The most pressing question facing orchestras around Australia right now is not so much how soon but how safely they can return to normal concert-giving. The gradual easing of social distancing rules and reopening of many indoor venues may have brought hopes to some that a resumption of physical concert-giving might be just around the corner, but because there are many complex of public health factors to sort out, this may not realistically happen until the beginning of 2021. Visits by overseas artists may be off the agenda until longer.
It cannot be over-estimated how severe the effect of COVID-19 has been on orchestras. With large operating costs and severely reduced revenue, the scale of their financial losses at this time has been enormous – it threatens to set them back for perhaps years to come. In the UK, there are even fears that the sector may never recover. Orchestras in this country may be more hopeful, but there still remain a great many health and related issues to sort out before concert halls reopen their doors. Their efforts meanwhile to give audiences a generous diet of online performances and other digital offerings deserve all praise.
Symphony Services International (SSI) is the peak body in Australia that serves the orchestral sector, and it provides a range of services including contract management and international tour co-ordination of international artists to some 14 leading and professional orchestras around the country as well as in New Zealand.
Kate Lidbetter is SSI’s Chief Executive Officer, and she describes how symphony orchestras are dealing with the present challenges and how they are developing protocols towards a safe return to normal operations:
“Like all Australian arts organisations, the orchestras have been hit hard by COVID-19. It is currently estimated that there will be collective losses of approximately $88m by the end of 2021 through reduction in box office, as well as possible philanthropic and corporate support.
When concert halls were closed in March, the orchestras responded quickly with a range of digital and online offerings and have remain engaged with audiences and patrons and to ensure Australians can have access to fine orchestral music. Each orchestra has created a suite of exciting presentations and you can visit the individual orchestral websites for further detail.
The orchestras have all benefited from JobKeeper support and this has assisted them in maintaining the employment of over 1,200 musicians and 375 administration staff (permanent and casual). They join other arts organisations in calling for an extension of JobKeeper into 2021 for affected companies.
Moving forward, the orchestras are eagerly anticipating their return to concert halls as soon as possible, in line with advice from public health experts. They are working on protocols in collaboration with the Australia Council and Live Performance Australia, which will facilitate a safe return for both performers and audiences. A positive outcome from COVID-19 is that performing arts companies and audiences have become more comfortable with the digital delivery of performances, and it is likely that this will remain a means of sharing music around the world. The response to offerings from the symphony orchestras has been extremely positive.
Each orchestra will proceed with its 2021 program announcements individually, based on restrictions and guidelines in their own state. A variety of different options are being discussed and announcements will be made in the weeks and months ahead. All of the orchestras are excited that 2021 will feature an array of Australian artists.”
In the meantime, orchestras are urging all supporters and donors to help keep them alive. Aside from JobKeeper and any other government rescue money that might come, this is about all have right now.
The conditions in which concert halls might reopen in the post-COVID-19 world is a vexing question. Facemasks may be obligatory for both audience members and the musicians. French horn players in the Czech Philharmonic recently used face masks with internal cloth filters in a benefit concert. A study from the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, Germany, shows that woodwind and brass instruments pose a particular problem due to aerosols and droplets they produce when played – the flute most especially. This study advocates the use of plexiglass shields between musicians to protect them from contaminated airflow. Orchestras already use acoustic screens to shield off brass and percussion instruments, so this may well become an adopted practice.
Kate Lidbetter is Music Australia’s Councillor representing Professional Orchestras.