What it’s like, playing to an empty hall

What it’s like, playing to an empty hall


norman lebrecht

March 14, 2020

Special to Slipped Disc, from Ulrike Schäfer, principal cellist at Gürzenich-Orchester Köln:

What an experience : playing a “ghost-concert”.

The Kölner Philharmonie totally empty, the lights dimmed like in a real concert, making the hall somehow inhospitable and a little gloomy. We are prepared to give a concert, for an invisible audience. Of course we know to play and give our best in an empty hall, we have done many recordings in there. But this is very different. The expectation of how a concert “feels” is not being met at all. The empty hall has no “human” vibration, it’s just an empty building. The quietness, so desired especially when we play in front of a coughing audience, feels void, somehow hollow.

We are fully concentrated and determined to stay “in touch” with our invisible audience. Though everybody gives his best it’s somehow hard. I became very aware how special and precious this (now missing) resonance with an audience is. A resonance that happens on a very subtle, refined level of energy, of vibration. Something I always took for granted. Could we learn to feel more at home in such a set-up ? Is it possible to play in a 100% “concert mode” in an empty hall without this irritation ? Interestingly enough the resonance from our invisible audience was overwhelming. So much gratitude and enthusiasm came back to us. And that alone was worth the effort. But we all hope that we won’t have to make friends with these kind of “ghost-concerts”.



  • Vaquero357 says:

    It’s an odd experience on the other end, too – in the audience listening on the radio/webcast. Last night the Minnesota Orchestra went ahead with their Friday night concert – in an empty hall, just for the Minnesota Public Radio audience. I always listen to these broadcasts, so in a way last night was SOP.

    And in another way it was like no other concert. At the end of a very fine rendering of the Rachmaninov Second Concerto, with Kirill Gerstein in superb form, I automatically braced for the roar of the audience that piece’s finale always invokes…… Only this time it was the orchestra and a few dozen MO staffers in the hall. Strange. Normally, you unconsciously enjoy hearing the in-house audience express the enthusiasm *you* feel for the performance, listening in your living room.

    By the way, the orchestra and small number of people in Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall did a darned good job of generating a lot of applause volume!

    After intermission, we heard Juanjo Mena leading the orchestra in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. A work about a city under siege took on a new immediacy and urgency under the present circumstances. A towering performance, by the way, with an intensity that even a Shostakovich-phile like me has rarely heard in this work.

    So, to the players of the Gurzenich, Minnesota, and Philadelphia orchestras, and all the others who have gone ahead with concerts for broadcast only, THANK YOU for providing a boost of reassurance to the rest of us in this difficult time. It IS truly appreciated far more than we’ll be able to tell you in words!

  • Terence says:

    “But we all hope that we won’t have to make friends with these kind of “ghost-concerts”.

    You will.

    Ghost football games before they were all canceled, ghost sumo matches currently in Japan …

    I sadly conclude that this pandemic will shake out the classical music and not everything will return when it is gone.

  • Karl Stenhausen says:

    What it´s like to play to empty halls, you ask? You´d better ask the german “regietheater” theatres

  • Ben G. says:

    That’s right!

    What Ulrike is saying is that musicians should play “with” and audience and not “for” them, and the virus has put a brake on this kind of exchange.

  • Hans says:

    Well… that’s a load of…They play all of their rehearsals in this empty hall. It can’t be soooooo different and such a new experience.
    Seriously, is it real?
    People don’t care anymore what’s coming out of their mouth… I’m a principal cellist so I can say everything and people will eat it anyway.

    • Hans says:

      How many recordings she did in this hall? Were there audience? NO!
      This hall, and every hall are empty more than 90% of the time when music is being played in then. So what the hell she is talking about. Really unbelievable that she can even utter this kind of B$… principle cellist… give me a break!

      • Seo says:

        The hall is very much full, especially when Gürzenich plays…What an inane comment, not sure why i’m bothering to reply!

  • Walewska says:

    I am also principal cellist- also made this kind of experience – just days ago.
    But- I don’t see a reason to cry about this situation.
    Yes- this a challenge – but for all the freelancers around us- a really tough way to go.