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Orchestras Begin Tentative Start on the Comeback Trail

Following the Culture Secretary’s vague lockdown easement plan, we discuss how important it is that every attempt must be made to mitigate risk, the tentative first steps that some Orchestras have been taking, and the collective determination of musicians to be heard.

Published: 30 June 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:31 PM
Musicians playing the violin close up
It’s going to take serious investment beyond the existing furlough scheme to save our orchestras. Photo credit: Shutterstock

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.

Several of Britain’s orchestras, however, have already made a tentative start on the great 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 socially distanced, emotionally charged performance, streamed live online, served notice of what the country stands to lose if sustained support for orchestras is not forthcoming from the public purse.

Waiting during a deeply concerning time

Royal Opera Orchestra percussionist and MU Steward Nigel Charman was 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.

He told us, “It was wonderful to make music again. 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 – Elektra, Don Carlo, Madam Butterfly – 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.”

Nobody knows when the ROH Orchestra’s musicians will meet again. The run of three Live from Covent Garden concerts, complete with Mahler’s symphonic song cycle, 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,” says Charman. “We’re still waiting to learn what management is planning for the short and long term. It’s a deeply concerning time.”

Every attempt must be taken to mitigate risk

Morris Stemp, the MU’s Orchestras Official, welcomes the return of live orchestral performances but insists that the safety of musicians must come first. He 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.

“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.”

Musicians’ Union National Organiser Orchestras, Jo Laverty, has been heartened by the readiness of managements to work with the Union and address the realities of life during an unprecedented public health emergency.

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.”

The collective determination of musicians to be heard

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 socially distanced ensembles at the BBC Proms later this summer reflect the collective determination of orchestral musicians to be heard.

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, he adds, will depend on whether the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport can deliver a comprehensive rescue deal for the arts. “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.”

Read more about the MU’s response to the Government’s new five-step for getting theatres open. We are also continuing to actively encourage members to write to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and their own MPs for support.

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Exterior of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Cardiff

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