When the BBC Radio 3 presenter Andrew McGregor welcomed listeners to last Monday’s lunchtime concert from Wigmore Hall in London, the timbre of his announcement had a curious quality: there was no hum of a crowd’s anticipation behind his words, just a faintly audible echo. It was the sound of absence. The hall’s red-plush seats were empty. There was no one else in the hall apart from him, the pianist Stephen Hough and a tiny number of physically distanced staff. Normally a recital to a deserted hall would be meaningless – what, after all, is a performance if there is no one to perform to? But in this case, the event was freighted with significance.
It was the first live concert on Radio 3 for 11 weeks, since halls and opera houses abruptly shut their doors in March. The audience was scattered far and wide, listening to the radio or watching online. It was the start of a series running through June; there will be more in the autumn, and further concerts are expected to be broadcast from Glasgow.
There was a heightened quality to these recitals as they unfolded through the week, from the guitarist Sean Shibe’s mesmerising performance of Steve Reich, to the one of Huw Watkins by the oboist Nick Daniel and the pianist Julius Drake. It is not that music has stopped being heard in the UK these past weeks – musicians have been holding house concerts online, and sharing their work on social media. But in the jewel box-like hall that is the Wigmore, and with glorious sound quality, this was different.
Hough has reflected that the experience was a curious one – he felt, he said, an intense and poignant connection with the invisible audience. For many who heard or saw it, the recital was haunting and emotional: it represented the moment when professional musical life began to return to the UK.
The BBC Proms may yet have a live element at the end of its mostly highlights-from-the-archives festival this September, even if it is small-scale. The Royal Opera House has also announced a short season of live performances – the first will be free to view – to be streamed online. Other organisations that have the means will be bound to follow suit.
There is still no answer to the financial catastrophe that faces British classical music-making and the arts in general. Without some kind of financial support package from the government, such as those being provided in Germany and New Zealand, orchestras in the UK will face collapse this autumn.
Nevertheless, last week’s small beginnings showed a way forward, demonstrating what an crucial role the BBC can and must play to aid a potential recovery of classical music before it is safe for venues to open to the public. The theme given to the recital last week by the soprano Lucy Crowe and the pianist Anna Tilbrook seems especially germane – they were performing songs, they said, of “hope and longing”.