After the lockdown ends(3), the music will change

After the lockdown ends(3), the music will change


norman lebrecht

April 30, 2020

The traditional orchestra season amounts to a compromise between the music director, the general director and the calendar.

The last of the three dictates the anniversaries.

The first proposes attention-seeking works. The second modifies those plans with box-office bankables.

All that will have to change when the music resumes.

There will be no big set-pieces in the next couple of years while Covid is still around. Health and safety won’t permit them, and all orchestras the world over will need to save money.

So what to play?

This is an immense opportunity.

Given that the public will come rushing back in search of the live concert experience, orchestras can rewrite the repertoire to perform works and composers they never dared to programme before, for fear the audience would not come.

Right now, there are people out there who would play premium prices to hear William Schuman symphonies played backwards.

Instead of the usual 3Bs and 2Ms, orchestras can choose to play Wallingford Rieger or Havergal Brian without denting the finances.

Myself, I want to hear symphonic cycles of Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Bohuslav Martinu and Malcolm Arnold.

Replace Dvorak with Donatoni, Mozart with Milhaud, Strauss with Szymanowski.

Why not?

Orchestras of the world, you have nothing to lose but your fears.


  • Barry Guerrero says:

    “Replace Dvorak with Donatoni, Mozart with Milhaud, Strauss with Szymanowski”

    Two out of three ain’t bad. There’s one I strongly disagree with. Opinions will, of course, vary greatly.

  • Ron Swanson says:

    Government subsidy and corporate sponsorship is highly unlikely to continue at current levels. Classical music needs to appeal to the broadest possible base to survive in the short term. There is already an image problem and going off into esoterica and expecting taxpayers and business to pay for it, is not the smarest move.

    • John McMunn says:

      Some would argue that the ‘image problem’ around orchestral music stems precisely from the industry’s reluctance to abandon so-called ‘core repertoire’ in favour of new voices and new approaches. I don’t for a second advocate scrapping the ‘3Bs and 2Ms’, but creative and inclusive programming is now not just a good idea, it’s absolutely vital to orchestral music’s relevance in the post-COVID landscape.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Shrinking the repertoire to the most common war horses that everybody knows already, while there are hundreds of CD recordings available everywhere, won’t draw big audiences. Concentrating on the niche function of specialist music that cannot be heard elsewhere, may draw a small audience of serious music lovers, but no crowds. It may be that the pandemic is the crucial kick into the abyss, as far as the art form is seen as something with big orchestras in big halls performing sensational soundscapes for large enthusiastic audiences.

      • Ron Swanson says:

        Classic FM gets more listeners than Radio 3. It’s an easy win to cut a subsidy for a season of composers than aren’t generally know. Who wants to be the person paying for Niles and Frasier Crane’s night at the symphony.

    • Steven Mendler says:

      Any Idea


      We can’t count with same amount of public 65+ who will actually have psychological and financial problems.

      • Ron Swanson says:

        Personally, something like a drive in concert. Keep the programme light and accessible. The 4 seasons, 1812 overture, Barber’s Adagio and anything that the Boston Pops does. Survival means appealing to an audience that doesn’t normally go to concerts.

      • Brian v says:

        I agree after age 65 one has health issues it not so easy to get to concerts
        In the evening I have mobility problems so I need to take a taxi.lucky I went
        To many concerts when I was younger Bernstein. Louis armstrong. Munch
        Klemperer etc. I must not complain.

  • Gustavo says:

    Myself, I want to hear symphonic cycles of Tubin, Bax, and Langaard.

    But orchestras shouldn’t be getting smaller!

    • norman lebrecht says:

      agree (x2)

    • Olassus says:

      Not forgetting the Bax tone poems.

      Embarrassed to say I didn’t know of Rued Langgaard. Have been listening to Music of the Spheres; not convinced yet.

      • Gustavo says:

        There are 16 symphonies to tackle.

        You could start chronologically:

        No. 1 “Pastorals of the Rocks” (1908-09; rev. 1909-11)

        Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, L. Segerstam

        I also enjoyed Oramo’s take of 2 & 6 with VPO, comparing 6 with N. Järvi’s version with the Danes.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Agreed with Norman’s idea of a chance. In culture, many great ideas were born from misery and suffocating circumstances:

  • Mathias Broucek says:

    Amen to Hartmann, and Tubin, and Rubbra, and Miaskovsky, and Hanson and…..

    I was lucky enough to hear Magnard 4 live last year, but had to travel to Tokyo for it! Hall was pretty full….

  • C Porumbescu says:

    So, to summarise:

    – audiences are massively turned off by the pieces that they always flock to hear, and are crying out to hear the stuff in which they have hitherto taken no interest at all.

