The Green Room: Stuart MacRae

The Green Room is a new blog series from the research community at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It’s both a response to the impact of Covid 19 on the arts, and a way of starting new conversations about the future. Each week colleagues will share their personal reflections, insights, challenges and hopes as we begin to map out our next steps together.


Stuart MacRae

Four stages of classical music performance during the Coronavirus outbreak

by Stuart MacRae


The coronavirus outbreak led, almost overnight, to a complete shutdown of live cultural activity in the UK and internationally, as governments introduced lockdown measures in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. Within days, most freelance musicians had several months of work cancelled, orchestras, opera companies and artist agencies were furloughed, tours cancelled, and major funding streams redirected away from performance and commissioning activities to emergency funding for artists.

At first it seemed that many in the sector thought things might return to ”˜normal’ relatively quickly, after the initial peak of the outbreak: performances scheduled for May and June were not officially cancelled for several weeks after the beginning of the lockdown; as I write, the BBC Proms has not announced its 2020 season, due to start on 17th July, but neither has it yet confirmed that it will not go ahead as planned.

It has been clear for some time that even when the lockdown is eased, social distancing measures will need to be in place for the foreseeable future, until either a vaccine or a viable treatment for the coronavirus is widely available. Unfortunately, this means that large public gatherings where people are in close proximity, such as religious services, sports events, and artistic performances, are likely to be the last parts of normal life to be restored.

The classical music sector will need to face up to this, and come up with whatever solutions it can in order to stay viable, relevant, and afloat for this indeterminate period. It must be incredibly difficult to be involved in artistic planning at the moment. With no clear timeline and no clear exit strategy, do organisations plan to go ahead with next season’s events? Or delay this year’s events until a hoped-for return next year? How will they be able to make the case for continued public funding when they can’t fulfil their usual purpose? And how will they replace revenue from fundraising and ticket sales when there are no events?

In order to survive, I would argue that organisations and individuals in the arts need to stay active. We need to adapt our work and our models of presentation to what is both possible and needed now, while planning for the next stages of return, which in the worst-case (but by no means unrealistic) scenario could take longer than any of us are willing to imagine. As a composer, I am used to thinking in different ways depending on the forces and circumstances with which I am faced: writing a piece for amateur choir is an almost completely different task from writing an orchestral piece or a full-scale opera, and I have to select and adapt ideas as appropriate to the situation. The set of challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak could be seen as just another set of circumstances, offering both constraints and opportunities to artists and organisations.

As I see it, there are four possible stages of activity in classical music in the coming period. We may have to switch backwards and forwards between these stages according to the circumstances, as the control of the outbreak fluctuates.

Stage 1: Lockdown

No public performance. Musicians stream live or pre-recorded from home, mainly in isolation. There are Zoom Choirs and Zoom Orchestras. Vast archive resources are released by companies for online streaming. Most content is free, donations are sometimes solicited.

Stage 2: Partial relaxation

No public performance, but rehearsal is possible. Performers are tested for the virus. There are streamed or recorded performances from medium and large halls in small groups, mainly strings, socially distanced, without an audience present. The programme is chamber and chamber orchestra music. Use of wind players and singers is limited. Medium to large organisations develop their own streaming platforms and revenue models.

Stage 3: Social distancing in public

Possible once widespread testing and contact tracing are in place. Public performances are possible in larger venues, with severely limited audience and performer numbers to maintain social distancing. Use of wind and brass players and singers remains limited. The programme is chamber and chamber orchestra music. Shorter than usual programmes may be performed multiple times to widen the audience. Streamed/recorded performances continue alongside, using new platforms and models from Stage 2.

Stage 4: Return to concerts

Possible only when a vaccine or treatment of the virus is widely available. Some caution may still be required, and it may take longer for international artists to return regularly, but rehearsal and performance of symphonic and choral works, and opera are again possible. Singers and wind/brass players are able to perform safely.

The actual shape and pacing of events may of course be quite different, and I am certain that these types of conversations are already taking place within arts organisations on a daily basis; but I believe it’s important to start visualising and discussing what the near future might look like now, rather than waiting for the perpetual present we are currently experiencing to come to an end.


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