienen students.

Jenna Wang, Reporter

After the Bienen School of Music’s concert, “The Last Message Received,” Bienen sophomore Greta McNamee learned she had stood singing right next to the event’s first reported positive COVID-19 case. The performance took place April 30 in the packed Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

By the time she went to bed that night, eight more choir members had tested positive.

Over the next few days, the concert featuring the University Chorale, Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra became a superspreader event. During the week of April 29, Northwestern reported a positivity rate of 7.40% with 302 new positive cases.

According to McNamee, nearly one-third of the entire choir was included in those numbers. She said she felt alarmed, but given the lack of a mask mandate and testing enforcements this quarter, she was not surprised.

“For this concert, we were encouraged to unmask, which I think was an irresponsible choice on part of the choral team,” McNamee said. “They should know after more than two years of a global pandemic that singing is a relatively more dangerous activity, and there needs to be extra measures taken.”

McNamee said the choral team encouraged unmasking with the assumption students would keep up with testing before the concert. However, Bienen junior Mark May said no one enforced the requirement for students to test three times in the week prior.

May said he believes the choral team does value masking in general, as members wore masks nearly every rehearsal until dress rehearsals.

“A lot of people were excited to perform in a normal environment and not have to worry about masks,” May said. “But for the people that wanted to wear masks, (the choral department) was even offering black masks to anyone who wanted them.”

McNamee pointed out a few masks could not be effective when the majority of the choir sang maskless. Of the people she knew who sung with masks, she said half of them had still gotten infected.

“While it was a very worthwhile effort from them, clearly it didn’t make enough of a difference, which is really devastating because those are the people who are trying very hard to limit the exposure,” McNamee said. “Yet they’re the ones who get punished.”

McNamee said she and many others feel it is unreasonable to ask students to compromise their health for required attendance at an event which counts toward graduation. She said her professor, who specializes in vocal pedagogy, warned of COVID-19’s long-term consequences on the lungs and voice.

Bienen Professor Donald Nally, who conducted the concert, also expressed his frustrations about the event.

“The last week has been painful and frustrating for the choirs, orchestras and faculty of the Bienen School — not just due to the stress and disruption of illness, but also our collective desire to produce Puccini’s opera La Bohème and to ensure that our students’ recitals take place,” Nally said in an email to The Daily. “We are a strong and resilient community; we will figure this out together, making every last effort that all of these important events take place.”

University spokesperson Erin Karter said NU’s COVID Response Team, Bienen and NU leadership have been working together to monitor the situation.

“Bienen has canceled three performances in recent days due to student performers having tested positive, and will take additional measures if needed in consultation with University health officials,” Karter said.

According to May, the choral department has discontinued rehearsals for the Bienen Contemporary Ensemble and the University Chorale for the remainder of the year.

In a followup email, the choral department expressed its willingness to help those infected, but McNamee said it did not hold itself accountable. She felt as though Bienen’s Instagram post about the event exemplified why people were upset.

McNamee said she communicated about the spread following the event in the sophomore Bienen GroupMe chat and participated in student-led efforts to track cases via seating charts.

May, on the other hand, felt the resulting backlash from students was unprofessional. He approved of the choral department’s response but was still saddened by the cancellations. Given masks were not required on campus, May felt the choral program did everything it could.

“It was a great response, and it was quite nice — they offered to help people that had COVID, they were really reassuring and they canceled a bunch of stuff preventively,” May said. “I look forward to choir — it’s a fun class, and I get to work with my friends. It kind of stinks not having a whole class because I think (the choral department) almost got forced into it.”

McNamee said she thought the choral department’s decision to cancel rehearsals was a good choice and felt the department’s response was generous.

She believes the issue stems from the University’s administration and wants to see the reinstatement of more testing requirements and enforceable COVID safety measures.

“I don’t want to be completely throwing the choral team under the bus because as vocal as they are about not masking, they are very kind,” McNamee said. “They’re doing what they can. They could be doing more, but there are only so many resources because of the way the COVID masking and testing guidelines have been enforced — or certainly not enforced — this quarter.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jennajwang

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