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Assessing the Future of Classical Music in the Covid-19 Climate

As some orchestral musicians make a tentative return to work, Andrew Stewart examines the challenges facing the classical music sector.

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By Andrew Stewart Published: 25 December 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 25 December 2020 | 12:39 PM
LSO © David Jackson
LSO © David Jackson

Oliver Dowden’s five-stage road map to reopen theatres and concert halls to paying audiences looks set to run over rough ground. The culture secretary’s lockdown easement plan, announced on 25 June, was notably vague in terms of timing and silent on funding. Musicians and other performing artists are unlikely to feel confident about their future employment prospects as a result, despite the government’s more recent pledge of £1.57bn to support the UK’s arts infrastructure.

At the time of writing, 150 grassroots venues have received welcome if not exactly redemptive news that they stand to share £2.25m in grant aid. Musicians in the nation’s orchestras, meanwhile, especially those employed as freelancers, are waiting for a sign that bailout cash will be used to preserve performing arts jobs as well as protect arts buildings and institutions.

Returning orchestras deliver emotionally-charged performances

Several of Britain’s orchestras have already made a tentative start on the comeback trail. Fourteen members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House returned to work at Covent Garden in mid-June to play a chamber version of Mahler’s Song Of The Earth. Their emotionally charged performance, streamed live online, served notice of what the country stands to lose if support for orchestras is not forthcoming from the public purse. The London Symphony Orchestra took the next step with a concert at St Luke’s at the end of July, one of several pilot events designed to test the safety of bringing players together in the same space. Orchestra members also launched a Summer Shorts series of duo recitals on Friday lunchtimes at St Luke’s, open to a small, socially distanced audience.

LSO first violinist Maxine Kwok recalls the joy of returning to work after a break of almost five months. She and her colleagues were tested for Covid-19 before the first rehearsal. “The whole week was great, first to play together with the orchestra without an audience and then, a few days later, for me and Julián Gil Rodríguez, to perform duets to a live audience. I felt quite deflated after it was over! We’d been waiting so long for this moment and must now wait for our next performance at the BBC Proms later this summer. These are small steps, but at least I think we’re going in the right direction.”

Making music again

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House percussionist and MU Steward, Nigel Charman, was also delighted to be back at work. The process, he recalls, followed guidelines set out in a 23-page document and strict protocols designed to protect everyone from musicians to backstage staff. “It was wonderful to make music again,” explains Charman. “It was one of the most fulfilling weeks I can remember. After three months at home, occasionally looking at the diary to see what we would have been doing, it was great to be back in the building with fellow musicians. And to start playing again was simply amazing. I felt so fortunate to be one of those who took part, and wished the whole orchestra could have been there.”

Planning for the future

Nobody knows when the full Orchestra of the ROH will meet again, or how the Royal Opera’s programme of voluntary redundancies, announced on 24 July, will affect the company’s players and choristers. The run of three Live From Covent Garden concerts – complete with Mahler’s symphonic song cycle – at least set a precedent for future live events with small ensembles, but did nothing to answer the existential threat posed by public health restrictions on theatres, concert halls and other indoor venues.

“The orchestra committee and I have had several Zoom meetings every week to discuss what’s happening, what’s not happening, and what might be happening in the future,” notes Nigel Charman. “We’re still waiting to learn what management is planning for the medium and long term. It’s a deeply concerning time.”

Royal Opera House in London exterior

Minimising risk for classical musicians

Morris Stemp, the MU’s Orchestras Official, welcomes the return of live orchestral performances, but insists that the safety of musicians should always come first. He is pleased to see that calls on government to ensure that plans to reconvene orchestras are preceded by scientific research into mitigating the risks of Covid-19 transmission among musicians have been heeded. “It’s not a matter about people losing money, it’s potentially about whether they live or die,” he notes. “Health and safety law says you must remove risk if you can and minimise risk if you can’t. We have to make sure that everything that’s being done to get orchestras back to work is evidence based. Until we do, we won’t know what’s safe and what isn’t. The economic argument for going back to work is strong, of course. But there has to be evidence that it’s safe first. We’ve got to get this right.”

Keeping musicians safe in the workplace

Orchestral players were waiting for the results of government-commissioned research into aerosol transmissions and droplet emissions from wind and brass instruments as initial guidance from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) advised wind and brass players to sit three metres apart. Studies conducted by the University of the Bundeswehr Munich suggested that the gap might safely be reduced and DCMS Guidance after their own research has now reduced this to the same distance as any instrument, two metres as for ‘usual’ social distancing. “We need to see the highest standard of evidence about keeping players safe in the workplace,” comments Morris Stemp.

