Friday 3 September 2021

Stories from the front line: concert life might be opening up, but artists still face huge challenges when it comes to being able to rehearse and perform

Members of National Youth Choir of Scotland on the isle of Cumbrae
Members of National Youth Choir of Scotland on the isle of Cumbrae

Whilst musical life is indeed opening up, there still remain all sorts of complications, issues and costs. The changing nature of quarantine regulations means that travel is still a big issue for many artists, and my social media feed has plenty of examples of singers and instrumentalists who struggle (and sometimes fail) with the paperwork and quarantine requirements, and don't forget that five days quarantine is five days without paid work. Below are just three of the stories which have popped into my inbox, demonstrating the challenges artists face and the imagination needed to overcome them.

Temple Music has announced the appearance of American pianist Jeffrey Siegel at Temple Church on 29 September 2021 under the headline 'Fourth time lucky'. Siegel's appearance was planned for June 2020, but the date has been repeatedly moved owing to travel restrictions, quarantine complications and more, but now it looks as if Siegel will make it into the UK.

And even if artists to manage to travel, there are costs involved; not just the lack of work, but the costs of the tests generally required. The Philharmonia Orchestra is appearing at the Enescu Festival in Romania with its new principal conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali on Saturday 4 September 2021, performing Bartok, Prokofiev and Enescu's Symphony No. 3. This will be the orchestra's first international concert for 18 months, but it is taking place because the orchestra is being sponsored by Circular1Health which is covering all testing requirements and costs (which amount to quite a considerable sum for a large orchestra). This relationship has already allowed the orchestra to perform at the Three Choirs Festival, Bold Tendencies in Peckham and at the BBC Proms, and now the orchestra is one of the first UK orchestras to travel to Europe.

But even in the UK, there are complications. Amateur choirs are still recovering from the governments nonsensical refusal to let amateur singers rehearse indoors (except under certain circumstances). Luckily my own choir was able to rehearse outside. But even now, to rehearse requires a venue and the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS) found that a planned return to in person rehearsals and concerts was threatened because many of the choirs rehearse in schools, largely in partnership with the local education authorities. However, with Covid uncertainty and the current guidelines in Scotland, many schools are unwilling to host, or are unsure about outside groups using the facilities; they want to keep the premises safe, healthy and secure for their own pupils. 

Luckily, another institution was sympathetic and the Church of Scotland stepped in, churches in the regions NYCOS was having difficulty in were identified and over the coming weeks, nine of the Regional Choirs will be able to continue thanks to their help. 

And NYCOS also ran its first residential course for two years, in a tent on the island of Cumbrae. Instead of using a school, as has happened in previous years, NYCOS instead found Field Studies Centre (FSC Millport) on the island of Cumbrae to host and erected an enormous marquee in its grounds to house rehearsals. 70 members of NYCOS travelled to Cumbrae from the four corners of Scotland and beyond to rehearse for three days in the most beautiful of scenery in stunning weather preparing the choir to return to performance at the highest level.  And you can hear the choir at the Lammermuir Festival later this month.

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