UK orchestras may not survive coronavirus pandemic, conductors warn

Sir Simon Rattle said the performing arts needs targeted help. Photograph: Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images

Two of Britain’s most influential conductors, Sir Simon Rattle and Sir Mark Elder, have warned of a “devastated landscape” in classical music after the pandemic in which orchestras may not survive.

Rattle and Elder said musicians in the UK felt “out in the wilderness” and called for more clarity from the government of when and how they can return to playing.

The performing arts, including theatre, music and dance, will be some of the last activities to resume as the UK climbs out of lockdown. With no income, many arts organisations are burning through reserves and, without targeted help, some will not survive.

In a letter to the Guardian, Rattle, the music director of the London Symphony Orchestra, and Elder, the music director of the Hallé Orchestra, describe classical music’s situation as desperate.

“There’s a real possibility of a devastated landscape on the other side of this; orchestras may not survive, and if they do, they may face insuperable obstacles to remain solvent in our new reality.”

Radio 3 and the Wigmore Hall in London has started recitals with no live audience and organisers of the BBC Proms are hopeful of two weeks of concerts in late summer, probably with no audience.

But orchestral music is essentially a live experience, Rattle and Elder write, “and requires all the participants, performers and listeners alike, to be in the same room together. What we may do individually over the internet in these months is all well and good, but the living core of our work is a live communion, a sharing of space, art and emotion which is both vital and healing.”

They say learning to play while physically distanced will be harder than it may seem, but it has to happen.

“We MUST find a way to play together soon, even without an audience, if we are to maintain anything like our normal standards, and we badly need clarity from government, a timeline, of when that might be and how it can be implemented. We understand that we cannot expect to revert to everything as it was before; we will be creative and tireless in making contingency plans and solving problems.”

Rattle and Elder said they were hopeful that music would weather the pandemic. “We refuse to believe that live music will die, but it will not survive merely on energy and optimism. It will need support and understanding, particularly when it ventures out in public once more. The first year of performing with fewer musicians to a much smaller public will be our toughest time, and we will need a helping hand to make it through.”

The government has set up a cultural renewal taskforce to help plot a way back for the the UK’s recreation and leisure industries and there has been criticism that no representatives from music are on the taskforce. Ministers argue music is well represented on the important workgroups set up to develop guidance for reopening.

Rattle and Elder point to the experience in mainland Europe where orchestras are gradually opening up and finding ways to deal with physical distancing.

They write: “In the UK we must gain time by learning what has already been proved to work, rather than starting from the beginning yet again, with people not from the performing arts making the decisions. Until we have some practical idea of what our future might entail, musicians in our country will continue to feel out in the wilderness.”

Arts leaders in the UK warn that the position for performing arts companies is perilous. About 70% of theatres say they will run out of money this year. Horace Trubridge, the general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, this week told MPs: “We could very easily lose half the music venues we’ve got in the UK during this crisis unless there isn’t more permanent support for them.”

The West End producer Sonia Friedman has said the performing arts face “the real possibility of complete obliteration” without substantial government support, while the director Sam Mendes said “an ecosystem this intricate and evolved cannot be rebuilt from scratch”.

Industry leaders say they are not after a bailout, but investment which will prevent parts of Britain’s world leading arts sector going bust just at the moment it is most needed.

The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said this week that he was involved in “intricate discussions” with the Treasury and suggested a deal was almost done. “I am not going to stand by and see our world-leading position in arts and culture destroyed,” he said.

“Of course I want to get the money flowing, I am not going to let anyone down.”


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