Orchestras want to play but halls refuse to open

From Christopher Morley in Birmingham:

A few weeks ago I drove down to the south coast, passing through the autumnal New Forest, and arriving at Poole in Dorset.

And there I attended and reviewed the first post-lockdown concert given by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, at their home base in the Lighthouse Arts Centre.

The organisation was immaculate. Socially-distanced seats were personally allocated, volunteer stewards (so happy to see their concert hall functioning again) had been coached in their tasks and helpfully directed us, even to the loos, and then the orchestra appeared.

On an extended platform, the distancing of the orchestra was carefully preserved. Some of the brass were situated way up in the gallery, there were partitions between the winds and the strings, the percussion were carefully tucked away, but here was a a full orchestra performing in front of a live, enthusiastic, and totally well-behaved audience.

More recently I have attended concerts at the Stratford Play House, during the Stratford Music Festival, and audience accommodation was so resourcefully arranged. I was particularly impressed with the layout for Peter Donohoe’s recital, when, in addition to the socially-distanced raked seating, there were carefully-identified tables at floor level, each with their social bubble, subtly lit from above, and creating an almost cabaret atmosphere.

I then went to a Leamington Music event at the Dream Factory in Warwick, where the social distancing in the audience was brilliant, everything making for a comfortable and rewarding evening.

I was at a full-scale BSO concert in its regular home. The CBSO is valiantly presenting mini-concerts with a handful of players at its own rehearsal base, the CBSO Centre,, playing to a handful audience.

If the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra can be playing at the Lighthouse, its home base, why not the CBSO at its home base in Symphony Hall?

The Lighthouse in Poole mobilised its volunteer stewards for the wonderful concert I attended. Cannot Symphony Hall stir itself to do the same? Or is Fafner still content to snore in his cave, guarding his riches so that no-one can get to them?

(c) Christopher Morley/Slipped Disc

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  • I think you will find that the CBSO would love to play in Symphony Hal but this relies on the opening of the ICC and at the moment permission for this has not been granted. It is a large establishment and the cost of opening this just for the CBSO would not be viable

  • Surely this isn’t so difficult to understand. Opening a place the size of Symphony Hall is a substantial financial undertaking, because there are so many entrances, corridors, rooms and other spaces both to prepare for pandemic conditions and to staff. When you can only admit a relatively small audience, the financial implications of doing this in a larger venue are far more severe and potentially unaffordable than for a smaller and simpler space that can be handled by a smaller team. This kind of criticism is being levelled rather often at the moment as though there were either a reprehensible lack of moral fibre or courage involved in these decisions or else simple laziness. This is a bizarre leap to an unjustified conclusion. Performing spaces will have examined their finances on the prudent basis that this crisis might go on at least until the late summer next year. Just standing empty costs a lot of money even before you try to put on a socially distanced concert. They are very unlikely to be staying shut just to be annoying.

  • Important to point out (because it’s extraordinary how literal people can be online) that the “riches” referred to in the last line are purely metaphorical – the Hall’s acoustic and facilities. It can’t open at present because it literally can’t afford to.

    Financially, it struggles at the best of times; at present, with the loss this year of all of the private bookings that are the backbone of its income it is by all accounts in an absolutely catastrophic state. The organisation receives less than £100,000 of ACE subsidy each year: on which it runs two major international venues (including the Grade One listed Town Hall), as well as providing services to numerous performing and educational organisations across Central England. Compare and contrast to the tens of millions of public money routinely poured into the Southbank in London, and draw your own conclusions.

    • Pretentious and inept metaphor in the last line. I think it’s safe to assume that the senior management of Symphony Hall aren’t sitting in there on their own enjoying the acoustic and keeping the doors shuttered because they don’t want anyone else to enjoy it as well. It’s pretty lame for starters to reference The Ring in an article like this. If you insist (to demonstrate how erudite you are) please at least ensure that the reference makes a modicum of sense.

  • It’s easy to blame the Symphony Hall’s management for not re-opening the hall. What about the CBSO management and their complete lack of imagination? Virtually every other orchestra in the country re-invented itself and is running either a digital season or a series of small concerts for small audiences, or both. Just check their websites. In comparison the CBSO has done next to nothing in the last six months. Just check their website.

    • If you were involved with the CBSO you would have noticed that thy have done many things over that last few months and have now stared to put on small concerts at their rehearsal centre. They put on a full scale concert for their centenary – OK without audience but wth 80+ musicians and this was live seamed. . They are working hard to get back to performing live so why don’t you join the family of the CBSO and you will see what is happening behind the scenes.

