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2020 may have been epic for Netflix - 37 million new users pushed its global subscriber total above 200 million - but over the last year live performance stages across the world have been largely empty, dark and quiet. This is almost without precedent for many centuries. The act of getting together to watch and listen as a group to a work of live-performed art has been going certainly since Ancient Greece. In London, Paris and Berlin “the band played on” through two World Wars. The silencing effects of Covid-19 haven’t been known since The Plague closed theatres in late 16th and early 17th century London when Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth were delayed by “the pestilence” and the need for social distancing.
In France, performing artists have protested the loss of their livelihoods. They argue not just about their immediate financial plight but the long-term effects on the entertainment industry - Netflix requires a talent stream which has its upland source in live theatres and concert halls. Many young entrants might give up altogether.
What we do is an important part of our audience’s lives.
A tricky year
The events have made many ask important questions about the value of culture in our lives. Is it, for example, less important than non-essential shopping? This is a debate which has exercised Hugues de Saint-Simon, the Secretary General of Cité de la musique - Philharmonie de Paris in la Villette, Paris. “It has been a tricky year,” he says. “The lockdown happened very quickly and at a very bad time for us - we’d just announced our September to June programme and were ready to start selling tickets. That had to stop. For the first month, we could do nothing. We managed to perform a concert with a 50% audience at the end of June, but things then deteriorated, and we went over to video on demand of archive performances. By November we were back into complete lockdown.”
This means money has been very tight. De Saint-Simon’s financial model is roughly 50/50 government subsidy and ticket sales. But many musicians are not salaried but freelance and therefore did not get paid over the course of the pandemic.
“I still believe that the risk of infection in our hall is very low,” he notes. “We have research that shows this. People don’t sit face to face. The venues are modern and the ventilation high tech. And we know our audiences are fed up. They want very badly to come back - what we do is an important part of their lives..” Currently it is possible the Philharmonie de Paris will be able to play to a 30% house in mid-May.
What I do is a passion not a job - it’s part of me. My career was a need not a want.
It’s a joyous thing to be a creative
Over in London, it’s been an equally trying year for Joely Koos, one of the city’s most renowned cello players and a principal at The City of London Sinfonia. “It’s been catastrophic for our industry. I have all sympathy for other workers but what I do is a passion not a job. It’s part of me. Of course, the applause at the end is important but it’s the during that gives you energy. My career was a need not a want. It’s a joyous thing to be paid to be creative. But the danger is that if you don’t play every day - you lose it.”
Pre-Covid-19 Koos was an accomplished multi-tasker: she regularly plays for the soundtracks of Pixar and Marvel films. In 2007, she won a Grammy for her accompaniment to Amy Winehouse on her hit “Rehab”, and she is a Professor at Trinity Laban Conservatoire.
A tour to the Far East was cancelled. Her orchestra lost £800,000 of income. She got a mortgage holiday and was part of a group lobbying the UK government to get better support for furloughed artists whose self-employed status meant applying for state financial relief was very difficult.
But Koos is resourceful and not one to lie around moping. “I’m a free-range chicken. Not a battery hen. I can wander and find many things to keep me busy.” Koos set up an orchestra with her husband and two children calling themselves The Family Von Trapped (a play on the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music) and they live-streamed concerts from their living room. In addition, she has extended her passion for Pilates - cellists can suffer from back and muscle problems - and conducts online classes for enthusiasts. She also managed to land a peach of a job teaching the cello at Eton College (which schooled twenty British prime ministers). This is a salaried post, which is almost unheard of in her world.
Nobody hums the lighting
Live music is - of course - only possible with technical help. And Ardian owns a vital part of the live music infrastructure in its company Audiotonix. Audiotonix is the global market leader in the design, engineering and manufacture of professional audio mixing consoles and ancillary products. Its CEO James Gordon tells an amusing yarn about the vital nature of what his companies do normally, day-in day out: “Joe O’Herlihy the Front of House Engineer of U2 once acknowledged to me that ‘nobody goes home humming the lighting.”
“Covid hit very suddenly,” says Gordon. ”Huge numbers of events were cancelled. All the kit was in the wrong place. My first instinct was to protect the company. For the first eight weeks we worked almost non-stop. Managing the unknown is never easy but you keep talking to your people, your suppliers and your customers.”
A positive has been the fact that Gordon’s colleagues have been able to concentrate on R&D and innovation. “R&D is our lifeblood and therefore the most critical investment into our future we can make. This year without some of the normal distractions, we have been able to further diversify. For example, we have significantly grown our audio creation product offering, providing home-based aspiring and professional artists high-end studio quality tools for recording and creating at home.”
“I never thought I’d say this but I miss touring the world. We’re an amazingly international business and you get so much insight by visiting people around the globe. But most of all I’m desperate to hear some live music. That first hit of the kick drum coming through a huge PA sound system. It’ll be a huge intake of breath for me. That’ll mean we’re back.”
And the news isn’t all bad in France, either. The circumstances of the pandemic meant it was possible to produce a piece of filmed art that would never have occurred in normal times. The Orchestre de Paris, France’s leading symphony orchestra, created a large impressionist musical fresco inspired by the four elements, with excerpts from "The Firebird" and the "Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky, the entirety of "La Mer "by Debussy and" Interstellar Call "by Messiaen.
Working from sunrise to sunset and travelling from the basement to the roof of the building with the musicians the directors filmed a thing of great imaginative beauty at Cité de la musique - Philharmonie de Paris. You can watch it here. And wish you had been there...
I’m desperate to hear some live music. That first hit of the kick drum coming through a huge PA sound system. It’ll be a huge intake of breath for me. That’ll mean we’re back.