Restrictions might be lifting on 19th July but things are from clear, according to the RPO

News that COVID restrictions will be eased across England on 19 July is undoubtedly good to hear. The bookending of this painful period symbolised by the removal of mandatory mask-wearing and greater freedom in the hospitality sector gives a sense of uplift. Renewal. Recovery.

Be wary of getting carried away however. Arriving in my (and countless other journos) inbox as soon as the Prime Minister made his announcement was this comment from James Williams, the MD of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra:

“Whilst the Government’s announcement advising that Covid restrictions will be lifted from 19 July gives us all the sense of hope we need, to date the Government has failed to provide the performing arts with a sustainable operational roadmap that will ensure the economic viability of performances and the safety of venues, artists and audiences.

“There is an important task to be done rebuilding public confidence and providing the necessary reassurance that returning to the concert hall and the enjoyment of live performances can be done safely. This requires from Government a robust roadmap that sets out a transition from socially-distanced concerts to full-capacity events based on clear criteria, risk management protocols and meaningful, shared data from the Events Research Programme.

“Economically, venues and ensembles need full-capacity concerts, but the transition must be operationally and economically sustainable; the return to another lockdown in the autumn would be catastrophic for the sector. 

“The RPO is fully committed to playing its part in the ‘building back’ that lies ahead, including enriching lives and supporting wellbeing after numerous lockdowns. But to be viable the economic sustainability of our work depends upon audiences and performers being safe in the concert hall.”

Restrictions are not over until all parts of the economy are able to function in the way they were before the pandemic hit.

Royal Philharmonic play Rossini, Haydn and Vaughan Williams with Petrenko and Isserlis at Royal Festival Hall

It was the RPO’s first concert at the Royal Festival Hall since March 2020, and only the third night of concerts at the Soutbank Centre venue. The orchestra shaped up well, and whilst the atmosphere wasn’t quite so ramped as at the Barbican for the LSO’s first outing a few weeks back, the programme did fit the bill emotionally.

Rossini’s Silken Ladder overture did feel a little raggedy in places. There wasn’t the consistent precision Rossini’s particular writing demands in the score. No surprises really given the complexities of the articulation and the distance imposed on the players. But the breeziness of the melodies and the urgency of the motoring rythmns injected some energy to proceedings on what was a surprisingly hot evening.

Steven Isserlis brought his characteristic ebouillance the stage, brimming with joyous enthusiasm and excitement, producing in tandem with Vasily Petrenko a touching and tender slow movement the impact of which (that delicious moment when you realise everyone around you is completely still) by surprise. A sense of boisterous optimism underpinned the concluding movement. Isserlis emanates warmth in everything he does – evident by the bouncing curls and wide michievous smile. This performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto felt a reassuring pat on the back driven by an enviable positive mindset.

For a work I’ve spent much of this past year listening to recordings of (Andrew Maze with RLPO in particular) Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 5 felt surprisingly intimate, with loud spasms in various places. This isn’t to say the performance wasn’t enjoyable or appreciated. The intimacy gave things a personal feel as though the entire band was talking as one slightly damaged but nonetheless determined individual.

Right from the start, the strings sounded rounded, sweet and resonant, in a taut ensemble. The scherzo was delicate and fragile, the third movement raw, with one especially magical moment at the end when the harmonies pivot as the principal viola invites first cello then upper strings to resolve the harmonies. Come the conclusion there was a sense not of closure so much as a promise of a new start. In that respect the symphony fitted the emotional bill I came to the hall with – a need for a musical statement that went some way to make sense of what had passed, offering a path to something different in the coming months.

21 June. So, that’s all good then. Or is it?

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra responds to PM’s announcement about easing of restrictions

I will happily admit that I have, as a punter, found Boris Johnson’s announcement in the House of Commons this afternoon about the stages leading up to the doing away with social-distancing giddy-fying.

17 May for socially-distanced audiences in places like theatres (and presumably concert halls). 21 June for the removal of social-distancing.

June feels like a long way off. At the same time, there feels as though there is an endpoint. Imagination runs riot. Hope springs up perkily. The unthinkable might just end up happening after all.

The RPO doesn’t agree necessarily. In an official statement, they voice a note of caution.

“We welcome today’s announcement as a positive first step in the process, but more detailed information is required if performing arts organisations are to be able to plan for the future with any certainty.

“Opening concert venues for a handful of audience members is not economically viable without further government support.  The focus of the discussion should be on when we are likely to see venues return to fuller capacities.

“We are still completely in the dark as to what conditions and criteria will be required in order for this to happen. Until we have this information, it is difficult to find a way out of the situation in which we find ourselves.  

“During the course of the pandemic the RPO has regularly tracked the public’s views on music and the tangible role it plays.

“Seven in ten (71%) people who listened to orchestral music during isolation cited tangible and lasting positive impacts on their mood and wellbeing, while 41% of people regard music as among Britain’s greatest exports to the world.

“The performing arts will continue to play a valuable role long after the pandemic has passed, and it is vital that everything is done now to bring the industry back from the precipice and ensure its long term future.”