One event after another in Germany's incomparably rich festival landscape has fallen like dominoes amid the coronavirus pandemic. The effects will be felt beyond the scene and long after the crisis, writes Rick Fulker.
Musicians are a gregarious lot: greetings with hugs, kisses on the cheek — and it is a known occupational hazard that they must move around a lot for performances, rehearsals, festivals. The big stars are slaves to their schedules. There is an old anecdote in musical circles about a famous maestro who discovered a gap in his datebook: three hours, three years down the line. He asked his assistant to fill it.
Last summer a young vocalist told me she was looking forward to returning to rural Norway to see her family — for half a day, and for the first time in half a year. Soon after, I saw a world-famous pianist honored in Bonn for his art and for his social activism. He played a piece, gave a speech, then left before the ceremony was over, having to catch a flight to his next gig.
Living out of a suitcase, from the hotel breakfast buffet to the post-concert reception, and adhering to a delicately tuned schedule is, or was, the life of a classical musician — until everything changed with the pandemic, as public life has come to a screeching halt.
Some stars have remained in the public awareness by streaming house concerts. Orchestral musicians with permanent positions have been sent home but remain on the payroll. But most freelance musicians — famous and non-famous alike — are peering over a financial cliff. No performances means no income.
Festively-clad concert-goers shoulder to shoulder at the Salzburg Festival — before the era of coronavirus
Will the show go on?
Like other high-attendance events the major music festivals were some the first in the cultural scene to suffer the effects of the corona pandemic and will be the last – along with theater, opera and orchestra – to return to normalcy. From large festivals to small venues, everything has been cancelled for the foreseeable future, owing to physical distancing regulations and hygienic standards.
In contrast, the renowned Salzburg Festival, planning to celebrate its centennial in the current season, is still holding off on a decision whether the show will go on or not and will make an announcement to that effect at the end of May. But the prospect of the world's largest classical music festival taking place as planned beginning July 18 seems beyond belief.
Read more: How Germany became a classical music mecca
Ripple effects to hospitality, travel industry
Festivals give concert-goers a communal arts experience off the beaten track and the daily routine. But for musicians, festivals are a bread and butter issue. Even if the crisis were to come to an end tomorrow, the abrupt and complete interruption of concert life will have inestimable long-term effects.
The German Music Information Center, or DMI counts some 571 music festivals of all genres across the country – and says that is only a "subjective selection." Audiences often travel to the venues, eat out and stay overnight. Even if restaurants and hotels may cautiously begin to reopen in the summer, that cornerstone of their revenue will be gone.
Even the public purse suffers. Yes, the arts are generously subsidized in Germany. But it's often claimed that the tax proceeds from economic activity generated by audiences are greater than the original sums invested — sometimes several times greater.
Classical culture goes digital?
Some German classical music festivals have announced select offerings to be held online. But these receive government subsidies. What will happen to festivals that proudly get by without public funds?
Classical musicians and their audiences have moved over to cyberspace, and may stay there for a long time. Even when the festivals are permitted to open again, a large share of the audience will stay away for fear of infection. One cannot put a price tag on the loss in quality of life. For the experience of live music, enjoyment is often too tame a word. That experience can be meaningful, even existential — and that is already being missed.
Compared to a possible global economic depression in the wake of the pandemic, that might seem unimportant. Here in Germany, which prides itself as a nation of culture, some artistic entities and freelancers have managed to receive help from the government to keep afloat — but only some. It is uncertain how the rest will fare, but one thing is clear: The post-pandemic future of fine arts will be drastically altered around the world.