    – in a time of financial crisis, it’s definitely a good idea to play music that has heavy copyright fees and extra players rather than the free-to-play stuff for small-ish orchestras by boring old Mozart and Brahms.

    – politicians looking to justify emergency public funding for the arts definitely won’t want orchestras to play music with a wide popular appeal.

    – in a time of unprecedented anxiety, uncertainty and fear, what audiences want is to be challenged. There has never been a greater demand for bleak, angst-ridden, abrasive art!

    OK. Right…

    • John Borstlap says:

      Very funny….. but inviting for a couple of remarks.

      The ‘interest of the audience’ is an unknown entity if they don’t hear the music they could have, or have not, an interest in. Programming of orchestras is guessing, most of the time. And sometimes a potential audience interest is not considered at all.

      Copyright fees of works by composers who have the temerity to be still alive, or their descendents (even worse!), are very minor as compared to the regular expenses of an orchestra, or the fees for conductors. Even successful living composers are by far not as rich as successful conductors.

      In times of great anxiety, like during WW II, in Europe the audiences made-up of survivors flocked to unwarmed concert halls to hear music which offered not only beauty as an escape from misery, but to be reminded of the things that makes them human, so: the opposite of what happened outside the hall. This was the case both in England, as in the occupied countries, as in Germany itself – no difference at all. At no other time the meaning of music was more clearly demonstrated.

      The modern world has been sick already long before the pandemic, and the symptoms have also been around in music life for decades.

      Which means that this would be a good occasion to reflect upon the question of the relevance of classical music as an art form:

  • Bruno Michel says:

    I am perplexed by the sentence “Given that the public will come rushing back in search of the live concert experience”: what certainties do we have to make that statement? Logic would indicate the contrary, which many house managements now fear: given that our audiences are rather elderly and therefore highly vulnerable, who is going to convince people to spend an evening in close proximity with 2000 people, in the coming two years? There will be an element of fear, at least until a vaccine is developed and the whole nation is vaccinated, which is not for another good year at least. I think you won’t be able to pay audiences enough to come into halls, let alone forcing them to hear things they do not care to hear… I have a feeling that the days of people staying indoors to listen to live streaming of classical music, instead of going to hear live performances, in order to save their lives, are far from being numbered.

  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

    It would be great if the ads on this site weren’t now occupying 1/4 of the screen. They really make reading anything here much more difficult

    • Steven Hill says:

      Use Adblock Plus or install a Pi-hole if you have the technical expertise. I don’t see the ads at all.

    • Bruce says:

      Adblock Plus is your friend. I’ve had it for years, and I have no idea what ads you’re talking about.

  • MacroV says:

    I’d be all in favor of seeing something like this happen, but fail to see what makes you think it will. When it’s safe to come back to the concert hall, it’s safe to come back into the concert hall, and orchestra managements probably won’t change their time-tested ideas of what sells, and what doesn’t.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The difficulty of orchestra managements is not that they only look at what sells, but that they don’t want to know what sells if they knew it.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      “When it safe to come back to the concert hall”

      There are a significant number of people who are scared almost witless that they are unlikely to come outside even when it is declared ‘safe’ to do so. (Some of them even post here). Of course, there are others who are aggressively determined to ignore any lockdown or the risk of catching the virus.

      There are all sorts of people, and I expect, at first, many people will be somewhat cautious and nervous. And it will take a while for concert goers to return to the habit of regularly attending concerts.

  • Realist says:

    Classical music audiences will be even smaller than usual for the foreseeable future regardless of what is programmed. Many elderly – a substantial part of the audience – will be cautious about being in an enclosed space, even if wearing masks. Many younger people have seen their own finances devastated by COVID’s after-effects.

    I think this is going to be a long, drawn-out recovery – especially for things deemed “non-essential.”

  • Cubs Fan says:

    I doubt the music will change, although I’ve been hoping it would for years. Conductors will be back to the same old worn out repertoire as quick as they can. What I do hope changes are audiences: has anyone been to any concert where it seems half the audience isn’t coughing and sneezing, hacking up phlegm constantly? Audiences need to get the message now: if you’re sick, STAY HOME. I wouldn’t even mind having temperatures taken at the points of entry: if it’s too high, you’re out. And can we remodel some halls so there are some windows to open and get fresh air in?

    • Brian v says:

      A high percentage of the audience are elderly and unwell. I retired at 65 that is when the health problems begin I know from experience. Fortunately I went to
      Many concerts classical jazz rock when I was younger. It is the same with travel
      Do it when you are young.

