A screenshot of the NZSO's Play Our Part performance from April 15, 2020. (Photo: NZSO)

Streaming in C minor: How classical music survived Covid-19

As New Zealand’s musicians return to the concert hall, Richard Betts checks in with our classical music organisations for reasons to be cheerful.

For a country that’s been shut since March, we’ve been surprisingly well-served by the performing arts.

Most impressive was NZ Opera convincing TVNZ to broadcast a 2015 production of Puccini’s Tosca. So long has it been since we’ve seen a full opera on free-to-air TV that no one I approached could even hazard when it last happened.

Elsewhere, you couldn’t surf the internet without thudding into one Zoomed-in performance or another. Some content was better than others. SOUNZ, the centre for contemporary classical music, posted some extraordinary videos, including full concerts by the likes of national treasure NZTrio.

Our orchestras got in on the act, too, with their own self-generated content. Lucrecia Colominas, the NZSO’s head of artistic planning who both selects the music and engages the international artists who travel here to play it, says the national orchestra has used its time off to tighten its previously flabby online skills.

“The NZSO has embraced streaming performances and in the process the orchestra has reached new audiences and delighted long-term followers,” she says. In the four weeks from May 29, the orchestra notched 1.45 million views of its video content, including 300,000 for a June 10 concert of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Importantly, Colominas claims that the orchestra will work to invest in streaming and keep its new online audience, even as it prepares to return to concert halls.

This is good news for people who enjoy orchestral music but either live outside a main centre or don’t attend concerts for other reasons. It’s about time; the NZSO is playing catch-up. Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) has streamed select concerts for some years, and during lockdown clocked more than 3.5 million online views across 44 countries for its own digital content. 

The concern, though, is that streamed performances train audiences not to pay.

The NZSO perform in 2020 (Photo: NZSO)

Christine Young, a former APO marketing manager and an expert in audience behaviour, points to research that suggests concert attendance is a habit.

“What happens if you break the habit?”

The first fix offered to music lovers jonesing for a live gig came from the capital’s other band, Orchestra Wellington (OW), with a series of Mozart concerts featuring concertmaster and NZTrio violinist Amalia Hall as both director and violin soloist.  

Initially planned under socially distanced level two conditions (players were even separated during tea breaks to minimise contact), and offering a strictly limited number of tickets, the six performances quickly sold out. The shift to level one midway through the series enabled more tickets to be released for later shows.

“Our audience is not afraid,” said OW general manager Kirsten Mason ahead of the first concert. “I think that’s a really important message, because so many performing arts organisations I talk to are hesitant to plan performances in the short term, citing audience nervousness.”

There’s some basis to that hesitance.

“Older people I know are nervous about going to things where there are large groups,” says Christine Young. How does she square that with OW’s sellouts?

“Repertoire is definitely the prime consideration [for people choosing classical concerts],” Young says, also noting the second major draw is the featured artist. “Mozart and Amalia Hall – there’s the composer and a known soloist.”

It’s a combination the APO has banked on for its own relaunch at Auckland Town Hall on July 9: New Zealand’s highest-profile pianist, Michael Houstoun, playing classical music’s most bankable composer, Beethoven. The concert is sold out.

A screenshot of the NZSO’s Discovering Beethoven stream on 17 May 2020 (Photo: NZSO)

Missing from both the APO and OW concerts, though, are the international stars we’ve come to expect. Hall and Houstoun are top-notch musicians and local favourites, but last year the APO boasted names like pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and violinist Viktoria Mullova, artists who would fill any venue in the world. 

On the whole, and despite the travel, overseas musicians like playing in Aotearoa, but an arts organisation can’t simply wait for the borders to reopen to book a big name. These are people whose diaries are often filled years in advance. Would they come, or would the idea of air travel in the age of Covid-19 – and two weeks’ isolation at the other end – prove too much of a faff? Would we let them in anyway?

Surprisingly, the NZSO and NZ Opera reckon they can slip the odd musician through customs; both insist that concerts will go ahead as planned, with the originally advertised artists. NZ Opera’s production of Handel’s Semele is scheduled for September and features Australian soprano Celeste Lazarenko. The company is presumably praying for a trans-Tasman bubble, though wouldn’t confirm queries beyond saying that NZ Opera is confident of getting Lazarenko into New Zealand.

