An Orchestra Plays By COVID Rules
Asia is the future of classical music, goes the tired cliché repeated by such luminaries as Simon Rattle. As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes in places like Taiwan and the Republic of Korea, however, that banality becomes quite literally true. East Asian orchestras, supported by competent governments and resilient public healthy systems, are beginning to play for live audiences again—a state of affairs many European and, especially, American musicians can only dream of.
What will that future look like? A series of concerts, both live and livestreamed, on May 24 (the Serenades by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, and a work by Tyzen Hsiao), on May 30 (Mozart’s “Gran Partita” and Dvořák’s Serenade Op. 22), and June 12 (Beethoven Five and Seven), has allowed the National Symphony Orchestra of Taipei, Taiwan, to feel for a new role in a changed world.
Last week, I spoke with Shao-Chia Lü, the orchestra’s music director since 2010, and executive director Wen-Chen Kuo about the pragmatic art of the post-pandemic concert.
VAN: What was the atmosphere like at your first two social distancing concerts?
Shao-Chia Lü: It was a very special atmosphere. The expectations from the musicians, the audience, and myself were very high. At my appearance on stage, the applause was already overwhelming.
I planned a program which gradually increased the size of the orchestra; safety is still our priority. During the first two concerts the winds played during the first half and the strings during the second half. These were the Serenades and Mozart’s “Gran Partita.” It’s lighter music, but still with depth and artistry; very tuneful, but still requiring concentration.
We played with social distancing. All the musicians were at least 1.5 meters apart. The strings all wore masks. I personally didn’t wear a mask, because the distance [from the podium] is was big enough.
For the third concert we’re enlarging the size. It’s an all-Beethoven program. I still think we need all kinds of music, not just happy music. It all should be with depth and some complexity.
I think Taiwan is one of the safest places in the world. We’re discussing now to open to more audience, in the coming concerts. In two weeks we’re even planning to play Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It will be a big step. I look forward to it.
Why do you think the audience was so enthusiastic?
There are things that you don’t learn to appreciate in the normal day. This pandemic has meant over two months without any concert life. We feel this inner need to really listen to live music. Before the concert, it was already clear. We had many reactions from the audience. They said, “When are you going to play for us? We are really eager to hear live music.”
Is it hard to get the musicians to play together when there’s so much physical space between them?
When they’re not close to each another, they can’t hear each other so clearly. But they are very good at adjusting themselves. In rehearsal we did have some difficulties. But there was enough rehearsal time, so we were able to adjust. The concert went very well.
Did you have to change your conducting?
Not really, but in some places I had to beat with bigger gestures than before.
Were these three concerts programmed in advance, or did you choose the repertoire after the pandemic started?
After. We did everything very quickly. The situation of this virus changes every day, and so we always have emergency meetings to decide what we can do for the audience. That’s why all the programs we have now were planned in a very short time.
Besides their lightness and tunefulness, why did you go with the Mozart “Gran Partita” and the Tchaikovsky and Dvořák Serenades as the first pieces after the outbreak?
We’re not only facing normal music lovers, we’re facing all of society. We want as many people as possible to join us. It’s easy to go inside this music, and still it has its taste, its depth, its artistry.
Have you had any particularly memorable reactions from audience members after these concerts?
Wen-Chen Kuo: In the intermission of the first concert, the audience was so encouraged by the live music. A live concert was a sign that it was possible to get back to normal life.
Your orchestra is ahead of the curve in terms of getting back to performing, compared to Europe and the United States. What advice do you have for orchestras in those places once they start to reopen as well?
Shao-Chia Lü: I think the reason why we can do this is that we are safe. Our prevention system and the consciousness of the citizens for this pandemic—people were so alert, even before the outbreak. We have a safe society. That’s why we can give these concerts. It’s not us that makes it possible. It’s all the people of Taiwan, and the people who are in charge of this—they make it possible.
I don’t know if I could give advice to other places. That would be a little bit like boasting. We are thankful that we are part of this society and we can give good music to people.
What about practical things? How far away can people sit from one another? How big are the groups?
Wen-Chen Kuo: One of the major practical issues is the temperature check. We have to check the temperatures of the whole audience and all the musicians. We have to collect contact information, just in case, and decide on the capacity of the audience in the hall. On stage, the strings can wear masks, so we can avoid social distancing greater than 1.5 meters. For the winds, we have transparent plastic guards to separate individuals.
Couples are still allowed to sit together, because we register all the names and contact information from the audience. The capacity of the auditorium is around 2,000, and we can have about 1,000 people in it right now.
How much time does it take before the concert to do temperature checks?
Technology in Taiwan is quite advanced [laughs]. If we have a concert at 7:30, all the staff is ready at 6:40, so 50 minutes before the concert.
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra isn’t paying its musicians at all at the moment, and many other orchestras have reduced musicians’ salaries. Are you paying normal salaries?
Yes, we’re paying the normal salary to all the musicians. We’re really proud of our musicians. The preparation for being an orchestra member is not only playing on stage. It’s also the daily training—it’s part of their daily life. So we really appreciate it: when they get back on stage, they have the same standard or they’re even better.
Shao-Chia Lü: Even before these concerts, in this past two months they kept working. We had other projects. We recorded chamber music. We’re doing things to keep in shape. We’re working all the time.
Are you able to continue paying the musicians due to government funding? Or are your sponsors mainly private?
Wen-Chen Kuo: The government’s financial support for us is around 60 percent. So we still have to balance our budget, but things are working OK for us so far: financially we’re quite healthy. It’s only been three months. We’ll be back to normal life in June.
Shao-Chia Lü: If it last for one more year then we are in trouble.
You mentioned planning to perform Mahler Nine. Was there a particular symbolic reason for you to program this piece?
Actually, Mahler Nine was planned. It was not part of the three concerts that were planned specifically for the pandemic; it was planned last year as the last concert of this season. We would very much like to keep that. ¶