  • Gustavo says:


  • Giovanni says:

    I won’t be rushing back. I attended many concerts between 1966 and 2019, and maybe I’ll never go to a concert hall again. I see no reason to believe that “the public” will be rushing back in the foreseeable future.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      You might never go back again: is that a matter of health concerns, or do you find streamed music sufficient? Not a rhetorical question; I’m genuinely curious.

      Being a member of the elevated-risk category for COVID, myself, I’ll be somewhat cautious about returning to concerts until a vaccine is available, but I can hardly wait to experience live performance in a community atmosphere (despite the irritations of audience noise, etc.).

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Peter, you might have to wait a very long time for a vaccine. There is a chance that one that works well will never be developed.

        However, it is quite likely that 20 percent of the population or more has had the virus in the hardest hit regions. And this number is increasing all the time. There is a good chance that by the autumn enough people would have caught it and recovered (and almost everybody does recover) that we will have “herd immunity”. When that happens, we can return to normal even without a vaccine.

        Aside: the problem is we don’t know for sure how many have actually already caught Covid-19. That requires widespread testing for the antibodies. And we aren’t able to do that yet.

    • Brian v says:

      I definitely wIl not be going to the Albert hall proms next year no air conditioning
      And packed in like a tin of sardines. Even before corona it was terrible

    • Brian v says:

      It is better to go to the lunchtime concerts in the music schools they are never
      Crowded And the students are good. Also nice atmosphere

  • Leonardo Bautista says:

    Totally agree with you Mr. Lebrecht.

  • V.Lind says:

    If this is such a good idea, why is none of it turning up in your Daily Comfort Zone pieces? If you flagged some of this stuff, do you think clicks would go down?

    Exactly. So why would people then go to all the trouble of going out, and paying, to hear it?

    As with pubs and restaurants, and high streets, concert halls face the two-edged sword. People so fearful of mass contact that they still stay home, and people so craving human contact in live situations after months of enforced online behaviour that they can’t wait to get out and do things in the way we used to — before Amazon, before texting instead of conversation, before living onscreen. It may be the saviour of the pub, and the shop. AND the concert.

    So do you think pubs will sell experimental drinks and foods, and shops will only stock books they couldn’t previously give away or weird clothing, uncomfortable furniture, hideous shoes, Donald trump makeup?

    Why, then, would people rush to attend concerts of music they have previously gone out of their way to avoid?

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Not all of the Comfort Zone works have been predictable choices: e.g., the Gorecki harpsichord concerto.

      • V.Lind says:

        I’m not saying any of them are “predictable.” In fact many are surprises — and on the whole very pleasant ones. (Though mostly they are reminders — I had forgotten, for instance, what a wonderful voice Françoise Hardy has — it is years since I last heard her). Gorecki is well known for the Third Symphony. Most people will have explored him further, and those who have not will still see a familiar name.

        The thrust of the post is that an opportunity may present for force-feeding repertoire that has previously been regarded as unsaleable: “Given that the public will come rushing back in search of the live concert experience, orchestras can rewrite the repertoire to perform works and composers they never dared to programme before, for fear the audience would not come.”

        “Never dared” suggests programmers knew there would be a limited appeal for this repertoire. I was arguing that I am not sure that this is a particularly fruitful way to approach post-lockdown. It reeks of “eat what’s put in front of you even if it is a plateful of things you hate.” I do not think this is the right tack to take when people have been severely deprived for a long time and very probably face massive difficulties going forward.

        It’s a point of view, as is the one Mr Lebrecht has put. I’d like to hear some of these pieces, too. But I do not think that to use the concert hall as anything other than a place that gives unalloyed pleasure is quite the right approach at this time. And for a while, I would think. I know that much of this music is well worth hearing, and will only become recorded and more widely available when it stands the test of the concert hall, but it should not be used as a tool in the middle of a period of recovery. It smacks of preachiness, and we are all enduring rather enough of that at the moment.

  • Mick the Knife says:

    I don’t see Health and Safety being an issue. No orchestra hall will open with 25% of an audience to allow for social distancing. It’s not economically feasible. They will open when they have a normal audience. If the audience is shoulder to shoulder, then certainly the performers can be. So, if a well known conductor is being asked to scale down works, it is most likely to save money in presentation costs.

  • Ned Keane says:

    Sorry but I disagree. The idea that people will be so desperate to go out that they’ll pay to listen anything is… naive at best. Sounds like a bit of fantasy. You could say “I’d love to believe that…” or “Wouldn’t it be great if…”. Beyond that, where’s your evidence that this will be the case?

