May 16, 2020

In this weekend’s edition of Montreal’s Le Devoir, Alexander Shelley speaks in depth with Christophe Huss about the current Covvid-19 crisis and its implications for the classical music industry.

Read the original interview in French here.

Here is the full english translation:

Alexander Shelley, First Responder of the Soul

Christophe Huss, Le Devoir, May 16, 2020

The National Arts Center Orchestra’s Music Director, Alexander Shelley, is in self-isolation in London, where he usually works as Principal Associate Conductor at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Le Devoir talked to him to have his perspective on the pandemic, here and in Europe. A road to recovery that will be long, full of challenges.


“In Europe, the situation varies from country to country. And the approaches are different. In Germany, which is seen as a leading example, orchestras are turning to science to safely put ensembles on stage, and they livestream their concerts. But, unless things will take a turn for the better, and faster than expected, my pragmatic view is that we will not welcome an audience in a concert hall before 2021. ”


The opinion is clear, but nuanced. “Let’s look at Germany again. Subsidies come in, budgets are balanced. As soon as performance venues present artists and programs in front of a hall filled at 30% due to social distancing, they will start losing money. So it’s black and white: either they stay closed and keep their budget balanced, or they open and will have to sell seats to avoid deficits, which is not the possible. There is no middle ground option. ”


A traumatic experience


There is growing consensus on numbers: we are looking at concert halls filled at 25 to 30% of their capacity and a downsized socially-distanced orchestra, at “a pre-romantic size”, with 30 to 40 musicians. Alexander Shelley is concerned about the surrounds: “With a 2,000 seats concert hall, you can only welcome 500 people. How do you manage patrons movement getting to the hall and in the foyer? And what about orchestra musicians who have to move backstage and on stage? I can’t help but offer a pessimistic view for a fall season. What is certain is that we will be amongst the last area to return to back to normal, and I hope we can raise this with authorities. ”


On May 1, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra performed and broadcasted a very small concert in front of an empty hall. A strange experience to watch. Since the start of the pandemic, we felt deeply sad for orchestras who have been suddenly deprived of their audience, but they played all the same for us. Back to the May 1st experience with the Philharmonic: it provided the kind of warmth one feels when visiting an ossuary. Did Alexander Shelley also felt this distance and this discomfort?


“Whether it’s at a concert, in a theater, at a stadium or a church, we basically need the connection with human beings. We can certainly enrich our lives by reading books at home, but something pushes us to be with others, in person and to live shared experiences. Music is the universal language that speaks to our souls. While we are living this traumatic experience, it is essential that, as soon as possible, we, musicians, first responders for the soul, be able to reconnect with our audience, whether for 10 or 100 people. That being said, if we are forced to live through six months or a year without playing for an audience, I am confident in our capacity to innovate. ”


Alexander Shelley’s goal is to be back in Ottawa with his family in September and to quarantine before self-distancing: “I want to be there to work with the NAC orchestra, whatever the situation we’re in.” In addition, it is reasonable to imagine his other engagements as guest conductor will be on hold because of travel measures in various countries. Today, even at a distance from the NAC orchestra, Shelley says he works on daily scenarios. “As soon as I know I can put 20 musicians in one space, I will want for us to collaborate with an innovative media partner”, said Shelley.


Grieving the loss of our world


At the crux of the issue is the idea of sitting people one seat out of two, in a row out of two, with a concert hall filled at only 25% of its capacity. Can the revenue loss of the remaining 75% empty seats offer new revenue streams through online experiences, and according to what business model? “Different arts organizations are in different positions.” In England, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra must generate income. In Canada, the NAC Orchestra is set up differently with other responsibilities.


“While only part of the NAC revenues come from the federal government, we have a responsibility to reach as many people as possible across the country and we are committed to Canadian creators. At a time like this, it would seem logical for the National Arts Center to approach the CBC and propose a partnership to fulfill both their mandates. We must try to found ways to collaborate. Contrary to what is happening in Germany, Canada’s national broadcaster, the CBC, has increasingly decreased it presence from classical music on television and even on the radio. I would like to explore some avenues, including with ”


But what does this digital universe looks like? Like many of us, Alexander Shelley is not without asking a fundamental question: “I see what everyone is doing right now. It’s very generous and charming. But there are so many exceptional singers, violinists and cellists who have practiced for decades to find and refine their sound. How are we going to make sure that our added value, our rich sound, will reach an audience at a professional audio quality? ”


Alexander Shelley adds: “I want online offerings to work, but what enthralls an audience is the moment when a virtusoso produces the most extraordinary sound in a concert hall. So when I think of a digital model, it’s about audio quality first, followed by acceptable video quality. ” And not the reverse…


Passionate about philosophy, the maestro comes up with an astonishing perspective on this emerging hybrid digital model. “Of course, music is also a business and artists must make money. But the transactional and financial aspects were always happening behind the scenes. Up to now, you bought a ticket, the presenter took care of the transaction and the rest. The audience’s relation with the artist was that of a music lover or a fan. In some of the proposed business models I observe, I foresee a very radical change. The direct relationship would be more transactional with the artist, and far less artistic in the romanticized sense of the term. For me, it has a deep impact on what art is all about. Maybe it’s fine. Maybe everything should be exposed in full light… ”


Through his recent readings, Alexander Shelley has enjoyed David Kessler’s Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. “David Kessler and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a book titled On Grief and Grieving, in which Elisabeth Kübler-Ross defined the five stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross died, but Kessler wrote this new work, published at the end of 2019, where he suggests a sixth stage: meaning and the quest for it. My relation to religion has changed a lot in my life. My mother is Catholic, my father is a Protestant. As a teenager, I distanced myself from religion, being rational in my view of the world. I came back to it from another angle fifteen, twenty years later, with this quest for meaning. ”


For Shelley, this is the fundamental question when thinking about the role of musicians. “Philosophy, religion and music come together in our quest for meaning. Now, what is happening in the world and how we are reacting to current events is exactly going the stages defined by Kessler and Kübler-Ross: we are living in mourning of the world as we knew it. Aren’t we all are going through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance? At the end of this process, once we’re past those stages, we will look for meaning. This is why I think our role as musicians and artists is essential. I’m coming from that perspective and believe we must engage in this conversation, in order to find meaning and remain relevant.”