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The Berlin Philharmonic's pandemic plan 

Rick Fulker
August 29, 2020

The Berlin Philharmonic has a new season, but with reduced audience attendance, normalcy is still a distant dream, says Director Andrea Zietzschmann.

Musicians positioned on the semicircular stage of the otherwise completely empty Berlin Philharmonie
For now, it's the end of audience-free "ghost concerts"Image: Stephan Rabold

At season opening on August 28 the Berlin Philharmonic played Brahms and Schönberg under conductor Kirill Petrenko.

Following the requirements of the Berlin Senate on infection prevention, the space available in the Berlin Philharmonie is severely limited: Only 20 to 25% of the seats may be occupied, with regular spacing between them. The hygiene concept also includes compulsory masks to be worn during admission and at the beginning of the concert; no concert breaks; and a well-defined path-finding system in the building. 

Tickets are scanned from a safe distance, the fresh air circulation has been improved, cleaning intervals increased, contact details of all visitors recorded. And then there are plenty of columns with disinfectant dispensers in the foyer. The good news is that, after five months of short-time work, the musicians can once again play at all before a live audience.

The orchestra's artistic director, Andrea Zietzschmann, told DW what's on the program for this special year. 

Andrea Zietzschmann
Andrea Zietzschmann has been director of the Berlin Philharmonic since 2017Image: Stefan Hoederath

Deutsche Welle: Since the number of available seats in the concert hall is greatly reduced, are you expecting a major financial loss?

Andrea Zietzschmann: The losses this year due to reduced ticket proceeds are very large. A three-week guest performance in May, a tour in the USA in November; everything was cancelled. The resumption of playing with a small amount of space is not cost-covering. Yes, we do expect a large deficit at the end of the year.

Are measures like the 1.5 meter distance in the hall, between the seats, in front and behind, stone-clad?

We hope for a loosening according to the checkerboard pattern. Then we would be able to achieve 50 percent occupancy, as is now permitted in cinemas. We have a favorable entrance situation in the Philharmonie with large foyers and many entrances. This means that even with a 50 percent occupancy rate, large gatherings can be avoided and a safe concert experience guaranteed.

Musicians play in an empty hall in a view from the highest point of the Berlin Philharmonie (Monika Rittershaus)
The Berlin Philharmonic's Europe Concert on May 1 was a virtual and mass-media eventImage: Monika Rittershaus

During the pandemic, people often talk about missing the communal experience of a live classical concert. But what is that actually? Because normally people sit close together, but if they don't already know each other, they usually don't talk to each other. At best, there is collective clapping at the end. So what has actually been missing with no, or reduced, live audiences in the year of the pandemic?

The warmth that normally comes from the audience and is inspiring for the artistic process is gone. Now we will play in front of an audience again, but it is still different. I was in the Boulez Hall the other day, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra played with Daniel Barenboim, and there were 150 seats occupied. It was a very strange experience, because you sit so isolated that you think they're giving a private concert for you.

That could also be nice.

It can, yes, but we make the art so that we can share it with as many people as possible.

You speak of warmth and inspiration that flows from the audience onto the stage and inspires the musicians. But here we are dealing with a highly professional orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic. Shouldn't they have reached a level where they are unaffected by external conditions?

Well, we're also familiar with situations, like a CD production, where there is no audience. You can make music at a very high level and make great recordings. But I believe that the special, magical moments simply ensue together with the audience.

The programs are now shorter, between 60 and 90 minutes, without a break. What did you have to leave out in terms of repertoire, and why?

Berlin Philharmonie: June 20, 2020: String players, a trumpeter and a pianist onstage
This year there have been many performances with scaled-back orchestral settings, such as at this one with the pianist Denis MatsuevImage: Stephan Rabold

Given the mandated distances, at most 60 or 65 musicians will fit onstage. So we had to leave out some works with a full-scale orchestra, such as Anton Webern's "Passacaglia." Until the end of October: no symphonies by Mahler or Bruckner, no big tone poems by Richard Strauss. A new work by Andrew Norman was planned for the end of October, but we were unable to get it onstage with the full orchestration. Then we spoke with the composer, and now he is writing a new work for us, with reduced instrumentation. That's fantastic of course.

Recently the Charité, the Berlin hospital, has recommended a one-meter distance for the strings and 1.5 meters for the other instruments. That would be essential for the ensemble playing, because the spacing so far apart is so restrictive. 

What do you expect from this unusual season, for the audience and for the musicians?

We're all learning to think much more flexibly, to decide on programs on shorter notice, to move away somewhat from two to three-year advance planning. We are now concentrating on the audience in Berlin, but we are an internationally oriented orchestra and can and want to travel.

But in this moment of reduced activity, all the artists are thinking: Will we resume that earlier dynamic? This applies above all to individual conductors and soloists who have traveled the world like crazy. Now they too are thinking about whether there's a future for such a high level of international activity. Perhaps we will all think more about whether a project really makes sense. This could be a positive outcome of the pandemic.

Kirill Petrenko alone onstage, hand on heart in a gesture of gratitude to applauding concert visitors
Seems like an eternity ago: Kirill Petrenko's inaugural performance in August 2019Image: Stephan Rabold

No one knows how long the virus will be around. The Berlin Philharmonic will probably survive as an institution. But what does the world of classical music in general look like if the pandemic is around for two seasons? Can the effects be assessed at all?

If we really had two seasons with no performances at all, or with this reduced playing schedule, then many institutions would be facing an absolute crisis of existence. This is especially true for the independent orchestras. They need performance opportunities, they live from income and not from sponsors and subsidies. But agencies and festivals as well: It is a system that is interwoven and must function well. We absolutely need prospects from the spring of 2021 for the following season. Our system can barely cope with a two-year pandemic plan.


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