Classical music: the Proms, and the state we’re in

Classical music in crisis, and the Proms

By Michael Church


Whither live classical music? When the lockdown was enforced, all concerts were cancelled for the foreseeable future, and musical life was halted in its tracks. The current easing of lockdown restrictions – which may well be selectively re-imposed – has not been accompanied by any easing for musicians: concert halls can re-open their cafes, but they are legally forbidden to give concerts, and look like remaining so for months yet. Most musicians are freelances who have not earned a penny for the last four months, nor benefited from any furlough; as arts centres and orchestras begin to go bankrupt, many musicians now face the prospect of their careers being wiped out for good. The Government’s £1.5 billion subvention to the culture industries will certainly have a temporary palliative effect in some quarters, but it’s absolutely not a panacea, and it’s likely to favour flagship enterprises rather than grassroots activities.

For the time being, concert life in Britain seems doomed, with the economics of opera, as hitherto conceived, looking completely impossible. While opera houses in Germany, for example, get 90 percent of their income from public subsidy, Covent Garden derives much of its income from box office: it needs 95 percent houses to break even. Meanwhile putting a massive symphony orchestra on stage, and augmenting it with a large chorus as in Beethoven’s Ninth, is a very tall order – not to say an impossibility – in the era of distancing, and the same applies to seating for the audience; even a one-metre rule can halve the seating capacity of a hall. Front of house things like bars and lavatories offer little scope for any distancing at all. It’s hard to imagine how large-scale productions will ever be able to provide the pleasure they used to. Large-scale new concert halls – like the magnificent Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg – may never be built again; the chances of the Barbican’s new super-hall getting built – optimistically promised as a bribe to lure Sir Simon Rattle back to his homeland – now look vanishingly slim.

In response to demand from those of us who are their traditional audience, musicians are busting a gut to find new ways of replicating their art. Immediately after lockdown, they migrated online, en masse: singers and players started streaming, orchestras and opera companies began to broadcast their archival treasures, and ingenious methods were devised to link players and singers from their living rooms in simulated musical synergy with the aid of Zoom.

We’re now used to seeing screen-fulls of choristers, all singing their hearts out in separate little boxes. We expect that instrumentalists will keep a wide gulf between themselves and their colleagues in anything orchestral. Such performances may feel stilted, but they go some of the way towards replacing what we have lost. But nowhere near far enough. The first orchestra we saw performing post-lockdown without any distancing was the Czech Philharmonic under the baton of Semyon Bychkov, and very welcome that was: they could take this risk because they’d all been tested for the virus three days before. It will be a long while, on present showing, before we see a London orchestra do the same.

And it was in Madrid’s Teatro Real that the first post-lockdown operatic performance took place. “There are people who prefer to sit with their arms crossed and wait until we return to normal,” the theatre’s director told one British newspaper. “And there are theatres that prefer to try and conquer the normality that we find ourselves in.” He scheduled a long run of 27 performances to help the artists, many of whom had earned nothing over the previous five months.

Yet every aspect of the show was governed by the pandemic. Performers were kept two metres apart, and the orchestra wore masks; there was a half-capacity audience, each member of which had to be temperature-tested before being allowed in. No-touch features were installed in the toilets, and the interval was lengthened to avoid long queues.

In London the Royal Opera has been streaming weekly concerts of chamber music: brutal economics – the requirement to have those 95 percent audiences – have prevented it being able to even consider a production like the one in Madrid. The first of these concerts was an awkward affair, but they have now got the hang of it; the one on June 27, which focused on young singers from all over the world on the company’s Jette Parker training scheme, was vivid and heart-warming. Antonio Pappano’s weekly streamed opera guides, in which he sits at the piano and plays, talks, acts, and sings us through celebrated scenes, are the brilliant musical highlight of each week.

Other opera houses are streaming too, but none so inventively as Grange Park Opera, whose production of a shoestring event entitled The View from the Villa has proved – and still is proving – an unexpected success. Led by the pianist Iain Burnside, the show had been scheduled for performance this year at the Bath festival, and the artists had come to Grange Park opera’s Theatre in the Woods for an impromptu workshop performance to show the work in development. Interweaving Wagner’s Wesendonck songs with Tristan und Isolde – which he was composing at the same time – the part-narrated, part-sung work merges art and life to offer an intriguing chronicle of the break-up of two marriages. It’s still available for streaming on the Grange Park Opera website.

Meanwhile the shape of this year’s BBC Proms – the world’s largest and most important classical music festival – is still only partially revealed. As its director David Pickard has pointed out, this will be a Proms season like no other. Too right it will. First and foremost, there will be no audience, and a Prom without Prommers verges on the oxymoronic. Moreover, Pickard and his team apparently tried out dozens of different orchestral seating plans, but none were capable of accommodating a Mahler-sized symphony orchestra which maintained the requisite social distancing. They are now trying to keep a balance between ambition and realism in terms of what they will be able to offer. There will be a live streamed opening night, but the following six weeks of concerts will consist of recorded Proms highlights from the previous forty years. These are being hopefully dubbed “Fantasy Proms”, but since recorded musical highlights from the BBC’s archives have been standard Radio 3 fare for the past three months, a further six weeks of such things under the Proms umbrella won’t exactly set the Thames on fire. It will just seem like more of the same.

The final Proms fortnight will consist of audience-free live-streamed concerts by a galaxy of household names, including Nicola Benedetti, Mitsuko Uchida, Sheku Kanneh-Mason and his sister Isata, Anoushka Shankar, and Golda Schultz. But it’s too early to say what each will be performing, or when; Pickard and his team are braced to accommodate many more changes in the ever-shifting official guidelines, before they reach their live events at the beginning of September. There will also be a Last Night, with people being encouraged to wave flags in their living rooms…

More’s the pity, some of us think. Because this hiatus could have allowed the BBC to strip that event of its infantile jingoism, and to institute something a bit more adult, and something a lot more fitting for a country whose multi-ethnic make-up has never been properly acknowledged in the programme of the Proms.






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