    • Did you see the CBSO ‘birthday’ concert performed in a warehouse and live streamed? – excellent music and very well presented – a shame it was not on TV! they have actually done quite a lot in the last 6 months

      • I did see this concert. Orchestra wise, this is literally all that CBSO have done since the lockdown. Now, yes, there is some chamber music for anyone lucky enough to get a socially distanced ticket. But there is no streaming and furthermore the orchestra as a whole remains silent. Compare this effort with online streamed autumn seasons of orchestral music from around the country:

        Royal Liverpool Philharmonic https://www.liverpoolphil.com/current-events/
        Bournemouth Symphony https://bsolive.com/whats-on/bso-autumn-2020/
        London Symphony Orchestra https://lso.co.uk/whats-on/autumn-2020-season/youtube-sundays.html
        London Philhamonic Orchestra https://www.lpo.org.uk/what-s-on/2020-autumn-concerts.html
        Northern Sinfonia https://sagegateshead.com/royal-northern-sinfonia/whats-on/
        Philharmonia https://philharmonia.co.uk/series/philharmonia-sessions/
        Royal Scottish National Orchestra https://www.rsno.org.uk/digital-season/
        BBC Philharmonic https://www.bbc.co.uk/philharmonic/events/by/date/2020/10
        BBC Symphony https://www.bbc.co.uk/symphonyorchestra/events/by/date/2020/10
        BBC National Orchestra of Wales https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1CnTHxgRrDLj0SLY7dJQ6px/october-2020
        BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso/events/by/date/2020/10

        We are not seeing just one or two orchestras who have managed to make this happen. Practically ALL of them have.

        To quote the title of the article, the CBSO players doubtless want to play as much as all of these other ensembles. And they have access to the CBSO Centre while any issues are ironed out with the reopening of Symphony Hall. And yet, they are basically the only UK orchestra with no online season.

        Willing and motivated players – check.
        Performance space – check.
        What other factor could be holding the CBSO back?

        • This pandemic has certainly shone a light on the different funding models of UK orchestras.

          The BBC orchestras all have their own studios, so can continue their core work of recording for Radio 3 without an audience, with no loss of income.

          The London self-governing orchestras have not been able to furlough their players (who are not employed) so occasional concerts (with no or tiny audience) are the only way to get some income to their musicians, many of whom have been badly let down by the government package for the self-employed.

          The regional contract orchestras, like the CBSO, all started back giving concerts about a month ago – and started planning these as soon as the government guidance became clear. In our case, this was initially just with ensembles (up to 20 musicians) at the CBSO Centre, and we will continue this series alongside our Symphony Hall concerts from the week after next, meaning we will probably be doing the MOST of any UK orchestra from that point on. As explained elsewhere, we had to wait for Symphony Hall to sufficiently finish their refurbishment before we could get back in for our concerts.

          And our concerts – like those of the Liverpool Phil, Bournemouth Symphony and RNS (only) – will be with a significant audience (the LSO has a tiny audience in the balcony as St Luke’s). Nobody else is allowed one yet, either because of national restrictions (Scotland) or their halls not permitting this.
          Between the two series we will initially be able to play live to 800 people each week, and we expect this to increase over time. We will also be streaming some of these concerts.

          • Slipped Disc

            No doubt the pandemic has served to highlight different funding models as you say. But equally, the pandemic has shone a light on different orchestra administrations, and how nimble and creative they have been in response to a crisis. The bottom line for arts audiences (and the relevance of ensembles) is concert seasons. That was why I presented a nationwide list rather than grouping by funding category, which for audiences is arguably of no relevance.

            In a later post on this article, you list three factors that the CBSO were dependant on before launching their autumn season. You mention other regional contract orchestras as the relevant comparison, so let’s have a look at these in a broader context.

            1. The UK government to allow live performances with audience (which was announced in mid-August)
            – so, more than two months ago. The same for all regional contract orchestras.

            2. Symphony Hall to complete enough of the long-term capital project on its foyers for us to be able to manage the audience in that space while maintaining social distancing (this will finally be possible by early November)

            – This refurbishment is not news.
            https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/symphony-hall-set-135m-redevelopment-15233480

            No doubt the pandemic slowed things down, was this not obvious when things kicked off back in March? Surely even more reason not to have been relying on Symphony Hall for your season announcement. In the CBSO Centre you have an obvious backstop venue on your own doorstep. Why was the plan not to announce the season, stream orchestral concerts from the CBSOC (maybe with a small audience on the balcony like St Lukes – this could have been going on for a month), and then shift to Symphony Hall when that became viable?