Less likely is the lineup for the NZSO’s early-August restart, which is supposed to feature conductor Vasily Petrenko. Petrenko is a genuine star, chief conductor-in-waiting of London’s Royal Philharmonic – if he were a pop artist he’d be roughly Ariana Grande level. What price someone of that stature idly twiddling thumbs in an airport hotel for a fortnight, with the prospect of just two concerts at the end of it?

NZ Opera and the NZSO are both well-connected at boardroom level, but with public and therefore political tolerance for border exemptions diminishing by the minute, even the arts world’s persuasive knights and dames are almost certain to be rebuffed.

The person responsible for booking the NZSO’s guest musicians isn’t convinced it’ll happen, either. 

Lucrecia Colominas, head of Artistic Planning at the NZSO. (Photo: NZSO)

“The orchestra’s goal is to keep the remainder of the 2020 season, from August until the end of the year, as close as possible to what was promised,” says Lucrecia Colominas. Crucially, though, she adds that the orchestra is “working on local artists for the scheduled concerts where international guests were programmed.” I bet. 

Going local is surely the way forward. The APO isn’t bothering to play coy, admitting that the international jig is up for the foreseeable. Instead of wringing its hands, the orchestra has been proactive about offering New Zealand artists opportunities that would otherwise have gone to visitors.

“The APO has been talking to local musicians and artists regarding particular concerts,” says APO chief executive Barbara Glaser. “We’re also excited by the chance to access New Zealand artists normally based overseas, who are returning home and keen to reconnect with local audiences.”

Do we have enough musicians of appropriate quality? Glaser thinks so.

“We’re optimistic that we have a strong pool of home-grown talent to deliver our events,” she says.

As well as bringing in pianist Michael Houstoun, the APO has mined its own ranks for upcoming concerts, with bassoonist Ingrid Hagan playing Mozart on July 16, and, in a test of Christine Young’s mantra about big-name composers drawing big crowds, concertmaster Andrew Beer taking on Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No.2 on the 30th. Both are proper musicians. Hagan was born and trained in the US but has lived here for the last decade and is probably the country’s best bassoon player. Beer, a Canadian, played in one of North America’s great orchestras, the Montreal Symphony, before taking the APO’s top job in 2014.  

We’re well-served for international-class violinists, with five or six players more than capable of taking over from a previously advertised soloist. There are some excellent woodwind players, too, though Aotearoa is a touch light on concert-ready pianists at the moment. Where we really shine is in the quality of classical singers – NZ Opera, at least, will be rubbing its hands. 

A more prosaic advantage of using local musicians is that it’s cheap, certainly less costly than flying in someone from Europe, putting them up in a hotel and paying them an appearance fee. 

Like almost every industry, Covid-19 has caused havoc to the arts world’s balance sheets. Cancelled concerts combined with ongoing costs have pushed some organisations to the brink. 

They didn’t need much pushing. No one wanted to talk on record about finances but it’s no secret that the classical music sector has struggled for years. That’s nothing to do with audience levels. Despite the popular image of half-empty halls comprising nothing but old people, classical music attendance numbers are stable and have been for a decade. But while the APO, for example, regularly sells out Auckland Town Hall, orchestras are expensive entities. New Zealand musicians aren’t well paid by international standards, but a professional orchestra still employs 80 to 100 musicians and staff, most of them specialists in their fields who’ve trained for longer than a brain surgeon to do what they do. Rising costs have far outstripped the meagre increases in funding and sponsorship. 

That’s another problem; there’s a real threat of disappearing sponsorship. One of the APO’s principal sponsors is media company NZME, which recently announced it is shedding 200 jobs. Among the NZSO’s corporate sponsors was The Listener, a magazine that, with publisher Bauer’s hasty exit from New Zealand, no longer exists. 

Everyone will hope that such losses are covered by the government’s unexpectedly generous Covid-19 arts recovery package. It’s easy to acknowledge that the arts are a taonga – and a major employer – but this is the first time in living memory a government has backed the rhetoric with serious cash.



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