Opera + Classical Music Features

Coronavirus and classical music: not silent, merely muted

Coronavirus and classical music

Photo: Tom Flynn

It is sadly true that COVID-19 has effectively silenced all live performances of music for the foreseeable future. Arts organisations of all kinds have been sorely hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with festivals across the world cancelling or postponing this year’s programmes. It remains to be seen what will be salvageable when all of this is over.

The silence, though, is not complete, and hope for both musical organisations and listeners is at hand; concert halls may be empty but the musical term here is not so much ‘tacet’ (silent) as ‘Da lontano e un poco piano’ (from a distance and a little quiet) – Handel’s instruction to the trumpets for ‘Glory to God’ from Messiah.

Recordings – both in hard format and via download – are, of course still available, and those eager to support singers and instrumentalists may wish, among other ways of financial support, to use the downtime to spend some money on building their libraries and to take the time to listen to all of those works that they ‘never quite got round to’.

There is, though, a huge amount of free music around online; YouTube, Vevo and the like are obvious go-tos, but not a few musical organisations already have their own stockpiles of streamable archive material, and this might be a very good time to support them in spirit by listening to some of the performances that were missed, or by revisiting those that were enjoyable.

The London Symphony Orchestra was an early adopter of high quality live digital recording, and began issuing live recordings of concerts on CD many years ago, closely to be followed by the option of streaming online. The orchestra has its own YouTube channel containing a good variety of previous performances, but via this, the orchestra is now streaming two selected archive performances a week (Sunday and Thursday evenings). Those in search of something on a smaller scale may wish to access a similar service offered by the Wigmore Hall, who also provide a collection of previously streamed recitals, competitions and masterclasses for listening at the click of a mouse.

On the opera front, streamed performances from both Covent Garden and the New York Met have been a feature for some years now, filling cinemas and public spaces alike. The Royal Opera House’s #OurHouseToYourHouse offers a streamed service of recent opera and ballet on a changing rota (currently playing is Matthew Hart’s ingeniously choreographed ballet of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf). The Met is streaming an opera per day (each performance available for 23 hours), and the end of last week saw archive performances of all the Ring operas; this coming weekend (4 April) will feature Verdi’s Macbeth and Bellini’s Norma with Aida, La Fanciulla del West, Falstaff, Parsifal and Roméo et Juliette to come next week. London and New York, though, are not the only cities whose opera houses offer streamed performances; those wishing for a virtual tour of European opera productions may wish to check out the archive material offered by Opéra National de Paris, Opernhaus Zürich, Brussels’ La Monnaie, the Dutch National Opera and Ballet and Bayerische Staatsoper.

In terms of genuinely live performance, sadly, music, as ever, is dependent on physics, and while audio-visual contact platforms such as Zoom, Teams and Hangout may work for ‘not in the same room’ conversations and meetings, the delay effect (even fibre optic signals take a finite time to travel, that’s without adding in the different broadband capabilities) means that co-ordinating more than one instrument or voice from separate feeds live is impossible. This hasn’t stopped some groups, though, as with editing software, individual feeds (performed to a click track) can be merged to create some sort of ensemble, even if the final result may not have the exact sparkle that communication live can add. The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra were early in on the act here, and their Beethoven-9 response to the virus is both moving and inspiring. Not to be outdone, the Brighouse and Rastrick brass band have recently uploaded to Facebook ‘A Concert in the Living Room’ – a performance of their signature Floral Dance fused from individual living room contributions of its members. Afficionados of Les Miserables may want to check out The Barricade Boys’ NHS tribute collated performance of ‘Bring him home’.

Online musical interaction for amateurs seems to have particularly inspired choral singers, and not a few online choral projects have blossomed including  a project for World Singing Day, Stay in and Sing, and many others. This has been fertile ground for the UK’s choral supremo Gareth Malone, who, in collaboration with Decca has set up The Great British Home Chorus, a slickly organised initiative that provides free downloads of music, singalong tracks (to aid recording) and a daily You Tube rehearsal led by Malone from his music studio. The aim is to produce a series of tracks of an edited virtual choir of tens of thousands of singers. Watch this space.

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Coronavirus and classical music: not silent, merely muted