Covid has been a spur to ingenuity in the music world, as well as the cause of much despair and hardship. For one column, then, I want to celebrate our pandemic heroes: those who, despite everything, kept the show running in some form or other through sheer resolve and resourcefulness. You might say that after this traumatic hiatus we should be looking forward, not backwards. True, but the experience of the past 18 months should teach us something too. There were lessons painfully learnt during the pandemic – new avenues explored, new ways of reaching the public acquired by necessity – that should shape our thinking for years to come.
One thing is obvious. Streaming concerts on the internet, and playing to live audiences, are now not either/or alternatives. What’s become known as the ‘hybrid’ approach should be the norm. Here the pioneer was Wigmore Hall, which became a beacon of hope in the darkest days of 2020, returning to giving vital work to musicians about a year before many concert halls even reopened their doors. Foresight proved to be the magic wand for the Wigmore’s artistic director, John Gilhooly. Well before the pandemic started, he installed the infrastructure needed for cameras and streaming and the venue gained new fans all over the world as a result.
Other organisations (usually small, nimble ones) were quick to follow suit. The Oxford Lieder Festival presented a song recital series entirely online. And two smaller opera companies, in particular, showed how famous operas can be reconceived for the streaming age. Vopera’s production of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges actually transposed the story to the present time, with references to lockdown and home schooling, then used brilliant video effects to bring it to life.
Meanwhile, Opera Glassworks rethought its stage production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, aborted because of lockdown, into a fascinating film, co-presented by Marquee TV (a company that has led the way with imaginative concert and opera films over the past 18 months).
There were also some determined individuals. Violinist Nicola Benedetti – besides learning and premiering Mark Simpson’s Violin Concerto – put her Foundation entirely into streaming mode, continuing its mission to inspire young string players even while its mass live events became impossible.
The husband-and-wife team of pianist Tom Poster and violinist Elena Urioste started a daily online Musical Jukebox, joyously mixing classic and popular ballads according to the suggestions of friends and viewers.
Another married couple, top soprano Lucy Crowe and her multi-talented instrumentalist husband Joe Walters, put on 40-minute Sunday afternoon shows outside their east-London home, ranging from Crowe’s usual operatic arias to Aretha Franklin hits.
The soprano Mary Bevan did something similar, inviting colleagues in the business to sing alfresco in a churchyard in north London. And virtuoso viola player Lawrence Power commissioned no fewer than ten ‘lockdown pieces’ that he streamed from either inside or on the roof of unused concert venues.
These projects all demonstrated that audiences can be reached in many alternative ways when concert halls are closed. I wonder, too, if such ad hoc initiatives did more to introduce people to the pleasures of classical music than any number of Arts Council ‘outreach’ policies. And gradually the idea that taking music out of traditional venues – places that, rightly or wrongly, might be seen as stuffy and off-putting to newcomers – is starting to be adopted by much grander institutions.
This summer, for instance, the Edinburgh Festival held all its concerts in big tents, and the atmosphere was much more welcoming than in the usual Usher or Queen’s Halls. Two country house operas – Longborough and Nevill Holt – also brought in large tents or grandstands to present their shows in more informal, egalitarian formats, and gained many new admirers because of it.
None of this would have happened without the spur of the pandemic. I often hear people ask ‘when will musical life finally get back to the way it was?’. My answer is that ‘the way it was’ was frequently dull, staid and over-reverential of tradition. A lot of musicians and music producers have been forced to think afresh by the pandemic, and as a result many bold new ideas have popped out of their heads. Let’s not suppress them again.