The future of the arts: ‘The classical music world has been transfigured’

Our critic mainlines Tudor polyphony and talks to performers, conductors and composers longing for the return of communal music-making

Anyone wedded to music for a living relishes silence. Initially lockdown felt like a dazed release. Competing snatches of melody, spinning round my head day and night, came to rest. An avalanche of cancelled events rendered the landscape blank. With little appetite for the rush of digital offerings I listened, repeatedly, to Media vita by John Sheppard (1515-58), each favourite recording in turn. Unwittingly I’d chosen a choral masterpiece set to the words “In the midst of life we are in death” by a Tudor composer who died in a flu epidemic. More cheerfully, I learned, it was part of the soundtrack for the strategy game Civilisation IV (“explore, expand, exploit and exterminate”). Media vita’s slowly uncoiling intensity got me through at first. Then the hunger started to gnaw.

Still no one knows when, or in what manner, live music will return. Europe is already starting up again, in confined ways. Austria hopes for audiences of 1,000 by August. America and the UK are looking, in many cases, far into next year. All musicians have sustained catastrophic loss. Some will look to other careers: an estimated 20%. Salaried orchestral players have been furloughed. Nearly half of freelancers are ineligible for government aid. Soloists, indeed all musicians, must maintain technique and commitment. Composers have lost commissions, representing years’ worth of income. Some, such as Mark-Anthony Turnage, have said they may scale down large works to chamber size. Not all. I asked Harrison Birtwistle, working on a big piece for the London Symphony Orchestra for 2022, if he was scaling down. “Nope,” he said, end of conversation.

Every concert organisation, each with its distinct economic and local makeup, has a different strategy. “I’ve got so many contingency plans it’s like living in the virtual universes of a Philip Pullman novel,” Stephen Maddock, chief executive of Birmingham’s CBSO, told me. If it’s each for their own, who can blame them. Amid the noise of statistics, a few are vital. Whereas European orchestras have public funding (around 80%), the UK is dependent on earned income, notably box office. Restricted audience numbers are untenable. A 1 metre distancing rule, rather than 2 metres, would begin to look workable: up to 50 players and larger audiences. Yet only last week, 3 metres was announced as the safest distance for woodwind and brass.

Maddock will take no risks. He witnessed his music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, fall ill with Covid-19 symptoms in March. After a performance of Brahms’s Requiem, several members of the choir and orchestra reported symptoms too. “On current reckoning, we could have an audience of 400 in a hall that seats 2,200. But I keep redoing the numbers as guidelines change.” This is the pattern elsewhere. No epic choral works or Mahler symphonies, more Haydn: welcome enough, artistically, but not the answer.

In March, Germany announced a three-part emergency aid package across the entire cultural sector of €50bn. Last week, the UK culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, at last promised he would “get the money flowing”. How much, and when? Britain’s orchestral sector is losing around £6m per month in lockdown, according to the Association of British Orchestras. This does not include the five BBC orchestras. Conceived as radio ensembles, they must reinvent themselves for the streaming age, or die. Let’s see what the 2020 Proms offer when further details of its reduced season are announced. The BBC has the potential and resource to lead an exciting comeback for live music if it chooses.

Touring is off, for most, for a long time. Packing 100 players and instruments into an aeroplane may now seem wanton, not least in terms of the carbon footprint. In its centenary year, the CBSO has had four of its five tours cancelled. The one to the US would have earned £1.5m. Yet tours enliven musical life. When the LA Phil takes the stage at the Barbican, the sap rises. Grassroots and community, already at the heart of every major UK orchestra, must become an even greater priority. It needs funding. This social role thrives in Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Bournemouth: hundreds of amateurs participate in adult and youth choirs and orchestras, all now silent, and – as any practising musician of any level will tell you – desperately missed.

‘Performing to a click-track may result in something joyful’: the Sixteen’s lockdown performance of John Sheppard’s Libera Nos.

Talking to friends and colleagues over these weeks, I’ve encountered the expected despair, determination and hope. Some things are hard to say. Not all musicians want to play into their smartphones. Performing to a click-track, with attendant technical issues, time lags and wifi failure, may result in something joyful. It may, equally, be a source of frustration and fury. One singer friend spent around nine hours trying to record her part for a six-minute choral piece. “By the end I hated the music. I hated singing. The lifeblood of performance – responding to other musicians – was missing. What the hell was I doing it for?” The technology that allows players to perform, in time, together, will have to be perfected, and fast. (After trying to play a simple duet with a friend over FaceTime, each beat an infuriating split second apart, I understand.)

A lockdown snapshot shows other kinds of creativity aplenty. The ever enterprising conductor John Wilson is editing Broadway songs as well as Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe – “The original French edition is littered with thousands of errors. Going through it is like cleaning the Albert Hall with a toothbrush, a labour of love but so worthwhile”. He has no idea when plans to record it with Chandos – requiring an orchestra of around 100 plus choir – will come to fruition. The risks of choral singing are not yet fully understood. “Having no clear incentive or deadline is incredibly hard. Sometimes I ask, ‘What’s it for?’ But of course I know why I’m doing it.” Subsequent to our conversation, it was announced that Wilson will conduct the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and the Philharmonia Orchestra in a free online concert on 17 July.

