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Life in Lockdown for UK Orchestras

In this longer-read feature, find out more about how UK orchestras have been faring through the pandemic – including taking on remote recording projects, working in creative new directions, and putting health and safety first in the move back to work.

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By Andrew Stewart Published: 06 April 2021 | 4:41 PM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:32 PM

Britain’s salaried orchestral players have fared better than most musicians since the arrival of Covid-19. Yet they too have faced major upheavals as the stop-start pattern of lockdowns took hold.

The pandemic forced orchestras to close for business and then find new methods of working. In many ways the crisis has brought managements and players closer together, and has inspired fresh thinking that should serve orchestras well when life resembles normal again.

Jo Laverty, MU National Organiser, Orchestras, recalls initial concerns that orchestras would remain mothballed and become unviable. But furlough, she notes, bought time for independent orchestras to create Covid-secure workplaces. “We supported orchestras in getting back to work as soon as possible. I appreciate it’s been worse for unemployed freelancers. But it was not great for contracted players to sit at home with nothing to practise for.”

Jo and her colleagues arranged video meetings for MU members to voice ideas about working during the pandemic. “They were keen to discover what others were doing,” she explains. “They wanted to start playing in whatever ways possible.” The range of innovation, she adds, was impressive and has broadened since the first lockdown.

Finding creative ways to work during the pandemic

Ulster Orchestra ventured into unknown territory last July by recording a virtual performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Overture as part of their Let’s Play at Home sessions on YouTube.

Before they returned to work in August, several players gave open-air performances at care homes. “We’ve had to be creative,” says Ulster Orchestra MU Steward Helen Neale. “I think the players have accepted the need for so much to be streamed online but we’ll have to discuss fees for digital work at some point. Although our BBC work is incorporated into salary, there should be some recompense if we continue creating so much digital content.”

Neale’s band entered the pandemic with decent Arts Council Northern Ireland funding and regular BBC engagements. “I hope we’re not in a bad place but you never know with public funding. We’ve done so much to make ourselves available in the community and I think we’ve made some local impact. I suspect orchestras in future will be quite different from what they were before Covid. But first we all have to get through this really difficult time.”

Digital media was already on the cards at the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) before Covid, placed there by its new chief executive, Alistair Mackie. He recognised the importance and potential commercial value of streaming concerts. “He hired a digital manager and an engineer and began to record performances before the pandemic,” recalls Bill Paterson, the RSNO’s MU Steward. “So we were ready with digital content when Covid took hold.”

Working from home for recording projects

The RSNO’s contract includes a media buyout deal. “Having got over the grief from that several years ago, this part of our contract was practically unused before the pandemic,” Paterson notes.

Players recorded ‘at home’ projects last spring before a downsized RSNO returned to work to perform chamber versions of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony and Rückert-Lieder at the Edinburgh International Festival. The orchestra subsequently filmed ten concerts for broadcast online, streamed at weekly intervals and still attracting views despite moving behind a paywall.

“There’s a spirit of cooperation in the orchestra,” Paterson observes. “Players trust the management at the moment and vice versa.” The RSNO’s musicians accepted contract variations to allow greater flexibility. The comprehensive agreement, which temporarily suspended enhanced payments for chamber music and small ensemble work, has been reviewed once and is set for review again this summer.

Bill Paterson stresses the importance of his orchestra’s Scottish government funding, which accounts for around 60% of its budget. “Things aren’t so bad because of that. But we’re still facing lost box-office income. I reckon we’re looking at another year before we return to anything like normality. I’d say there’s optimism and trepidation about that. I think it will be a slow start and there will be hard times ahead. But we’ll get there.”

Workplace safety is a top priority whilst returning to playing live

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s management won the argument for waiting to bring the whole orchestra back to work after Britain’s first lockdown. The strategy, backed by smart use of the furlough scheme and temporary contract variations, enabled the BSO to schedule a dozen full-scale concerts between September and December in its regular Wednesday evening slot at Poole Lighthouse.

Each performance, lasting 75 minutes without an interval, was streamed live and, until November’s lockdown, performed to a socially distanced audience. The digital series included the UK premiere of Magnus Lindberg’s Absence, concerto dates for principal players and British-based soloists, and symphonic works with heavy brass.

“It was exciting to play again,” recalls BSO MU Steward, Holly Randall. “We had two weeks before the main series to get used to sitting two metres apart. Everyone was so keen to get back to work. It brought the whole orchestra together and showed that management appreciates every player.” The band fell silent again during the third lockdown. “It was very disappointing not to start again in January,” Randall confides. “But there was also relief that we were not having to work while infection rates were high.”

