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Classical, Contemporary and Early Music 2020
The year the show went online

Stuttgart State Orchestra 1:1 concert with guitarist Jonas Khalil playing solo at the port of Stuttgart | Photo (detail): © Staatsoper Stuttgart
Stuttgart State Orchestra 1:1 concert with guitarist Jonas Khalil playing solo at the port of Stuttgart | Photo (detail): © Staatsoper Stuttgart

As in many other areas of society, the coronavirus pandemic took a heavy toll on German musical life in 2020. Patrick Hahn recalls what did happen last year all the same in the classical, contemporary and early music scenes. He also takes a look at new developments and asks about the future prospects for the music industry amid ongoing uncertainties.

By Patrick Hahn

In order to emotionally survive this year of upheavals and sea changes, baritone Georg Nigl drew a vital distinction. The first "lockdown" was already in its seventh week and "social distancing" was no longer considered discourteous but, on the contrary, a moral imperative of charity and compassion. "I don't want to socially distance myself, even if it’s just been ordered," Nigl told VAN-Magazin in April. "After all, what distinguishes us human beings and our art is that we deal with one another. That's why I think social distancing is completely wrongheaded. Physical distancing would be more like it." The physical distancing requirement has brought public musical life to a complete standstill since 10 March 2020. That very evening, the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne broadcast the first "ghost concert" of the year on their website. But who’d have guessed at the time that the ghostly emptiness of deserted venues would become the backdrop for the performing arts for rest of the year.

Parkour at the Festspielhaus

Not arias but aerosols were the talk of the town in the music scene in 2020, which gave itself a crash course in virology and aerodynamics so as to resume making music slowly, cautiously, under pandemic conditions: exactly how much distance is necessary to play music together "safely"? The Berlin Philharmonic were the first to break the spell. Their European Concert, traditionally held on 1 May, pointed the way forwards: music for smaller ensembles of socially distanced musicians playing to an empty house. The new regime was at once liberating and troubling. Is this the future?

Summer brought temporary relief. The Salzburg Festival surprised the public with a riveting rendition of Così fan tutte under the baton of Joanna Mallwitz and shook ’em up with a powerful new production of Elektra. Thanks to an ingenious – and exorbitantly expensive – test strategy, Salzburg got to celebrate its centenary before an audience spread out chequerboard-style, with the Vienna Philharmonic packed tightly together in the orchestra pit almost as in the good old pre-pandemic days. The Bayreuth Festival, on the other hand, was cancelled for the first time since the war. Whereupon tenor Stefan Vinke celebrated his own little Wagner festival in the garden, between the paddling pool and the rabbit hutch, though without the usual red carpet procession. So composer Simon Steen-Andersen was able to stage fast-paced parkour-like course running through the empty Festspielhaus, an acoustic "chain reaction machine" with musicians and singers performing all over the building, from understage “hell” all the way up to the rooftop: The Loop of the Nibelung.

A cancelled jubilee

2020 was supposed to a big Beethoven year. In the run-up to the 250th anniversary of his birth in December, institutions of all sorts and sizes had signed up to fête the great composer. A festival society was specially set up to dole out federal funding for jubilee events as a "national duty".

The year began auspiciously with a number of interesting projects, including a reconstruction of the famous 1808 “Academy” concert: Thomas Hengelbrock conducted the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble and Choir in a re-enactment of the historic premiere of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth symphonies as well as a number of other works. Some venues chose to honour the jubilarian’s innovative genius in more unusual ways: the Kölner Philharmonie, for instance, commissioned 25 composers to contribute new works to its so-called non bthvn projekt. Most of these novelties are still waiting to be premiered owing to the pandemic, so Beethoven Year is going into overtime. Nor were any concerts held in Germany on 17 December, the day of little Ludwig’s christening, but Google Arts and YouTube put together videos submitted from around the world to a soundtrack from Beethoven’s Ninth for a Global Ode to Joy.