The MU welcomes response from managements

MU National Organiser, Orchestras, Jo Laverty, has been heartened by the readiness of managements to work with the Union to address the realities of life during lockdown. While she recognises the impossibility of eliminating all risk of contracting coronavirus in the orchestral workplace, every attempt must be taken to mitigate risk. “We always pride ourselves on good industrial relations, but it’s been an amazingly collegiate response from management,” she observes. “We have each other’s backs and want to work together for the good of musicians. That’s been nice to see, since it’s not always like that.”

An initiative by the Orchestra of the Swan to take its acclaimed community engagement programme online, the Ulster Orchestra’s evolving weekly programme of small-scale performances, music to be made by members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at Glyndebourne, and the prospect of concerts by physically distanced ensembles for the final fortnight of the BBC Proms reflect the collective determination of orchestral musicians to be heard.

Serious investment is needed to save our orchestras

At the Royal Opera House, Nigel Charman senses that the whole company is looking to find ways through the tough months to come. “The government’s furlough scheme has been great for us,” he observes. “We’re the lucky ones who are receiving money every month so we can eat and pay some bills.” What happens next will depend on whether the government’s rescue deal for the arts reaches the pockets of performers.

It’s going to take serious investment beyond the existing furlough scheme to save our orchestras. While we’re waiting for it to be safe to return to the old normal, we’ll keep practising at home in the hope that eventually we can make music together again.

Online options to make performances pay

Jo Laverty says that orchestras and other performing arts organisations must find ways to make online performances pay. “Almost every arts company is going to need to adapt to serve two audiences – one online, the other in the hall – when it can return,” she comments. “They will have to serve and develop a digital audience, which will mean that Union agreements will need revising. That may involve orchestras working together to share their existing digital equipment or create new partnerships with the BBC. There’s certainly a role for the BBC to play as a public service broadcaster in helping out the orchestral sector. Of course, their priority will be to get the BBC orchestras back to playing together in BBC buildings and venues, and visible again as a collective. But there may be a future in which the main public service broadcaster can work with the independent orchestras to bring their work to a much a larger audience.”

Open to debate: BBC programme paints a bleak picture

The future of classical music exercised those involved in a debate convened by BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters at the end of June. Presenter Tom Service began with a straightforward question. “Is it all over? Classical music as we know it, I mean.” The programme’s participants struggled to supply a simple or definitive answer. Service presented a bleak picture of closed concert halls, disbanded orchestras and ensembles, fearful former audience members and predictions of job losses in the performing arts affecting up to 114,000 people. “It was nice while it lasted, but that was the classical music culture that was in Britain from the public concerts of the 18th century to March 2020,” he announced, clearly on a roll with his litany of disasters to come. “In the age of social distancing, it’s finished. Or is it?”

The value of the classical music sector

The debate was unsurprisingly short on optimism. It contained a reality check from Arts Council England’s Director, Music and London, Claire Mera-Nelson, about the future prospects for the classical music profession if Covid-19 restrictions on live performance extend beyond the autumn. “Although virtually every musician I’ve spoken to is desperate to get back to work, between the regulations around social distancing and the extreme steps organisations have had to take to manage their businesses, it’s just not been possible,” she noted. “We are working very closely with DCMS and the Treasury to ensure the government is very well informed about the value of the sector. We’re hopeful that there will be an option for us all at the end of this. Were no support to be forthcoming, it would see the end of the sector as we know it today.”

How digital performance could power recovery

Maxine Kwok admits that she is concerned about the many uncertainties confronting classical musicians. “It’s a horrible worry,” she says. “Of course you keep thinking about where our funding will come from. But we have to pull some positivity out of this situation, otherwise we’ll just fall flat. One of the positives for me is that what’s being presented digitally now is far superior to anything that came before. We’ve had to leap forward and find new ways of doing things. We can reach more people of all ages through our online programme and connect with people that way. And it’s right that there should be a charge to access some of that high-quality content, which might help us to survive while we’re getting back to performing for live audiences again.”

This story originally appeared in The Musician Journal - Autumn 2020 edition.

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Andrew Stewart

Andrew writes for The Times, The Guardian, Classical Music and BBC Music Magazine, among others. He is also Director of Southwark Voices.

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