“There are very few things in the world”, Stefan Forsberg tells me, “as silent as an empty 20,000 square metre concert hall.” Like many of us, the CEO of Stockholm Concert Hall and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra struggled with the emotional hit of his hall’s closure: the Covid-19 epidemic struck in the middle of a festival (Ladies versus Beethoven) and two important concert cycles from visiting artists (Igor Levit and Cuarteto Casals). “It’s been kind of a crisis in identity”, he says, “because I’ve been running this hall for seventeen years. The joy and inspiration disappeared, for a moment”. But his energy eventually returned: he has been working in his office at the weirdly empty Konserthuset every day.

Stefan Forsberg © Mats Lunqvist
Stefan Forsberg
© Mats Lunqvist

It’s been well charted that the Swedish way of dealing with Covid-19 has been considerably different from that of other countries and it doesn’t take much research to discover a mine of disinformation about what Sweden is actually doing. So I’m keen to hear Stefan describe how Swedish policies actually work and what effect they have had on the orchestra.

“When Covid-19 hit the world, we were all in the same drama. I think the world really was global, because everything was the same news from every part of the world. But Sweden has a tradition that we have a very open discussion with the authorities.” Those authorities have given crystal clear recommendations: if you’re even slightly ill in any way, stay at home. Everywhere: keep your distance and avoid crowds, with a limit of 500 people per event imposed early on. “Then, we got a case of Corona in the organisation so I needed to close the hall for three weeks. And when that was over, the limit had changed to 50: you can have a social gathering with 50, but the strong advice is not to do it.” Unlike in many countries, the Swedish government leaves the final decision to the CEOs of individual organisations. “You can go to IKEA and shop, you can go to a restaurant. They recommended that you don't do it, but if you want to, you can; it's up to the business owner of the restaurant or the coffee shop or the theatre to decide. People in Sweden have followed that: we are quite shy people and polite; we are used to queue lines, we accept things and don’t argue.”

Stockholm Concert Hall, today © Stockholms Konserthuset
Stockholm Concert Hall, today
© Stockholms Konserthuset

Forsberg’s own response has been to focus on staff welfare. Orchestra members older than 63 or with medical conditions must not work (there is paid sick leave). If they have “extreme anxiety”, they are not required to work. Car park spaces have been procured for those wanting to drive to the hall. The stage has been enlarged for rehearsals, with new rosters limiting the number of musicians in the hall at the same time. Coffee machines and microwave ovens have been distributed through the premises. “And the orchestra was safe. They said ‘We're fine. We're happy to play.’ So the regulations in Swedish society, we have followed them, absolutely, but the society has been open. And it works: there's no fear when you walk in the street.” His trade union, he says, has been “fantastic”, telling him to “just go for it” on whatever last-minute repertoire changes or other flexibility he might need.

There are times when Forsberg wishes for fewer recommendations and more decisions from the authorities, but otherwise, he has nothing but praise for them. He has been involved with local Stockholm government (of course) and has had even more extensive contact with central government: as well as several meetings with the Minister of Culture and the Arts Council, he has had questions from the Minister of Finance and has discussed the question of travel in and out of Sweden with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Even the royal court has been involved, with the King and Crown Prince asking about the health of the art sector. “That's the good part with Sweden: they leave a lot to us as CEOs, but they are also very accessible. You can actually get in touch with ministers, you can have meetings, you can talk about these topics.”

Along with other orchestras, with their hall closed, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s emphasis has shifted to video. This isn’t a new venture for them – their “Konserthuset Play” has been running for six years – but the emphasis will now change. Previously, films were pre-recorded, cut and produced to high television standards. Now, Forsberg plans to build a studio for live broadcasts.

Stockholm Concert Hall, in more normal times © David Karlin | Bachtrack
Stockholm Concert Hall, in more normal times
© David Karlin | Bachtrack

I ask the same question that I’ve asked to other industry leaders: is the explosion in free-to-view video a problem – does it mean that artists’ work is not valued, that audiences will expect everything to be free? Forsberg understands the concern: “I find it problematic; people cannot expect everything to be for free; the artist needs to be honoured and there needs to be some kind of business model.” But as a heavily publicly funded organisation, he doesn’t feel he has a choice. In return for the strong support of politicians, it is demanded that the orchestra and the hall be as accessible as possible. They engage in a certain amount of touring and educational outreach, but those activities are too expensive to be massively scaled up, so that has left him with two accessibility strategies: firstly, to keep his ticket prices extremely low (Master Pianist concerts that cost €160-300 in Germany are priced at €20-40 in Stockholm, for the same artist and programme) and secondly to make digital content available free.

As chairman of Swedish Performing Arts, Forsberg is involved in other art forms: opera, theatre, dance. He’s keenly aware that other organisations are having a far tougher time than his own. “The hardest hit, of course, is opera and some theatres, because they take most of their costs when they prepare: they do costumes, settings, lighting, they buy the rights, they do all the rehearsals for weeks, and then when they start to play, they get their money back. For a symphony orchestra, the costs are in the actual week, so it's easier for us.” He’s also grateful for the solidity of public funding, contrasting that with the fate of private theatres, many of which he thinks are close to bankruptcy, along with their support network of technical companies, whose income has collapsed entirely. There is government help for individuals and various loan schemes and tax deferments for businesses, but as in the UK, these are not always easily accessible.

When this crisis eventually comes to some sort of conclusion, will classical music have been changed forever? “When you're in the middle of a storm, you just try to manoeuvre and to rescue what you can. But then things become clearer. We all want international fame and glory, but I think that regional aspects will be more important, to look at what we have around us. I think also that there will be a closer collaboration between orchestras within the nation. Touring will be discussed. It’s important for us, but we need to put touring in a larger perspective, because we hear all the scientists saying that although it’s awful, Covid-19 will benefit the planet in the environmental aspects.” He points out that prior to the pandemic, he was spending over 50% of his business time travelling. Now, he sits in his office conducting meetings across the world over a bewildering variety of videoconference platforms – successfully. What remains to be seen is whether attitudes to culture will have changed. Will people question the need for a 105-person orchestra when a Beethoven septet watched over the web was fine? Or will people rush into museums and concert halls more, responding to his long-standing view of the Konserthuset as the “fitness centre of our hearts and souls”?

When will Stockholm Concert Hall re-open? “I took the decision that playing for an audience of 50 is the same as not playing for an audience at all.” The hall will be closed from mid June to the end of July for its usual summer vacation: the hope is that by the time that ends, the regulations will have been relaxed. Forsberg is preparing new logistics for entry and exit to the hall, seating plans, access to toilets and so on. Subscriptions are being sold actively, with provisions for full refunds if requested and the caveat that details may change: for example, Forsberg anticipates that a programme which might have been played twice to 1,000 people might have to be played four times to 500 people each. “So far, we are selling: people are buying and trusting us.” At present, the first planned concert is on August 6th. “Of course, the thing that I yearn for the most is that first night when the hall is full of people, the red light for a concert is on and I can go on stage and say ‘welcome back’ to the audience. That's where my heart starts to pound again.”