Looking at LuganoMusica’s website feels deeply strange just now. It takes a moment of staring at it before I realise why: it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a season and a website that look completely normal, with hardly a mention of Covid-19. Their 2020-21 season has Lugano’s typical array of international artists, starting with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra on Monday 21st September. You would almost think that life on this spectacular lakeshore in the southernmost tip of Switzerland had returned to pre-pandemic normality – in stark contrast to just about every other concert venue, even those still planning to mount significant seasons.

Etienne Reymond
© Adriano Heitmann

“I have to say that in Switzerland, we are in quite a good situation”, explains Etienne Reymond, LuganoMusica’s Artistic Director. “We have authorisation from the state to have 1,000 people in the hall, including artists and backstage, which is perfect for us because we don’t even have 1,000 seats in the hall. Other promoters like Tonhalle, Suisse Romande, etc who have 1,600-1,800 seats have to get a special permit for each single concert, which can be cancelled at the last minute if things go wrong.”

It may sound a bit like “full speed ahead and damn the icebergs”, but it isn't quite: mask-wearing will be obligatory throughout the concert, there won’t be an interval and there have been compromises to orchestra sizes and therefore repertoire. “We keep 1.5 metres between every musician, and 2 metres around the winds because I don’t want to enter into all this discussion the music industry has had about wind players. It’s a little bit sad because Gergiev proposed Eugene Onegin in concert form, which would have been fantastic, but of course, we and other promoters of the tour decided to reduce the orchestra size and it’s really not possible. Riccardo Muti also had to change the second half of his programme in November.” 

Lugano Arte e Cultura from the air
© Lugano Arte e Cultura

Still, the end result is that LAC (Lugano Arte e Cultura) and the Opernhaus Zürich will be hosting the first major indoor post-Covid events with a full audience. Some Swiss promoters, especially those with larger halls, have chosen to leave empty seats, but Reymond is sceptical about the real value of this: “frankly speaking, to have a free seat, which is 60cm right or left, I don’t know whether that makes a big difference. You and me perfectly know that once you get seated in a classical concert, you don’t move, you don’t shout, you don’t dance with the other people in the hall. If everybody keeps calm and looks in the same direction, it’s exactly like in the aeroplanes”.

LuganoMusica’s season is also notable in retaining the vast majority of the artists originally planned. Back in March/April, Reymond took the decision not to attempt to cancel those artists' engagements. “Maybe it would have been safer to cancel or postpone concerts and take somebody living in Switzerland. We have outstanding artists in Switzerland, as you know, but not enough to have a complete season. So I have a big number of foreign artists. And how could I know, back in spring, which countries would be put on the red list or the black list in autumn?” Once the 1,000 people rule was announced in June, he gained the confidence to continue and confirm the season.

The concert hall at Lugano Arte e Cultura
© Adriano Heitmann

There’s still the possibility that travel restrictions will cause changes of plan, with countries or regions continually coming in and out of the quarantine list. As things stand, however, even for countries on that list, Switzerland is currently permitting artists to perform without quarantine as long as their stay is no more than five days. LAC is built for theatre and dance as well as for concerts, so the stage is huge, which makes Reymond sure that he can create the right conditions for musicians to feel safe. Travel restrictions shouldn’t have a major impact on LAC’s audience, which is 80% composed of people who live in the region and 10% from nearby northern Italy.

With different countries having such different experiences of interacting with their governments, I ask Reymond to describe the Swiss experience. He sees it as broadly similar to the model in Germany: “they try to rely a lot on discipline of the citizens and local circumstances, which is not bad. Actually, in Ticino here, it started really badly in March, but now we are probably one of the best parts of Switzerland, because we take care. In Geneva, for instance, the figures are quite bad; the problem is that we don’t actually know why it’s so bad in Geneva and so good here, because we see almost the same life on the streets. It’s probably private parties and family meetings which are the problem north of the Alps”. The guidelines for concerts were set back in April in a 50 page document produced jointly by the national theatre and orchestra organisations in Switzerland. Although the document was never formally approved by the government, it seems to have become a de facto standard.

The foyer at LAC, pre-Covid
© Adriano Heitmann

Two matters of political attitude have helped: “The president of the government and the health minister both like classical music: I know that the president plays piano at home and the health minister plays jazz piano, I think.” There’s also a growing concern in government about mental health, that there is need to attempt to follow a normal life “until the vaccination comes”. 

Reymond is confident that he has put into place everything that’s possible. And that leaves just one critically important worry: will audiences agree? He and his Swiss colleagues believe that people who really want concerts or theatre will choose to wear a mask and come to the hall rather than staying at home, but they won’t know for sure until the doors open for real events. “I cross my fingers that we will get enough people in order to run the season until the end, so this will be the big challenge, to convince everybody from the audience to come.” Let’s hope that the hall is full for Gergiev on Monday.