In order to overcome physical distancing and preserve some feeling of social, albeit virtual, closeness, the classical music world got a digital makeover. Pianist Igor Levit proved to be a virtuoso of the social media keyboard, too, livestreaming recitals from his living room to a steadily growing fan base: "It had an immediacy about it, a lightness and a feeling of being close to the listeners, that is completely new to me," Levit told climate activist Luisa Neubauer. "It’s absolutely unparalleled because something happened that I’d been dreaming of for years: to experience the story expanding. The story being told was completed by the audience. Suddenly, the question was: Who’s sitting there? What for? How many? Why? How does this make you feel? There was really a feeling of participation. I'd never experienced that before." Major opera houses, broadcasters and even record companies like Deutsche Grammophon unlocked their archives during lockdown and enabled aficionados to attend the opera from their living room armchairs.

Virtual closeness and real distance

Musicians of all ages and genres explored their video editing software – with varying success: not all the results were as brilliant as the Quarantificat performed by Salzburg’s Mozarteum Orchestra and Riccardo Minasi. Even music workshops went online: the early music ensemble Capella della Torre, for instance, video-conferenced their choir rehearsals, defying the so-called “latency” effects of “network delay”. And the some composers are beginning to take advantage of the medium’s peculiarities: Francesco Filidei’s piece questo è tutto is a case in point. Others, like Alexander Schubert, have developed a form of social simulation: in Genesis, a "virtual real-life computer game", the audience could participate in creating a microcosm in an empty warehouse by controlling a bunch of musicians (who had to live there for a week) as avatars – or simply watching them play.

But the New Music scene weren’t the only innovators. One of the most moving concert events of the year took place at the Bachfest in Leipzig: Icelandic tenor Benedikt Kristjánsson and a trio of instrumentalists performed Bach's St. John Passion in an idiosyncratic version for tenor solo, harpsichord, organ and percussion. The chorales were streamed in by choirs all over the world as the global Bach community gathered virtually around the composer's tomb in Leipzig's Thomaskirche.

Besides these exemplary uses of new media channels to share musical experiences remotely, this past year in German classical music will also be remembered for the situations and images created by “one-on-one concerts”, which started in Volkenroda and Stuttgart, then spread all over the country. In each of these “1:1” encounters, one musician plays to an audience of one for ten minutes at the safe distance of ten metres away. The proceeds go to the German Orchestra Foundation's emergency relief fund. However, the donations collected for struggling freelance musicians are but a drop in the ocean: no one has been hit harder by the lockdown than they have. State relief programmes for the self-employed mostly overlook artists. In view of the threat to their livelihood posed by the ongoing restrictions, concert designer Folkert Uhde is calling for a "New Deal for Culture": "Confident and self-critical, open to new things,” he rhapsodizes. “To do this, we have to take off the façades and dare to look behind them."

Like a burning glass, the coronavirus crisis tends to magnify existing problems. The music scene is now debating its own relevance with a different kind of urgency. This goes hand in hand with a growing awareness of the pluralization of the very concept of culture: whether it is time to "decolonize" classical music was put to debate by the Goethe-Institut at a conference held at Berlin's Radialsystem. And two symposia, Curating Diversity in Europe held by the Akademie der Künste in Berlin and Afro-Modernism in Contemporary Music by the Ensemble Modern, broadened perspectives on these issues in their own different ways.

Hopes of ending the year on a conciliatory note between artists and organizers have been dashed by the federal government and state governors’ decision to extend and intensify the lockdown till at least 10 January 2021. While this second lockdown is likely to exact a heavier emotional and economic toll, some promising new trends are emerging. Online formats are increasingly tailored to make the most of the medium’s possibilities, and more and easier-to-access online offers are looking for ways to monetize the precious but so far mostly free digital content. The online stage is, in all likelihood, going to reinforce a trend that could be observed in the concert scene in recent months: genre boundaries are becoming more fluid, purist special-interest events are giving way to contrasting old-fashioned and newfangled dramaturgies, new hybrids are being created. Homogeneous events, like the 40th anniversary that Ensemble Modern recently celebrated (online, of course), are becoming rarer. When the Stuttgart State Orchestra join forces with big urban pop and electronic acts to develop their concert stream together into crossover events, they’re clearly forging new "links" based not merely on solidarity, but also on aesthetic affinities across genre boundaries. The show must go online.