  • CA says:

    Especially in the USA, I believe many orchestras will simply fold if a season in 2020-21 doesn’t happen. Outrageous venue rents for performance spaces aren’t going to come down, fundraising revenues aren’t suddenly going to increase, government support is already almost nonexistent, top administrative management salaries at even midsize organizations have been out of whack (too high) with budget size, most musician salaries in these groups are still rather low with admin staff salaries even lower, the age demographic is a factor too in that the elderly already don’t like going out a night to concerts that last 2 hours or more, the younger audiences are too fickle and unpredictable, and I also think that we as an industry have also hurt ourselves by trying to be everything to everyone. The complete system is broken. I’m a veteran orchestra administrator still a dozen years off from being able to draw social security and I have zero faith that I’ll ever be able to resume my career in this field or, frankly, in anything now that we have destroyed the entire economy and upwards of 20 million jobs. Age and experience will become an ever bigger deterrent to hiring, and America seems to suggest that having jobs is optional, so those of us with decimated finances and retirement plans can’t even supply all of the basics for ourselves anymore, musicians and staff included, let alone go to cultural events like concerts.

  • Pedro says:

    I hope to go back to the concert halls as soon as possible. I bet in the future of the great classical repertoire and have already got tickets for Barenboim, Thielemann and Nelsons in Beethoven ( Paris and Dresden), Shani in Bruckner (Brussels), Gatti in Schumann (Barcelona), and Muti in Schumann and Brahms (Brussels). Waiting for the box offices to open in Amsterdam, Vienna, Leipzig, Munich and Berlin for additional concerts by some of the mentioned and Gergiev, Rattle and Järvi. Nothing better than performances of the great repertoire live. Hope the Coronavirus will go away soon.

    • Enquiring Mind says:

      Sounds like a good life!

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon. It will be around for the rest of out lives most likely. However, we will learn to live with it, and before long things will return to something like normality.

  • Steven Mendler says:

    Any Idea


    We can’t count with same amount of public 65+ who will actually have psychological and financial problems.

  • Parker E Monroe says:

    Martinu was such an important mid-century figure, and neglect of his work is puzzling, as it’s accessible and dictinctive — a style is as immediately recognizable as say, Messiaen’s. One need only hear a few bars to know it’s Messiaen. And his was such a great (if sometimes unhappy) American story. Why can’t more Czech composers catch a break?

    • John Borstlap says:

      The reason is not that Martinu was Czech but that he lived in the 20th century, when ‘progressive music’ was the focus of the academics and young Klangkünstler. Composers like Martinu, Britten, Hartmann, Hindemith etc. had to ‘get out of the way’.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      It is on the edge of the repertoire. Many times composers go out of fashion after they have died. Good ones often eventually get revived and win an audience. If enough people enjoy the limited amount of Martinu they heat then his music will get revived.

  • We privatize your value says:

    So many symphonic cycles that we don’t get to hear. Eshpai, Wellesz, Terterian, Klebe, and an infinity of others. Sad!!

  • distant prommer says:

    I am an over 75. I have been going to concerts since I was a pre-teen, mostly to the Proms where I have not missed a single season in 64 years. Now I am faced with the fact that as long as this virus is out there and we are not all vaccinated, the RAH may not be safe for vulnerable people, like me, once the Proms get underway again. The choice of programming has nothing to do with this.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      It will likely be safe for you to go in the 2021 season even without a vaccine. Enough people will have had the virus by then that it can no longer spread through the population.

      Aside: there is always the rather remote chance that the virus mutates very quickly. But if that is the case, no vaccine will work either. (From what is known so far, the evidence suggests Covid-19 mutates slowly, which will mean immunity lasts many years.)

  • Jan Kaznowski says:

    ==So many symphonic cycles that we don’t get to hear. Eshpai, Wellesz, Terterian, Klebe,

    Come on, your’re just showing off now

  • John Borstlap says:

    Any consideration of repertoire will only begin to be relevant after an effective vaccin has been found and been administered to everyone.

  • Alexander Jacoby says:

    But why “replace Dvorak with Donatoni, Mozart with Milhaud, Strauss with Szymanowski”? Why not choose the more effective strategy of complementing one with the other?

    Most instrumental concerts consist of multiple pieces. Surely the most effective way to draw attention to the work of neglected composers is to pair them with celebrated ones. A selection of Szymanowski’s songs before the interval followed by a selection of Strauss’ songs after the interval, for instance. That way, audiences that come for the standard repertoire may find their horizons are widened.

    Even in opera, where most works are too long to be doubled up in the same night, the best tactic to widen the canon may be to make connections between famous and less famous works. Mozart and Milhaud: Marriage of Figaro one night, and its sequel, La Mere Coupable, the next.