            3. CBSO and then Symphony Hall to receive positive news from the DCMS / Arts Council Recovery Fund. The second of these decisions came at midnight, and we have immediately announced the concerts, which begin in 11 days’ time. Full details of the first 2 concerts on http://www.cbso.co.uk

            Re Symphony Hall, see point 2. If the CBSO were reliant on the DCMS/Arts Council Recovery Fund grant before going ahead with a season, but the Liverpool Philharmonic and the Northern Sinfonia were not and they could announce their seasons earlier, is this really something to draw attention to?

            You mention the new season just announced. Where is it? On your link there are only two concerts up. I am assuming that all these concerts have in fact been planned, since you have had since mid-August. So why not announce them?

            Two final points:

            The “At Home” videos mentioned by yourself and others came out literally months after most other orchestra in the country were doing them. This comes across as extremely reactive.

            The many references by posters here to the Centenary Concert are starting to wear a bit thin in this context. Of course, congratulations on putting together an concert in such difficult times that garnered 180k views. But this is one concert which by definition looks to the past. The way to present it as forward looking would have been to use it as the launch of the new autumn season. Was it too challenging to plan a season at the same time as planning that concert?

            It’s great that there is finally some sort of movement. But picking things apart more closely, I am left with the impression of an organisation sitting on its hands, rather than being proactive. To put it another way, while the CBSO was waiting, other orchestras (including regional contract ones) were doing things. In the wider scheme of things, the CBSO is in danger of getting left behind.

          • Thanks ‘John’.

            A few quick answers:
            – Unlike St Luke’s, the balcony at the CBSO Centre is not licensed for an audience. To perform orchestral concerts there (rather than the large ensembles that we have been doing since the start of the month) there would have to be be no live audience. We preferred to focus on those activities that will permit a live audience.
            – I can’t speak for the decision making processes at other orchestras, but what we all have in common at the moment is that there is a great amount of uncertainty – especially until the conformation of the CRF awards on 12 & 23 October.
            – Our weekly orchestral concerts will be announced gradually and put on sale a week at a time. This allows us to respond to changing rules e.g. on quarantine as well as social distancing. I think you will find that a very high % of public orchestral concerts announced so far this autumn have involved last minute changes of artists. By putting tickets on sale a week at a time we are allowing audiences a fair chance each week to get hold of tickets.
            – Our players were indeed creating all manner of ‘at home’ videos throughout the spring but we could not share these as a result of the strict rules of the furlough scheme – those orchestras who did share videos earlier had either not placed any of their players on furlough (BBC, freelance orchestras) or kept a few at a time off furlough in order to create this content. At the time our finances were under so much pressure – this was before any word of any arts emergency funding – that we decided not to do so. Once the furlough scheme became more flexible in July to allow part time work, we started producing videos.
            – It is only two weeks since we finally cancelled the last of our 5 tours this year – this has also necessitated a lot of replanning of the autumn.

            In terms of your wider point, I think you are significantly underestimating just how complex it is to present orchestral and other live music activities at present. I have just come from a rehearsal where in normal times we would have needed perhaps 3 staff present – today we needed 7. Our unfurloughed staff have been working non-stop since March to keep the organisation solvent and plan a huge number of different scenarios for the short and longer term against an ever-changing background of considerable uncertainty. We have also, for instance, restarted two of our choruses, and these are amongst the first in the country to be back singing in person. All these activities require massive attention to detail on health and safety matters and lengthy risk assessments.

            I have no idea whether you have a genuine interest in our work or are just using this thread as an opportunity to sound off anonymously. I am fairly rare among classical music execs in that I do actually respond to posts here and elsewhere, and always in my own name. I have no idea whether you are the same person as ‘Guest’ above or ‘Firing Back’ on the other thread about Symphony Hall. But I will repeat the offer I made to the latter: if you want to have a genuine conversation about the economics and decision-making for orchestras in the age of Covid, do please get in touch with me. I’d be happy to talk.

          • First off, I can assure you that I am not the same person as either “Firing Back” or “Guest”. Clearly it is not just one person who cares deeply about the future of the CBSO, and has differing views from your own.

