After several weeks of COVID19 lockdown in public life, initial easing is also being discussed in various areas, especially in Germany. Whilst other countries are still prolonging the lockdown, in Germany the recommendations of the Leopoldina, the Robert Koch Institute and other scientific institutions form the basis for the political decisions of those responsible in the federal, state and local authorities. The main goal is to remove restrictions on schools, day-care centers, kindergardens, retail, catering, manufacturing and public transport and to balance it with the health protection issues.

A long way for orchestras after COVID-19: looking forward to normality

What about arts and culture?

For a quick return to normality, at least the Berlin culture senator Klaus Lederer said in the Tagesspiegel on April 12th that there is little hope: “Cultural enterprises were the first to close and they will probably be the last to open again.” This assessment coincides with the forecast of the event industry, which also assesses the situation according to the motto “first in, last out”.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

Every exit strategy must have the prevention of further COVID-19 spread in mind; this applies to both the staff and the visitors. A differentiated view is advisable: For museums, libraries and galleries, i.e. facilities where the number of visitors, their distance from each other and preventive hygiene measures can be controlled relatively well, a gradual reopening should be easier to manage. Adequate health protection for the employees of these facilities also seems affordable.

What about orchestral events, concert halls, music theaters and festivals?

The Berliner Philharmoniker’s traditional forest stage concert on June 20, 2020? Rather unrealistic with up to 24,000 visitors. The usually sold out Young Euro Klassik Festival in the Konzerthaus from July 24th to August 10th, 2020 in the Konzerthaus Berlin? Also unlikely. Overall, the resumption of regular playing for the rest of the 2019/20 season seems rather impossible for orchestras and theaters. Governent has announced cancelleation of major music festivals up to August 31. What about the start of the 2020/21 season?

So, what‘s next?

In terms of the health protection of staff and visitors, the following parameters could be relevant for a gradual ramp-up of concert and event operations:

  • smaller ensembles before of large ones,
  • concerts before of musical theaters/operas,
  • open air before indoor venues,
  • smaller venues before larger ones.
  • In addition: attendance of audiences wearing face masks, only,
  • limitation of the number of visitors,
  • maintaining distance through loosened seating plans,
  • blocking rows of seats,
  • increase of admission staff and ushers.
  • If in doubt, the local health authorities and assembly authorities have a say in this.

In detail: the closer the physical proximity of acting people on stage, the higher the potential risk of infection. This applies especially to choirs, dance groups and musicians in the orchestra pit. Singers and actors, choir singers, ballet dancers and wind instrument palyers in the orchestra are generally unable to use a face mask when performing their rehearsals and performances. Their activities could therefore be subject to restrictions for much longer than those of other employees. This applies at least when performing indoor.

Players of string instruments, keyboard instruments, timpani and percussion and harp can, as well as conductors, basically carry out their work with a face mask. This means that chamber orchestras and chamber music ensembles of these instruments in a physically distanced seating arrangement should always be possible again, while maintaining safety distances.

Chamber orchestras with pure string instruments setting should therefore be able to plan a regular start of the 2020/21 season more safely and better than larger symphony and opera orchestras. These should – in spite of all planning and dispositional difficulties – in any case check to what extent a reduced rehearsal and play operation in chamber orchestra and chamber music formations seems feasible. The motto: rather to conduct a small improvised concert performance – even in the opera house – than not to perform at all. In artistic terms, this is above all the chance to uncover unknown or neglected chamber music and chamber orchestra repertoire of all styles. Here, the “real” chamber orchestras naturally (at least for once) have a small advantage on the market.

As long as and to the extent that concert operations in the usual venues and indoor only appear with considerable restrictions for staff and the public, it is also conceivable to develop new mobile small formats and – as has already happened in part – open air in front of old people’s homes or to revitalize inner cities.

Other special aspects need to be taken into account: many orchestras, concert halls and music theaters generally appeal to a relatively fixed local and regional audience, often as subscribers. As far as it seems possible and conceivable to encourage at least large parts of this regular audience to use COVID-19 tracing apps, this could be an accompanying scenario in order to enable events with a larger audience as soon as possible.

The expected visitor behavior remains completely open when the performance of a concert resumes under certain conditions, since visitors to classical concerts generally have a higher average age than the general population. It is not unrealistic that older audiences as affected risk groups stay away from the performances for longer due to fear of infection. If this assessment is not completely unrealistic, it means for the organizers to target younger (regular) audiences accordingly. This is then linked to questions of program design, communication and marketing. A comparatively younger audience would probably be even easier to win over for the voluntary use of tracing apps.

All this has to be thought ahead and planned now. In this sense: “Let’s be realistic, let’s try the impossible.”