I've always had a sense of fragility about life. It's possibly because I lost both my parents and my sister to cancer within a scant few years, the family home was dismantled and sold and the rug under our feet went west in no time. It seemed a measure of how easily one's life can just...vanish. I remember at the height of the mid-Noughties' good times a violinist friend came round to play through a concerto in our front room. The roses were out, the sun was shining, the window was open, we had world-class Elgar ringing out in the company of close friends, and I went to the fridge to find the champagne, thinking: "I wonder how long this life can go on? It's too good to be true."
Perhaps, after all, it was as illusory as I suspected. We declined. Now we're falling. Of course, thinking like that is not remotely helpful, but as programme note writing vanishes overnight, everything closes, the orchestra does...who knows what, because we don't know yet...because nobody knows how long this will go on for...there is a distinct sense of unreality. Anyone freelance at the moment is facing the nightmare of their lives, whatever their field.
One of the most difficult aspects is the uncertainty of how long it will continue. Weeks? Months? The rest of this season? Over the summer? What about autumn? The Bavarian State Opera has just announced that next season it is having, among other things (ELEVEN new productions) Tristan und Isolde with Kirill Petrenko conducting, starring Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros - and qu'est-ce qu'on fait?
|An illustration by Maurice Lalu for Tristan und Iseult, 1909|
(Don't try this with your friends at the moment)
Yesterday the government gave "advice". It stopped short of ordering theatres, pubs, concert halls etc to close, but recommended that people do not go to them. Twitter is full of conspiracy theories now about why this is, for example "...the Tories' mates run insurance companies and this will give them a get-out clause to not pay up..." I'd treat that with suspicion as if this isn't "force majeure", goodness knows what is. [UPDATE 2.50pm - fact-check here: https://www.abi.org.uk/news/news-articles/2020/03/statement-on-business-insurance-and-coronavirus/]
We have a basic problem in the UK that, broadly speaking, a) the people do not really trust the government to do the right things, and b) the government does not really trust the people to obey directives (b being a logical consequence of a). That implied social contract went out the window at the last election because we had no credible opposition to elect, and this unfortunately is the price being paid. The crisis shows why we need to elect intelligent politicians who are expert managers in a crisis, who communicate clearly, decisively and sympathetically, and who do not sacrifice good sense to pig-headed ideology: people who can unite everyone when the going gets tough. This seems a distant dream right now. If the government's communication strategy is such a mess, what does that say about the substance of the rest of their "projects"? All we can do at present is...stay off Twitter.
As of yesterday, the Royal Opera House and English National Opera have closed until further notice and the Wigmore Hall has closed until, it says at present, 14 April. Currently awaiting news from more arts companies. There were performances over the weekend: the Philharmonia did the Beethoven 1808 reconstruction, Piers Lane gave a wonderful recital and ENO opened a new production of The Marriage of Figaro, but I'm afraid I didn't go to any of them because I didn't want to sit in my home-from-homes wondering when I will ever see them again and whether this is the last concert/opera/recital I will ever attend, because who knows. I do want to keep on being a voice of reason, because that has long been my role, but it can be difficult sometimes.
I thought I'd do something positive, so I'm trying to start a WhatsApp group for our neighbours. We have quite a few elderly people in the vicinity and it is important that everyone feels connected. Of course everyone is all for it, but it turns out that some of the target members do not have smartphones and don't know how to use WhatsApp...and I realise that I, too, do not quite know how to use WhatsApp on an iPad. Which is embarrassing. One neighbour has a son who's in IT, so hopefully he can advise.
We have never been so connected, in a way: the quantity of work that can be done remotely is fantastic. Instead of taking planes, trains and automobiles to other cities or countries, we can hook up from our computers. We can FaceTime. We can Skype. We can WhatsApp (if we know how). And we have the social element of social media. So this is a major advantage. Nevertheless, there is a staggering quantity of absolute claptrap doing the rounds on social media and it is well worth avoiding. The other day a friend earnestly forwarded me a circular from a supposed medical expert source (unnamed, of course) with all kinds of advice about how not to get coronavirus, every shred of which can be roundly disproved in seconds on a good search engine. People are putting around spurious theories about everything from insurance to crash-dieting, and if we are fond of them we have to try to be kind about it.
Some reality checks are taking placed, which is better. There's been shock at the idea that there is £000 to be made from books, and especially not from China (seriously, some company there published a translation of one of mine, yet I had no contract, no payment and not even a copy of it. They got in touch wanting me to do some publicity, which is how I knew.) There have been falling jawbones at the information that members of most UK orchestras are freelance and are not paid a salary. There has been disbelief at the notion that some seriously famous musicians, having lost all their work in a matter of days, have no financial safety net whatsoever. Looking for a silver lining: we can learn, fast, about actuality versus supposition.
If we need and can face a culture fix, there are plenty of streaming services to bring opera, ballet, concerts and theatre into our computers. This is great. St Mary's Perivale, while closing its doors to its devoted audience, is intending to continue its performances as "virtual concerts" to be live-streamed with no audience. If this situation has not cleared up by the end of May, Viv and I may end up doing the premiere of our new Beethoven show like that.
The things that are keeping me sane are:
-- the cats
-- Kalms tablets at bedtime
-- the bits of work that are not falling through because associated with live performances
-- the Beethoven book is due back from the editor any day now and will need a great deal of concentration. Perhaps this is actually good timing...
-- a new confidence in my own intuition, because it's turned out that my superstition about Mahler 1 being a harbinger of doom was absolutely true
-- certain contents of the wine rack
-- it's spring, the magnolia over the fence is absolutely beautiful and so far we are still allowed to go for long walks in the park and by the river.
It is good to have plans and projects, especially creative ones, and I do have several, but the next challenge will be how to maintain concentration enough to realise them.
So today I will press on. I have to finesse some CD booklet notes and transcribe an interview with a lovely pianist. Tonight we were planning to go out to dinner...we might do it anyway...unless the place we want to go has closed its doors until further notice by then.
I'm going to try to write this blog every day. I don't know how much music there will be, but I'll do my best. Good luck out there.