            I would hope that the care with which I put together my posts demonstrates that I indeed have a genuine interest in the CBSO, and care deeply about the future of the organisation.

            I am choosing anonymity, not because I get a kick out of “sounding off” but because, although I welcome an opportunity to pose certain questions, I feel I need to protect myself. You can infer what you wish about me from that statement, but putting my name in quotation marks is unhelpful and disappointing. I have been polite and respectful in my criticism. You also refer to having “a genuine conversation” as if this were somehow not one. The CBSO is an organisation for the public so surely a public debate is appropriate?

            It is great that you are active on Slipped Disc in that there is a means to engage with you. However if I may say, your posts often seem to be used as a forum to highlight your own work. Any time an alternative viewpoint is offered, I have only seen it parried or dismissed in response, never acknowledged or taken on board. I do hope this is not indicative of the way the CBSO is run, as this would make things very tough for everyone.

            It seems we will have to agree to disagree about such points as how to approach a furlough to maintain an online presence (as numerous other orchestras managed to), or the PR benefits of announcing a full season (also to be in line with other orchestras.) But that’s ok. We all know how challenging things are for everyone at present. I wish the CBSO all the best for the future.

  • If a hall can open, it will. I expect it will cost Symphony Hall more money to open than can be made by opening the doors, so it stays shut. Same with the Southbank Centre. Of course people will ask why can they not do it when others can – but without knowing their financial position inside out and without understanding how they work and are structured we can’t really know. For example, some halls don’t have volunteer ushers, but paid ushers, many of whom have been laid off now. I am fairly certain however its not because people can’t be bothered and would rather have a lie-in.

    • Maybe, it is time for halls and orchestras to be more transparent about their finances, and be more proactive in explaining them (Charity Commission returns can be an interesting source of information, but they do not always explain the rationale).

  • Yes Bravo to Dougie Scarfe and his team at the BSO, also to the staff at the Lighthouse Centre for the Arts in Poole. It is worth mentioning that there were many others watching theses concerts on line having subscribed to the streamed series.

  • I suppose Symphony Hall is wanting a grand opening after the refurbishment. Shame. The stage could easily be enlarged to take the CBSO. It certainly wouldn’t make a profit with the audience size but it would give so much pleasure. Please try!

  • I should also like to praise everybody at Wigmore Hall, down to the people who care for the toilets, for making it possible for smaller audiences to attend live music events there. If the will is strong enough a way can be found, and John Gilhooly’s artistic leadership and determination should serve as a stark reminder to the Barbican Centre, Southbank Centre and the Royal Albert Hall that sitting around and twiddling thumbs offers no strategy for the future. Battering rams and loudhailers are required.

  • I agree entirely. It would be good to hear the Town Hall or Symphony Hall organ being played to a socially distanced audience. Likewise CBSO.

  • Beautifully written account. Concert halls open – to restricted audiences – all over Europe.

    Pantomimes announced for the masses. Southbank Centre want to “resume our noisy, bustling place” (sums up where they put music in their priorities). Barbican closed to music. Symphony Hall closed. Royal Albert Hall closed but reopening for ballet. It can’t accommodate 1000 in its 6000 seats – many in socially distanced and physically separately bubbled boxes?

  • Elderly audience members are just not going to sit in a concert hall during a global pandemic of a very nasty respiratory disease.

    Can they not do it on the telly and we can watch and listen in comfort while knitting, tying flies or changing the oil in my Norton Commando in my front room. Wise up folks.

    • There are obviously some musicians more concerned with getting the spotlight and the money that comes with it then the lives of elderly concertgoers. Based on the personalities that I have come across in the field for several decades, this does not surprise me one bit. Too bad they aren’t influenced by the messages that some composers have infused into their pieces, such as humanity, sympathy, nobility, compassion, etc. They may be talented at representing those emotions in sonic form, but for them to say that they harness those emotions without prejudice would be disingenuous.

    • Elderly people are a diverse demographic, and do not have a uniform attitude to the risk of catching infection. I know some who are being extremely cautious, and others who are utterly fed up of the situation and want an immediate return to the pre-lockdown conditions.

    • We, as elderly people, would sit in the concert hall for a live concert but as we live 100 miles from Birmingham it will be a little while before we venture that far. We do keep in touch via the website which has input from many of the orchestra members.
      If you have a TV you will be OK but some of us do not have a large screen stuck on the wall as a personal choice.

