Beethoven and Haydn were on the programme of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert of what will be the first Corona season. It is the 88th Symphony by Joseph Haydn, a symphony whose earworm-like lightness contrasts so strongly with the depressing situation in which the arts find themselves at the moment. Leonard Bernstein conducted it with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the early 1980s. The last movement, the Allegro con spirito, he did not actually conduct as such, only with his eyes and a mischievous smile – a compelling moment in the history of non-conducting. When you then see the packed Goldene Saal of the Musikverein in Vienna in the background, you become painfully aware of how different culture will be in the 2020-21 season.

Yes, the new season has started again for many orchestras and theatres in Germany. But instead of light-heartedness, the right adjustment of masks, the distance between the audience and the permanent ventilation of the concert halls currently define performances. However, the rules that apply vary from one federal state to the next and are also related to the hygiene protocol that individual venues have developed. Since 1st September, the Große Saal of the Elbphilharmonie is allowed to open its doors to 628 people again. In many places, the programmes have been shortened to a maximum of 90 minutes which causes both headaches and new creative approaches, especially for opera houses. Dresden’s Semperoper, for example, stages concert performances of “Opern- und Ballett-Essenzen“ (Opera and Ballet Essences) which get to the heart of the works in 90 minutes. In October, these will be Madama Butterfly, Tosca and Don Giovanni.

The BRSO too has changed its plans. There will certainly not be any large-scale works by Bruckner or Mahler until the end of the year. It is not ideal, but perhaps a chance. “Of course, audiences expect the late Romantic repertoire from us, but at the moment, works by Mozart, Haydn or even Bach are much more viable and, as a large orchestra, you have the opportunity to play a repertoire that might otherwise be neglected,” says Norbert Dausacker, horn player and member of the orchestra's board of directors. Somewhat bureaucratically, the BRSO's programmes will be called “Alternative Concerts” and the musicians will also have to look to sparsely occupied rows at Munich’s Philharmonie for the time being. Currently, 200 guests are allowed. It could soon be 500. And as sad as it is that there are hardly any audiences, the bigger problem proves to be the one for the musicians on stage. “As brass players we have to keep a distance of two metres, the strings at least one and a half which compares to running into an empty path in football. In classical music you are meant to almost sit on each other's lap and listen to each other. At the moment, that is incredibly difficult,” says Dausacker. Moreover, concert halls are acoustically designed with a full auditorium in mind. “But although the situation is in general terrible, on stage we have the same energy as when we play to a full house.”

This is astonishing given the bureaucratic obstacles behind each individual performance. At Bayerischer Rundfunk, an internal task force examines the project planning and checks whether hygiene protocols and stage plans comply with official requirements and can be implemented. Employees from the health and safety department and the company doctor are involved in the process, and, in the end, the local health authorities have their say too. For the musicians, the effects have so far been minimal. Of course, masks are compulsory for entering and leaving the stage; stricter protocols, such as those used at the Salzburg Festival, are not planned for the BRSO... for now. “Of course we have also examined the possibility of creating a safety bubble, i.e. regular Corona tests and a contact diary. The problem, however, is that our everyday life cannot be compared with that of Salzburg.” Instead of a limited festival period, we are talking about an entire season!

Sir Simon Rattle conducting the BRSO in July
© Astrid Ackermann

But even in Munich, the number of cases is now rising so sharply that Oberbürgermeister Dieter Reiter felt compelled to return to strict contact regulations. Just before the start of the BRSO season, Reiter reduced the number of people who are allowed to gather in public from ten to five, with the exception of larger families. For now, this applies to the next seven days and events such as concerts are not yet affected, as long as the organiser's hygiene protocol ensures sufficient distance. Nevertheless, should the situation develop accordingly, it is questionable how long concerts will be held under the same conditions. Orchestra manager Nikolaus Pont is well aware of the situation: “Based on the experience we gained during the gradual return to orchestral operations after the lockdown in March and April, we feel that we are well prepared to push for a return to smaller performance formats if necessary. If the orchestra is forced to play behind closed doors again, the BR will also offer the opportunity to experience concerts and other formats via its various streaming platforms to a large audience.” This means that if the worst comes to the worst, there will be broadcasts from the digital concert hall again. For Dausacker it is important to avoid this by all possible means. “My wife and I are musicians and for both of us there has never been such a long break in our lives when we couldn’t play our instruments. It is not the same playing only for yourself at home. To maintain your level, you need to be in a performance situation."

As an interim conclusion from the ongoing Corona time, Pont would like to see politicians realise that the arts and culture industry is no less important than rescuing airlines. “It is important to me that this season, together with other people inside the concert hall, we let the world outside be the world, at least for a short time”.

It is doubtful whether the orchestra's planned concert tours will go ahead. At the beginning of next year, there should have been a tour with Zubin Mehta to London and Paris, among other cities. Considering that the guest performance in Cologne this October already seems like an adventure trip, a tour through Europe is rather unlikely. Dausacker is just looking forward to being able to play at all. “I would like the season to be a very special one, despite or perhaps because of its unique circumstances. After this long break and the many changing programmes and artists, it really is exciting to see what it will be like to play together. And perhaps the guest performance in North Rhine-Westphalia will provide additional motivation, because, unlike Bavaria, the hygiene protocol in the Kölner Philharmonie allows for 1,000 guests after all – provided the situation remains stable.

Translated into English by Elisabeth Schwarz.