Morris Stemp, the MU’s Orchestras Official, insists that managements should make workplace safety top priority, and says the MU has worked closely with the Union’s H&S consultant Roger Sutton to build the evidence base for Covid-secure working practices, mindful of employers’ duties under the terms of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.

“We’ve collaborated with most managements since last March,” says Morris. “And we’ve now spoken with those who didn’t come to us at first. We saw a lack of understanding of what was needed to stay within the law. Employers must do everything to identify and remove a risk. If they can’t, they have to do everything possible to minimise it.”

Covid’s novel status meant that nobody knew how best to protect musicians from contracting the disease at work. “We’ve done a lot to build the evidence base about what is and isn’t safe and worked with each orchestra to produce risk assessments for every project,” says Morris.

He is adamant that, whatever the mitigation measures undertaken by managements, players should always speak up if they feel unsafe. “You don’t have to do anything that you don’t think is safe. Perhaps your fears have already been considered and are being addressed. Or perhaps they need further mitigation.”

Responding quickly to a changing situation

The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra’s MU Steward Paul Turner is acutely aware of his good fortune to work for the BBC. “We’ve been on salary throughout, while freelance colleagues have seen their work decimated,” he notes. “But it was still a big shock to be told to stay at home.” He joined forces with Orchestra Director Simon Webb to create work within the terms of the BBC/MU national agreement.

Turner explained, “The Union also acted very quickly. The stewards in all the orchestras got together with Jo and Morris to discuss this unprecedented situation. Simon was very grateful to the MU for its flexible and creative response. The key thing was that nobody was compelled to record online work, because quite a lot of it is complicated to do at home.”

With its season cancelled, the BBC Philharmonic turned to resources within the orchestra. It harnessed the talents of four players who happen to be skilled arrangers, organised small groups and ensembles, and supported musicians to record content at home.

Double-bassist Pete Willmott’s medley of iconic sports show themes, recorded by players in isolation, proved an instant hit with BBC Radio 5 Live audiences and set the benchmark for recordings of David Bowie’s Sound And Vision for BBC Radio 6 Music and the Great Northern Playlist, a collaboration with local radio across the orchestra’s region.

“By working across the BBC networks, we’ve moved way beyond our regular audience,” comments Turner. He and his colleagues moved millions of BBC Breakfast viewers with Four Notes – Paul’s Tune – music originally improvised at the piano by Paul Harvey, a former music teacher living with Alzheimer’s, and orchestrated by BBC Philharmonic bassist Daniel Whibley.

The orchestra also created substantial education projects, such as Pick A Part, a bespoke app that allows people to play along or conduct music performed by a string quartet comprising BBC Philharmonic musicians. “Pick A Part worked incredibly well and gave people a feel of how classical compositions are put together,” says Turner.

New ideas to conduct Covid-secure rehearsals and performances

Organising public concerts has proved easier for orchestras that own their home halls. The Royal Northern Sinfonia turned the concourse at Sage Gateshead into a space for chamber music concerts and opened its main auditorium to socially distanced audiences in August, while the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra redefined areas of Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall for Covid-secure rehearsals and public performances.

Sophie Appleton, the RNS’s MU Steward, recalls how management sought ideas from players during the first lockdown. “It was a good move to discover what we could do immediately,” she notes. “We put things online like Tune That Name, where people played pieces backwards, performed for our neighbours, and organised an end-of-season concert. I think we were the first orchestra to perform to an audience after lockdown with an open-air concert at a bowls club.”

“It’s important we protect people’s contracts and it’s timely to look at this, given how streaming and digital content have accelerated in recent years,” comments Appleton. “The question is one of how much extra income streaming will deliver. Our management has decided to review this whole area in partnership with the players, rather than impose new duties on us. We’ve had some very fruitful meetings already and received training in new media over the past six months, so we can help shape what could be a more progressive future.”

Concerns about mental health of orchestral musicians

Dave Rimbault, MU Steward at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, underlines the value of open communication. He cites the RLPO’s collaborative approach to mental and physical health and desire to counter the negative effects of being away from work for months.

The orchestra has responded to concerns about wellbeing by producing a back-to-work plan, complete with webinars on performance anxiety and support for returning to a changed workplace.

“I’m pleased management recognised our concerns about players’ mental health,” comments Rimbault. “They’ve also been very good so far on Covid health and safety.”

He notes how two-meter spaces have been marked out in Philharmonic Hall’s green room and music room, to protect players while warming up or rehearsing. “We should also remain mindful of the long-term implications of any contract changes made during the pandemic and be careful not to sleepwalk into situations where working terms and conditions regress. There’s a balance to be struck between what we need to get back to work now and what people will accept in future.”

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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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