It was fascinating to see those early concerts experimenting with social distancing. The livestreamed concert from the Philharmonie Berlin on 1 May was particularly inspiring – the Berlin Philharmonic had been due to give their annual May Day concert in Tel Aviv, and instead they performed with 15 musicians in a programme ending with Erwin Stein’s arrangement of Mahler Symphony No.4. Engaging, thought-provoking livestreamed music was possible!
What challenges you were faced with when bringing a socially distanced orchestra together?
The single biggest concern for us was whether the Lighthouse, Poole – our home venue – would be available. Like concert halls and theatres across the country, the venue was closed and facing serious financial difficulties. Thankfully, the Lighthouse was successful in its application for emergency funding from Arts Council England and could reopen in September.
The concert hall at the Lighthouse has what we call ‘flat floor mode’, where the stalls seating disappears and replaced with a single flat floor. For a while, this seemed the most likely option for having enough space to spread out the orchestra, and then livestream in this setup. As the possibility of having a socially distanced audience became more than a faint hope, we went back to the idea of the orchestra performing on stage with an extension.
There were many unknowns, we’re a symphony orchestra and so we wanted to involve all our musicians. What kind of symphonic repertoire would work with the musicians so far apart? What would it sound like in the audience? The repertoire and artists which we had originally planned for in the 20/21 season were my starting point for creating this new series of concerts. We decided that our concerts would be without interval, to avoid the inevitable congestion back-stage and front of house, and in turn it was decided that concerts would be 60-75 minutes long.
By the middle of August, the government guidelines for professional music-making had been issued and we started measuring. Four of the concerts team and Dougie Scarfe our CEO, spent a day in the concert hall measuring up, scratching our heads, asking questions. We needed to build a huge extension, beyond anything we’d had previously. As the front of the Lighthouse stage is not a straight line, we had to commission several pieces of rostra to complete the jigsaw. Our Concerts Manager researched and designed screens for various positions in the orchestra, which were made locally. A new lighting truss was brought in to cover the larger stage area. A theatre set builder from Dorchester magically painted the extension decking to match the wooden floor of the stage. The orchestra lounge was commandeered as a digital operations centre. This was all done in close collaboration with the Lighthouse staff, who were ever resourceful in dealing with all our requests.
Risk assessments were undertaken for every part of our business, creating countless new ways of working in order to be Covid secure. After several zoom briefings with the musicians, the orchestra returned to work on 9 September. We worked for several days with David Hill, our Associate Guest Conductor and Michael Seal to get used to working on the new 25m wide stage.
Aside from social distancing, the UK regulations regarding travel corridors and 14 days self-isolation on arrival in the UK from an increasing number of countries, rapidly became difficult. Our Chief Conductor, Kirill Karabits, who was in Switzerland working with Zurich Opera was sadly not able to join us for the season opening. David Hill very kindly stood in and the series got underway with a cheering, socially distanced audience.