Another conductor, John Andrews, has been making an incisive history of opera for social media. The period keyboard specialist Oliver John Ruthven has launched Concerts for Heroes, fundraising for healthcare workers’ PPE. The mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston, having lost all her operatic work in Europe, is working on a musicians’ cookbook in aid of Help Musicians UK.

Not everyone is gloomy. The Prague-based harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, caught in Miami at lockdown, returned to Europe via the UK for a Bach recording. “I was playing the six Partitas, in a remote studio in Wales, as though this might be my last ever recording. It felt very personal.” As in Vienna and parts of Germany, Czech musical life is back in action ahead of the UK. “They’ve got it right here. I was quarantined immediately I got back. Now that things are easing, what people want, desperately, is live music, without antics. I don’t think the sky is falling in.” He has played a concerto and, earlier this month, was off to Leipzig to perform more Bach.

I spoke to Lorenzo Antonio Iosco, for eight years a familiar sight among the woodwind of the London Symphony Orchestra and now bass clarinettist at the Hong Kong Philharmonic. The HKPO is working on smaller ensemble concerts in big spaces, such as Tai Kwun, the former prison turned cultural centre. We discussed that other pressing subject: hygiene. Hong Kong, post-Sars in 2003, has a supreme level of cleanliness that the UK would hitherto have regarded as near hysterical. “Not my department,” one venue chief told me some time ago, pre-corona. It is now. Britain may gleam at the artistic peak – top soloists, great orchestras – but the pyramid’s base, literally, since most washroom facilities are in basements, is rotten. As the Salzburg festival, which last week announced a modified 2020 season, stated baldly: “No intervals and no catering. Since controlling queues outside of bars or toilets would be very difficult, there will be no refreshments.”

Pianist Stephen Hough on 1 June 2020 in an empty Wigmore Hall ahead of the first of its 20 concerts broadcast and streamed live every weekday in June.
Pianist Stephen Hough on 1 June 2020 at Wigmore Hall ahead of the first of its 20 concerts broadcast and streamed live every weekday this month. Photograph: Doug Peters/PA

So much talk is about what cannot be done. Yet so much can. Boosey & Hawkes, like all music publishers facing losses of millions of pounds, has leapt into action by compiling repertoire lists of works for up to 20, or up to 50 players. These were sent, last month, to more than 400 conductors and orchestra managers throughout Europe and the UK. The response has been instant and positive, according to the company’s managing director, Janis Susskind. “The most frequent comment has been ‘This is just what we need right now as we reconfigure our programming’.” Works range from small-scale John Adams to arrangements of large works by Richard Strauss and Wagner and Tchaikovsky. The Music Publishers’ Association is lobbying the government to purchase those tickets not allowed to be sold because of social distancing. This would help keep halls open and pay composers’ their PRS percentage from 100% sales (instead of the estimated 25%).

Where are we now? The classical world has been transfigured. It’s still recognisable, but only invention and generosity – of money, imagination, attitude – will save it. The series of Radio 3 lunchtime concerts, live from an empty Wigmore Hall and opening with Stephen Hough on 1 June, was a turning point, a piece of Covid-19 history. Two days later, members of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra played Mozart’s Gran Partita for 13 instruments: standing too far apart for all-important eye contact, they had a conductor, Simon Rattle.

Simon Rattle conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, 3 June 2020.
Simon Rattle conducts the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, 3 June 2020. Photograph: © BR/ Astrid Ackermann

A week later, Rattle and his fellow conductor Mark Elder, responding to a Guardian report on the music crisis, published an open letter, heartfelt and unflinching, calling for substantial cash and a representative voice on the government’s Covid-arts committee. This was followed by another letter (in the Times) from more leading conductors.

Last weekend, the Royal Opera House inaugurated its first live event: an intimate gala, sombre in mood, a beautiful tribute to those lost, with three singers and two dancers. Antonio Pappano, tireless as pianist and compere, spoke of “reanimating the spirit of this gorgeous house”. If it had a wan feel, it was a truthful reflection of the pandemic’s toll on every one of us. Last night, on a bigger scale, the Royal Opera performed Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde with soloists Sarah Connolly and David Butt Philip.

The same night in Prague, Rattle conducted the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená (they are married) in Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. It can be done. Each player in the Czech Philharmonic was tested for coronavirus. An audience of 500 all wore masks. Next morning Rattle texted me: “Playing the Mahler was the first time anyone on stage had been in front of a live audience for over three months. There was an ache of remembrance, the sensation that music could express more than any words, and that we were breathing and understanding together. Emotionally, feast after famine.” It’s the ache so many of us feel right now.

On Thursday, unexpectedly, Oliver Dowden convened a meeting at short notice with Simon Rattle, Alison Balsom, Nicola Benedetti and Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Is the government finally listening?

• Fiona Maddocks is a regular guest on lockdown podcast The Classical Top 5. This week’s episode will explore 20th-century opera with special guest Peter Sellars


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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