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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Culture 2021 Year in Review: The Conductor – Ben Glassberg-Frost on Classical, COVID and Cameras

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British conductor Ben Glassberg-Frost is Music Director of Opera de Rouen Normandie, Principal Conductor of Glyndebourne on Tour and Associate Guest Conductor of Orchestre National de Lyon.

He first came to international attention upon winning the Grand Prix at the 55th Besançon Young Conductors Competition 2017 at the age of 23.

Since then, Ben has gone on to work with some of the world’s greatest musical ensembles.

Here, he describes what 2021 has encompassed for Europe’s classical community.

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I’m writing this at the very tail end of what has been a fairly turbulent year in the classical music world.

Despite what felt like a move back towards normal in the summer, we are now returning to a time of frequent cancellations, postponements and shutdowns.

In the last few days, the orchestra of which I am Music Director (Opera de Rouen-Normandie) gave the premiere of a new production of Gounod’s ‘Romeo et Juliette’ at the Opera Comique in Paris.

Both the Romeo and Juliette were replaced at the last minute, not to mention the entire brass section, due to COVID-19 rearing its ugly head again.

We began this year in the depths of lockdown and, while at least we are currently able to perform to a live audience in France and the UK, the pandemic feels far from over for those in the cultural sector.

Our cultural institutions didn’t get the support they needed in 2021

For me, the difference between the French and British approach to the performing arts this year has been stark and alarming.

In Normandy, for example, specific funding was made available to arts organisations to continue their work for an online audience.

As a result, at Opera de Rouen we recorded an entire Mozart opera for CD, streamed a fully staged production of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande and gave a diverse series of online programmes ranging from full-scale symphonic music to traditional Indian chamber repertoire.

In the UK, however, between December 2020 and March 2021 the entire cultural sector effectively shut down.

When the Glyndebourne Opera Festival opened in mid-May, it was the first time audiences had been allowed in a theatre in nearly 6 months. Moreover, it appears that only around 60 per cent of freelance British musicians were able to access the government’s self-employed income support scheme.

So not only was there no work, but little support for those who were out of it; quite the contrast from the regular and targeted support in France.

COVID-19 forced artists to adapt beyond their wildest dreams

Of course it wasn’t entirely doom and gloom in 2021.

In fact, I believe that the pandemic has forced both artists and organisations to be creative and agile in a way that hasn’t been needed in years.

Constantly changing plans, like shifting sands, are of course frustrating but provide the opportunity to create truly unique creative experiences.

For example, I was conducting a new production of Britten’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ at La Monnaie (Brussels) in the Spring. During the rehearsal process, it became apparent that we would not be allowed an audience for the performances.

Initially this was a huge blow, especially as the artists involved would end up receiving 50 per cent of the promised fee.

However, this presented us with the possibility of creating a production designed specifically for an online audience.

When opera is filmed, usually, there might be a small number of cameras in the audience.

Since there wasn’t an audience for this piece, we could experiment with a much greater variety of camera positions, including on stage. What would already have been an interesting production became a sort of film noir, hugely engrossing and much more intense.

This is just one example of many. My colleagues at the Glyndebourne Festival (UK) staged a full Summer season with 6 operas and 4 concert programmes.

With an inordinate amount of work from the music library and management to create orchestral solutions that worked with social distancing, they succeeded in performing consistently from May to December without needing to cancel a single performance.

These qualities of flexibility, determination and ultimately bravery have shone in the cultural sector in 2021 and I am proud to be a part of it.

Where do we go from here?

Going forward, it is very difficult to see how things will play out over the coming months for us.

The huge number of COVID-19 cases across Europe mean that our current ‘new normal’ is constantly replacing artists, changing programmes and struggling to get projects onstage.

We’ve returned to a relatively normal work rhythm, but with the underlying tension of never feeling that a project is safe. Last week one orchestra I conducted nearly lost the entire viola section for a concert due to one case.

Thankfully quick testing prevented this. It does seem that crisis aversion and short-term problem solving will take up most of our time in the coming months, which is a great shame as it takes energy away from long-term strategy and trying to build something more lasting.

We finish 2021 in a surprisingly similar place to how it started.

Despite the huge successes of vaccination programmes and rapid mass testing, the uncertainty around the stability and viability of our industry remains as prevalent as ever in this pandemic. Let’s hope that this time next year will be a very different picture.

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