A year since our concert halls fell silent, what future for classical music?

As UK culture eyes a slow and cautious return, what can we expect from our opera houses and orchestras, many of which have failed to seize the digital opportunities this past year

After a year of valiant efforts across the country to sustain at least some vestige of a live-performance culture, it seems that a return might just be within sight, although the “normal” of packed concert halls and queues at the interval bars is likely to be many months away – if not years. The last few weeks have seen a welter of announcements, mostly of new series of streamed concerts, both live and pre-filmed, as well as promises – though little more than that so far – of performances with socially distanced live audiences in the near future.

It’s clear that the raft of press releases this month was coordinated to some extent – the country’s leading concert and opera promoters have apparently been holding regular Zoom meetings throughout the pandemic – but there is no generally agreed-on roadmap of how musical life might be restored across the country. If some of the ambitious plans already announced for the summer and beyond by festivals and opera companies seem to be a triumph of hope over experience, others do seem more grounded in practicality.

It remains to be seen whether Glyndebourne’s intention of launching a more or less complete summer season in its opera house from 20 May, with two new productions within the first week, is realistic, especially given the strictures of quarantine for any performer arriving from outside the UK. But it certainly seems likely that the summer opera festivals will be the best placed to go ahead: Longborough and Neville Holt have already announced they will hold performances in temporary auditoriums, while Opera Holland Park and perhaps Garsington too will be able to modify their theatres to make them airier and safer for audiences. And while the Aldeburgh festival will not be going ahead in its usual form, Britten Pears Arts seized every opportunity last year to put on live concerts and has already announced it will launch a programme of events as soon as it is permitted to do so.

Live From Covent Garden at the Royal Opera House last June.
Live From Covent Garden at the Royal Opera House last June. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Those seasonal festivals might well emerge somewhat unscathed from the devastation of the last 12 months. But for the year-round organisations – the concert halls and opera houses with their far higher establishment costs – the future is far less assured. It’s over a year since Welsh National Opera put on any staged performances and none of the UK’s permanent opera companies have announced any firm plans, though there have been plenty of good intentions. English National Opera intends to unveil its 2021-22 season in May and has already announced a new Ring cycle, starting with Die Walküre this autumn, although no dates or casts have been confirmed. The Royal Opera has so far only been able to reveal a new specially staged production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, directed by Richard Jones (who will also stage ENO’s Ring), and a “summer festival” of some kind.

Even that is more than we’ve heard from what is supposed to be the capital’s major concert venue, the Southbank Centre. Its resident orchestras, the London Philharmonic and the Philharmonia, have been streaming their own concert series whenever possible since last autumn but there has been no corporate statement of intent from the venue other than the vaguest expressions of hoping to reopen its public spaces later in the year. From a distance, it appears that the management is hoping that it will eventually be able to emerge as if nothing has changed, so that it can muddle on in the same unfocused way it has done for the past decade. Whether it will do so with all its resident ensembles intact, however, is far from assured.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the LSO at LSO St Luke’s in London last year.
Sir Simon Rattle conducts a socially distanced LSO at LSO St Luke’s in London last year. Photograph: Mark Allan

Across the river at the Barbican, relieved of its obligation to build a new concert hall (a scheme that already seemed an impossibly idealistic luxury well before the start of the pandemic) there’s a more positive outlook, with concerts planned through the remainder of the current season, some with live audiences if and when permitted.

That unevenness of response across the London halls, from the vagueness and uncertainty of the SBC to the Wigmore Hall’s dauntless ongoing programme of streamed recitals, with audiences to be readmitted as soon as possible, has been mirrored across the country.

The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Royal Northern Sinfonia in Gateshead, and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, have all streamed extensive online seasons over the last six months at least, though the output of their counterparts elsewhere – the Hallé in Manchester and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, for instance – has been fitful, to put it kindly. Like the London Symphony Orchestra, both of those own their rehearsal spaces – Hallé St Peters and CBSO Centre – but they seem to have been reluctant to put on events from there, while the LSO has not only been streaming concerts but making commercial recordings from its base at LSO St Luke’s.

The biggest question mark remains the Proms, and how the BBC will plan its summer season, which looks unlikely to be able to include many visiting artists or performing groups. If there are going to be audiences in the Royal Albert Hall, they are likely to be significantly reduced, which would deprive the concerts of their much-cherished atmosphere; if they have to be performed closed doors then it’s inconceivable that the BBC will be able to get away with another season of archive broadcasts followed by two weeks of live streamed concerts. What it will need is a bit of imagination – not a quality that the festival has been blessed with in recent years.

Contributor

Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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