  • Survival in these times is nothing to do with halls, it’s about vision. How often did the CBSO completely fill the hall? Not so often.

    Other orchestras – many that receive a fraction of the ACE funding the CBSO gets – have taken new initiatives, found new ways of moving through the pandemic, have thought out of the box. Not the CBSO.

    The CBSO now struggles to remain relevant because of poor management.
    It’s simple: put a clown in charge and you get a circus. Under Stephen Maddock’s watch, the orchestra has failed musicians, audiences and the community – all because Maddock approached the job with the squirm-inducing panache of a used-car salesman.

    Management shake-up needed. Vision essential.

    • I think you should get to know Stephen and his team. I have to completely disagree with your appalling comments. It is a huge family that have done so much for Birmingham and the area including providing a new school to concentrate on music. e live over 100 miles away but attend about 20 concerts a year as there is not another orchestra that can match them. Long live the CBSO and it’s management

      • I think it’s pretty likely that “Firing Back” knows Stephen and his team pretty well, Janet. The two of you are perhaps going to have to agree to disagree.

      • The quality of the orchestra has nothing to do with the management as players are in charge of player appointments and have a substantial role in conductor appointments also. And at the end of the day it is the quality of the players that you hear – if they are given the opportunities, which is the responsibility of the management team. Why is scrutiny of a management team described as “appalling”? Players are subject to scrutiny every day.

  • No-one has mentioned Town Hall. Whilst Symphony Hall is part of a larger complex, Town Hall has been a stand -alone concert Hall since 1834. It houses a fine organ and has a stage ideal for smaller sized orchestras which could perform music from the baroque to the early romantic era. Fans of Bruckner and Mahler May have to be patient for a while longer!

  • The Lockdown Left needs to abandon its devastating and economically damaging obsession in thinking a pandemic can be eradicated. It cannot. The best you can do is protect the vulnerable and let everybody else get on with their lives. In the meantime, might I suggest healthy diets, exercise and life choices would provide a lot of protection.

  • See Norman’s more recent post: the CBSO has just announced that we are restarting concerts at Symphony Hall on 4 November.

    We’re delighted that we can today announce what has been our plan for several months: live concerts by an orchestra of up to 60 players, played weekly (2 concerts each day) throughout the autumn and winter. This plan required three things:
    1. The UK government to allow live performances with audience (which was announced in mid-August)
    2. Symphony Hall to complete enough of the long-term capital project on its foyers for us to be able to manage the audience in that space while maintaining social distancing (this will finally be possible by early November)
    3. CBSO and then Symphony Hall to receive positive news from the DCMS / Arts Council Recovery Fund. The second of these decisions came at midnight, and we have immediately announced the concerts, which begin in 11 days’ time. Full details of the first 2 concerts on http://www.cbso.co.uk

    As several other posters point out, we have actually been pretty busy over the last few months, within the constraints of the ever-changing government rules, the constraints of a very uncertain financial position, and the need to keep all our artists and staff (as well as audiences) safe.
    For the last four weeks we have been playing pairs of concerts at CBSO, featuring rarely played ensemble repertoire including (to date) music by Varèse, Max Bruch, Villa-Lobos, Malcolm Arnold, Eugene Goossens and a beautiful new work (one of 20 CBSO Centenary Commissions) by Grace-Evangeline Mason.

    Our Centenary film with Sir Simon Rattle and Sheku Kanneh-Mason was watched over 180,000 times by audiences from more than 50 countries, and closer to home we now have two of our amateur choruses back rehearsing in person, among the first in the country to do so. Our series of ‘At Home’ videos, featuring our players have continued throughout the summer, and our latest film (Beethoven’s Septet, recorded in July) is about to go live also. This coming week we are also delivering a series of webinars for our Youth Orchestra and also amateur musicians anywhere who want to refresh their ensemble skills.

    But best of all: from the week after next, symphonic concerts in our beloved hall. After 8 months, we can’t wait to be back!

  • There’s a very simple reason why Symphony Hall has remained shut until now . The hall requested a grant of more than £1m. Grants over that level were in the second wave of announcements of government help. These were due to be announced – and were – on 23 October; Symphony Hall was among the recipients. Significantly, a return to the hall by the CBSO was then immediately announced. That suggests that, far from being reluctant to reopen, the hall had been working with the orchestra to bring them back to Symphony Hall just as soon as the government money was in the bag.

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