In Focus: Music in a time of Covid-19, from drive-in operas to the ‘Spotify of classical’

Classical music has been hit hard by coronavirus, but there are all manner of ways for musicians and music lovers to continue to enjoy it.

The words ‘drive-through’ are undeniably evocative: they conjure up images of hamburgers in bags and 1950s Americana, and perhaps even The Flintstones.

What they don’t suggest is magnificent musical performances by world-class talents — yet that’s what will be on the cards when the English National Opera puts on what is thought to be the UK’s first drive-in opera a little later this year. The ENO is staging a new production of La Bohème at Alexandra Palace in September, and there are hopes that it’ll go on a nationwide tour shortly after.

This is just one example of the innovate-to-survive mentality which is running through the arts world — and particularly in classical music and opera, both of which are no strangers to existential problems. The government recently made a £1.5bn pledge to help fund the arts through the crisis — a huge boost, and recognition of the part that music and culture plays in our lives.

For those who love to listen, digging into the collection of CDs is one answer — but there is now another in the shape of a new Spotify-esqe classical music service called Primephonic.

Spotify itself does have classical music, but according to Guy Jones, head of curation at Primephonic, it’s simply not organised in a way which helps discerning listeners find what they want.

‘Imagine if Shostakovic found his music on Spotify’s relaxation classical music playlist — he’d think it’s really missing the point, and that’s how we feel too,’ says Guy.

Primephonic’s £9.99 a month service (for which you can get a two-week free trial) has over 3.5 million classical tracks in its system, with more being added all the time. But it’s not sheer volume that they’re selling: instead, it’s the human touch, with a team of curators putting together all manner of playlists, recommendations and genres. There is huge amounts of background information on many of the composers and pieces, all designed to solve the biggest problem in classical music: helping those who like classical music, but don’t know much about it, to discover things they love.

For the most popular 1,000 pieces, they have a ‘Primephonic Pick’ choice of the best version to start with — an incredibly useful touch, particularly for those cases when you find 527 different versions of Beethoven’s Ninth. For true aficionados, they also have a premium ‘lossless’ service, which streams music at full 24-bit quality, meaning that you can listen without the digital trickery which keeps file sizes down but harms the quality, particularly in big orchestral pieces.

“Some current practices — gappy face masks, foam spacers, seat partitions — are a bit bonkers, but, at the same time, there’s a real need to get going”

How about live music performances, though? There are all manner of clever ideas floating around — one of which Claire Jackson wrote about in Country Life recently:

When members of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra donned black facewear for a recent broadcast from Prague’s Rudolfinum, the effect was striking. It was also, unintentionally, rather comical. Having a gaping hole to gain access to the mouth — as woodwind and brass players need — presumably negates many of the protective qualities. Besides, any instrument that relies on breath to create sound (including voice) is not ideal to be around during a pandemic. There’s a reason why brass players often bring a towel on stage.

Live streaming such concerts is certainly one solution — albeit one which leaves orchestras footing the cost of putting on the production without the benefit of selling tickets. This year’s Proms will comprise a mixture of socially-distanced formats, opening with the BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra, where performers contribute from their respective locations, and ending with a Last Night held at the Royal Albert Hall. Whether there will be any flag-waving prommers present remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem likely as things stand.

Some theatres are thinking their way around such problems by looking at seating the orchestra in the stalls and seating restricted audiences only in the upper tiers, or in some cases allowing audiences only to sit in the boxes. Claire’s piece continued:

Even the most open-minded arts lover has to admit that some current practices — gappy face masks, foam spacers, seat partitions — are a bit bonkers, but, at the same time, there’s a real need to get going. ‘Each year, our orchestras play to some four million people in more than 3,500 concerts,’ points out Mark Pemberton, the director of the Association of British Orchestras.

‘Unlike orchestras in Europe that receive upwards of 80% of their income from public funding, the average for British orchestras is 30%, meaning they are reliant on the box office. Operating under public-health restrictions means that halls might only be able to sell one in every five seats — it may not be financially viable for venues to reopen at all.

‘Digital platforms have kept the music alive during this crisis, but that hasn’t brought in any income — in fact, it costs organisations an awful lot to produce that content. We are determined not to hoover up Government resources, but the next few months are critical.’