Just as the classical music world was struggling back to its feet after a devastating spring and summer, the news of a second lockdown has dealt a hammer blow to organisers and artists alike, who could easily have thrown in the towel, abandoning the fight in this unspeakably harsh year. But let’s not be too quick to declare a knock-out: live performance has shown an extraordinary ability to respond to repeated blows dealt by fate.

Tristan Labouret
© Philippe Durville

Let’s consider some notable accomplishments of recent months in France. Singers have joined forces and created a new association (UNiSSON), bringing to reality a first benefit concert whose takings will go to those singers in the most precarious economic situation. Composers have set aside their long-standing aesthetic quarrels to join under the banner of new union (the SMC). New media have been brought to life to stimulate and give visibility to new music (Artchipel TV and its excellent programme A contrario). Classique sur canapé and RecitHall are examples of independent paid-for web streaming platforms which have appeared to keep concerts going remotely. A festival which was cancelled in the spring lockdown, redirected its energies to the creation of a database entitled Demandez à Clara (“ask Clara”) which is richly populated with thousands of works by women composers. Whole festivals were created out of nothing (Rosa Bonheur, Pulsations, Les Concerts au Potager du Roi). To cap it all, there’s even been the appearance, in the very heart of Paris, of a brand new concert hall dedicated to young artists: La Piccola Scala, in the basement of La Scala Paris,  just in time to present its first concert before second lockdown struck.

For sure, even in the most dire circumstances, it is not in the nature of these indomitable artistic Gauls to allow themselves to be trodden down. The 2020 Così fan tutte at the Capitole de Toulouse will be remembered for a long time: faced with contact cases that consigned orchestral players to self-isolation (first the whole orchestra, subsequently just the wind players), conductor Speranza Scappucci went through umpteen rewrites and transcriptions, so that Mozart’s opera reached the orchestra pit in several unpublished editions. And this highly imaginative salvage operation isn’t the only example: in Finland, the same Mozart opera found itself transformed into an original and spiritual Covid fan tutte, as a replacement for a Walküre that could not be staged.

Speranza Scappucci in the pit of the Capitole de Toulouse
© Mirco Magliocca

There’s a whole assembly of personnel who deserve praise, going far beyond the artists whose exploits and misadventures are regularly chronicled on these pages. The first lockdown brought to the light of day the indispensable talents of sound engineers, who demonstrated genuine prowess during the time when the fashion was for orchestral “puzzle videos” assembled from musicians playing on their own. When musicians were able to come together once more, issues of social distancing shone the spotlight on ticketing services, forced to operate outside the shelter of their software, and the ingenuity of stage managers, compelled to deal with the appalling headache of orchestral layouts in compliance with new regulations and new tools such as plexiglass screens. When the 9pm curfew was imposed, the whole production chain for concerts demonstrated the flexibility of a contortionist: directors, community managers, production managers, broadcasters and other press attachés: all the “caring professions” for a sickly culture strained their every muscle to avoid cancellations, keep as many events as possible and inform both audiences and journalists in record time. Thank you and bravo to all these miracle-makers – many of whom are living in a state of extreme precarity as to their professional futures.

La Piccola Scala, a new concert hall which was dreamed up during the first lockdown
© Alexei Vassiliev

Contrary to what one might think, the second lockdown will not condemn the music world to total silence. The permission to continue rehearsing, recording and filming has already resulted in several concerts without live audiences: the Orchestre National de Lille was one of the first to announce a series of “digital concerts” on its YouTube channel, soon to be followed by the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse on Facebook and the Orchestre de Paris on Philharmonie Live et ARTE Concert). The festival organised this month by the Singer-Polignac Foundation, in partnership with medici.tv, will be held behind firmly closed doors, but will put the spotlight on the wealth of young talent in the Parisian hotbed of chamber music. Probably the best thumbing of noses at Covid-19 is the Opéra National de Bordeaux production of Pelléas et Mélisande, beautifully transformed into a recording project to be released with the help of the record label Alpha. It’s a safe bet that this won’t be the last project to be born out of pandemic-induced constraints.

Opéra National de Bordeaux starting recording of Pelléas et Mélisande
© Opéra National de Bordeaux – Facebook

As this awful year of 2020 draws to a close, and as lockdown puts to the test once more both practitioners of live music and their listeners, let us remember and be inspired by these unexpected salvages, these initiatives of solidarity, these wonderful creations which have repeatedly lit up these recent, most difficult months. A little over two centuries ago, a certain Ludwig van Beethoven, “estranged for so long from the glad echo of true joy”, did not give in to the despair of isolation caused by his growing deafness: twenty years after writing these words in his Heiligenstadt Testament, he was to compose the most famous instance of resilience in the history of music with his Ninth Symphony and its explosive Ode to Joy. Today, we are unable to give unbridled rein to Beethovenian joy in celebration of the the 250 years since the composer’s birth. But in spite of this, the spirit of resistance and the miracles performed by the different players in the artistic medium provide the most persuasive of homages to him.

Translated from French by David Karlin