Corona backstage

A concert hall in an exceptional situation

(Photo: Stephan Rabold)

What a difference! At the end of August 2019, an audience of 35,000 listened to the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony open-air at the Brandenburg Gate and, together with the Berliner Philharmoniker, celebrated the inauguration of their new chief conductor Kirill Petrenko. Barely seven months later, on 12 March 2020, the orchestra gave its first “ghost concert” in the Philharmonie Berlin – without an audience. The day before, as one of the measures to contain the corona pandemic, the Berlin Senate had decided that the city’s cultural institutions would have to close. “It was a huge shock for us,” recalls general manager Andrea Zietzschmann. “Such a situation had not happened before. This sudden uncertainty! At the time, we couldn't really appreciate what it meant for us.” The musicians received the news during an orchestra rehearsal. “We were stunned,” said principal cellist and media representative Olaf Maninger. “And then also relieved when we found out that we were still allowed to broadcast the concert in our Digital Concert Hall.”

A stroke of luck: the Digital Concert Hall

The Digital Concert Hall has been the orchestra’s main medium for staying in touch with audiences and fans around the world. Following the announcement of the lockdown in March 2020, the orchestra made access to its streaming platform available free of charge for four weeks. An offer that attracted great interest. In a short time, 700,000 new users registered. Thanks to the Digital Concert Hall, major concert events such as the European and New Year’s Eve concerts were streamed during the pandemic. And the musicians developed and produced their own concert formats such as the Easter@Philharmonie Festival, the Berlin Phil Series and the chamber music series Beethoven in close-up. “We tried to make the best of the situation with a lot of creativity,” says Andrea Zietzschmann.

Everything suddenly different

At first, it did not look as if music would be heard in the Philharmonie again so soon after the closure. Because at first the motto was: no rehearsals, no concerts, no recordings. From one day to the next, there was nothing left to do for the musicians of the orchestra, the technical staff, the music library, the box office and the venue staff. Other departments of the organisation were overwhelmed with additional work and confronted with new problems and tasks: “We had to improvise a lot,” says Kerstin Glasow, director of communication, marketing and sales. “First of all, we had to refund the subscriptions and tickets sold to our audience. It had never been done on this scale before.” The artistic operations office, the control centre of concert operations, on the other hand, was busy contacting guest soloists and conductors and cancelling or rescheduling their performances – while also planning upcoming events for the next season. “My life changed completely,” says Annette Mangold, head of concert planning. “I used to go to concerts at the Philharmonie several evenings a week and accompany the orchestra on its tours. That all disappeared. Normally our concerts are planned two to three years ahead. Now I don’t know what's going to happen in the next two to three weeks.”

Philharmonie as research project

Berlin’s cultural institutions were in constant communication. The uncertainty was great. Everyone was asking the question: “When will things start up again? And how will things start up again?” From the very beginning, the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation worked closely with the Technical University and the Charité, which had initiated a research project and also investigated the aerosol distribution in the two concert halls of the house. Special attention was paid to the function of the ventilation system. What a relief when it was confirmed that the system, which runs on 100% fresh air, meets safety standards. Hygiene plans were drawn up under intense pressure – first for the musicians, who were once again allowed to rehearse in small groups and perform for the productions of the Digital Concert Hall – while maintaining strict safety distances, for the employees of the house and later, when there were signs of a re-opening, for the audience as well. When developing a hygiene concept for concert operations, many things had to be completely rethought: ticket sales, seat distribution, the route guidance system...

The story continues

In August 2020, the signs pointed to a cautious new start: concerts yes, but only up to a maximum of 500 visitors and with an orchestra line-up in chamber music format. For example, only one string player was allowed to play per desk. Once again, the Foundation faced great challenges. The concert programmes had to be adapted to the hygiene requirements and the changes communicated via print and online media. As only a limited number of spectators were allowed, the subscription series could not be sold as planned. In order to comply with hygiene regulations, no specific seats were allowed to be offered, only allocation to a specific block. For this, the database systems had to be reprogrammed to comply with the new regulations for ticket sales. As compensation for the subscription series not taking place, subscribers were given advance booking rights. “We are so grateful that our audience accepted all these offers and the measures,” says Kerstin Glasow.

A successful restart

Optimism abounded when Kirill Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker played for the first time again to a small, widely separated audience on 28 August 2020, opening the new season with the chamber music version of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. The string players were still each seated at their own desks and the wind players were placed at an appropriate distance from them – but still. A promising start was made. Another milestone followed: since September, the pharmaceutical technology company Centogene, as a sponsor, has been testing the orchestra members twice a week for Corona, thus creating another important building block in the hygiene concept of concert operations. The season opening was followed by a series of glittering concert events: the guest performance of Kirill Petrenko and the Berliner Philharmoniker at the Salzburg Festival, the performances of Daniil Trifonov with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, the debut of violist Tabea Zimmermann as artist in residence, and the debuts of Lahav Shani and Francesco Piemontesi. Daniel Harding, Frank Peter Zimmermann, Marek Janowski, François-Xavier Roth, Marc Minkowski and Daniel Barenboim – they were all delighted to be able to perform with the Berliner Philharmoniker in these times. There were further improvements for the musicians at the concert with Daniel Barenboim at the end of October 2020: the strings were again allowed to sit in pairs on the concert stage, and the distances between the wind players were also reduced. From November 2020, the number of concert guests admitted was also to increase from 500 to 1000 – but then came the second lockdown.“I felt this was a serious setback,” says Andrea Zietzschmann, “because we realised that culture was being given little attention in political discussions, and museums, theatres and concert halls were going to have to close again despite demonstrably very good hygiene concepts and conditions.”

Between hope and disappointment

Concerts in front of an audience were suspended again, but the Berliner Philharmoniker were able to continue playing their concert programmes as planned for the Digital Concert Hall. However, all concert tours had to be cancelled: the November tour to the USA, the guest tour of Germany organised at short notice as its replacement, and the trip to Spain at the beginning of May 2021. The Biennale, which the Berliner Philharmoniker had planned to stage on the theme of The Golden Twenties in February 2021, became an online festival. Work continues feverishly in the background to adapt to the ever-changing situation. “Many of our plans end up in the bin. It is emotionally very exhausting. But it’s the same for everyone in our industry,” says Annette Mangold.

A year of permanent crisis management now lies behind the Berliner Philharmoniker. A year full of uncertainty, cancellations and rescheduling, as well as constant persuasion and perseverance vis-à-vis politicians – and yet also a year full of positive experiences. As Andrea Zietzschmann sums it up: “They were not lost months for us. Kirill Petrenko and the orchestra have grown stronger together and so have we as a team in the Philharmonie. Moreover, the crisis has made us better networked than ever within Berlin’s cultural institutions. And there was also strong cohesion in the music scene as a whole. Furthermore, we have been able to interest many people in our Digital Concert Hall. These are all positive developments.” In the meantime, there is a small glimmer of hope that, despite the pandemic, concerts in front of an audience may be possible again under certain conditions – through a pilot project initiated by the Berlin Senate for Culture and Europe. It will test the practicality of events in conjunction with SARS-CoV-2 antigen testing. The concert offered by the Berliner Philharmoniker on 20 March was sold out within minutes and shows how much people long for live concerts. There is simply no substitute for the sense of community that unites performers and audience at a live concert.

Concerts in times of the pandemic