Thursday, June 04, 2020

Triumph, tragedy and trying very hard

Another week, another litany of bungles, idiocies and the counting of "excess" deaths (where's Beckett when you need him?) and in the arts world a paradoxical mingling of unjustified pessimism, unjustified optimism and unjustified attacks on one for the other are doing little to help. However, some things are moving, and they are not always the things you'd expect.

The Wigmore Hall has started a series of live-streamed lunchtime concerts in front of a physical audience of two (the head of the venue and the Radio 3 announcer). Taken up first by Radio 3 and subsequently by the European Broadcasting Union too, they are already reaching vast international audiences. Today you can hear Nicholas Daniel (oboe) and Julius Drake (piano). The Royal Opera House is planning to start a similar idea later this month. Everywhere there's streaming, creativity, resourcefulness. And everywhere I hear opinions like, "Oh, the big places will be fine because they have money. It's the smaller ones I'm worried about..."

Actually - no. It's the big ones that are at most risk: those that are too large to adapt easily. A smaller organisation that is not fixed to a large, costly venue stands much more chance of surviving through changing its own practices, because it can. For example, Viv McLean and I were booked some while ago for a performance at a local music society in November, at a small neighbourhood venue of which we are very fond. The other week I had a call that I expected to reveal the cancellation of the event. Instead, the director asked if we'd mind playing somewhere larger, where the audience would be able to be seated with social distancing. They moved the concert by one day and about 500 metres to a beautiful, spacious church. We currently expect the performance to go ahead. They can do that.

A venue like the Royal Albert Hall or the ROH has a different problem. Their bricks and mortar, their red plush and their histories are as much their selling point as the artistry they house - and the costs of running huge venues are, in a nutshell, ferocious. The ROH has warned that it risks folding if social distancing has to continue past the autumn, because the economics of running a theatre that way simply cannot work in the long term. A lean, mean entity that can be flexible about its numbers, its venues, its pay and its programming is a tree-climbing mammal alongside the immovable brontosaurs that we love so much.

Overseas, in places where the pandemic has been bettered managed and more swiftly conquered, where transport by road from other parts of Europe is a little easier, and where funding is more readily available, some festivals are starting to reconstitute themselves. In the latest move, an email from Pontresina tells me that the Engadin Festival, based in St Moritz, is going ahead, again using larger venues than planned to enable audience distancing, and due to reconstituting of attendance numbers, involving a surprise recital by Renaud Capuçon and Martha Argerich and not one but two, for two socially distanced crowds, by Grigory Sokolov.

Here in plague island, where we can also look forward to the double-whammy joys (not) of a fantasist government of zealots foisting hard brexit upon us in the new year, it's not so easy. Streaming and Zooming seem to be if not quite the future then certainly the present. Resourcefulness certainly pays off. The LPO held its annual fundraising gala online the other day, included an individually pre-recorded movement from the 'Eroica' and got its guests to put on DJs for the occasion. Idagio has launched a Global Concert Hall in which specially filmed performances are available live and for 24 hours afterwards and cost £4.99 to watch, with "80% of net proceeds" going direct to the artists, which I hope might mean they receive something worthwhile, rather than the price of a pizza for 6 million streams.

On the one hand, streaming is great, with the potential for truly globalised audiences. But on the other hand, it's tragic. The performances I've enjoyed watching the most during this time are those previously filmed in packed venues with cheering audiences throwing flowers on stage at the end. I am listening to various livestreams, or catching up on them afterwards, but there's a cracking noise that interferes and it's my heart. I shall keep listening, in the hope that somehow or other I will get used to it...

The empty shell of a theatre or hall turns out to be a poor substitute for one that is alive with coughs, sweet paper rustles, chattering, shushing, canoodling and clapping between movements. Who knew: all those things so many people loved to hate and to mouth off about in fury on social media are in fact the very lifeblood of a concert hall.

It is better than nothing, but it has got to be a temporary, not a permanent solution. Whatever you do, don't start thinking of this as that blood-curdling concept "new normal". There is nothing normal about any of it and nor should there be. This is the thin end of a very wobbly wedge. It's as welcome as can be, because it keeps those stages, those artists and that music pulsing along in our lives and hearts. We need music in our lives. But those stages and those artists and that music, with composers hard at work, need us, too. There in person. Showing we love it. Supporting them.

In order to show that love and support, I'll include in postings, wherever possible, a performance from Youtube for you to enjoy. Today's is Imogen Cooper's 70th birthday concert from the Wigmore Hall, given last autumn.