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Orchestral Movements in Lockdown

How COVID-19 affected the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and influenced their plans for the future.

By David Williams (he/him)

The 40th year of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra started wonderfully. Their 2020 calendar was bursting with shows, and their partnership with the Auckland Arts Festival meant that the orchestra began the year performing in front of sold-out crowds.

COVID-19 brought all that to a shuddering halt. Organisers cancelled the first half of their 2020 calendar, leaving patrons disappointed and much of their orchestra scrambling to find a home. Yet amongst the chaos of February and March, the APO undertook an unprecedented and never before done task: running a philharmonic orchestra online while bringing music to a country stuck at home during a nationwide lockdown.

The APO is an important part of Auckland’s musical and cultural framework. Every year, they perform full seasons of classical music to Auckland audiences. They provide orchestral support to the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the New Zealand Opera as well as the Auckland Arts Festival. Furthermore, their education programmes provide opportunities for more than 20,000 young people and adults to learn about music.

So a disruption was a shock not just to the organisation, but to all of Tāmaki Makaurau. APO CEO Barbara Glaser mentions “lockdown life meant a very definite departure from our core business which is performing live. The idea of not being able to perform was extremely tough on our musicians and their sense of purpose.”

Closing down for a month was not an option for them. They wanted to maintain relationships with schools, students, families, subscribers, donors, foundations, business partners (sponsors) – all their various stakeholders. But more importantly, the orchestra wanted to provide an escape during an uncertain time. “Our online content was inspired by our desire to give something back, bring people together, show our support and offer something beautiful during what was a really challenging and sometimes scary and lonely time for many people,” says Glaser.

They quickly decided to come up with an online set of shows and activities to live stream during the pandemic. The education and outreach team began creating education programmes for young people to continue to learn music while stuck at home. APO and Whoa! collaborated with Whoa! Performing Arts Studio, utilising their characters Custard and Buzz alongside APO orchestra members, to teach children about musical instruments. APO Make and Do was a series of activity videos that encouraged children to make their own instruments. The videos also featured the APO players talking about their instruments.

As for the orchestra members – many of whom were either based overseas or had not been with the orchestra long – they stepped up, embraced technology and began playing from their homes.

Every Tuesday morning during the first lockdown, the APO ran their Coffee Break series. Certain members of the orchestra would perform a piece from their own homes and stream it on YouTube for the world to watch.

Carrying on the tradition of live streaming their concerts, as part of their Encore Livestream series, APO musicians and staff selected their favourite performances to stream once again.

However, the most extraordinary undertaking was APO’s Global Virtual Play-In. Over 250 musicians from around the world each sent a recording of them playing 'Radetsky March' by Johann Strauss Sr. The APO received submissions from such countries as Aotearoa, Mexico, USA, Canada, Spain, Japan, China, Australia, UK, Ireland and Denmark.

For many, music offered solace and escapism from the uncertainty of the pandemic.

The reception to these concerts and activities was fantastic. Their records show more than 4 million people, from 29 countries around the world, connected with their digital content between March 2020 and the end of the year. This was a pleasant surprise for CEO Barbara Glaser; “We are delighted with the interest in our online activities. While we will of course always be a company led by concert hall performances and are all feverishly keen to get back together making music again, a wonderful surprise of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the digital explosion in the arts.”

The APO has returned to a sense of normality now. Concert hall performances have recommenced. Crowds have returned. Glaser mentions how the APO is honoured by the overwhelming support of our city and our audiences. “Audiences have rushed back to support Auckland’s orchestra, we have seen multiple ‘soldout’ performances already and we’re still only a third of the way through our concert calendar.”

However, the lasting effects of the pandemic have forced the APO to re- evaluate their engagement strategies. Glaser says, “We will be reviewing our online strategies and activities into the future as it has allowed us to engage a wider audience than ever before and also bring wider profiles to some of our musicians.”2 She goes on to say that they have gained confidence in their ability to handle challenges and change. “We now recognise that when it comes to digital media, new technology, and the world online the APO can navigate and contribute value to this space too.”

This will affect the wider music industry as they look to adapt to a still nervous public. Glaser says it “has always been at the forefront of technological developments in sound recording, sharing, and broadcasting content.”

In spite of COVID-19 throwing the live music industry into chaos, need and want for music remained the same. It even increased. For many, music offered solace and escapism from the uncertainty of the pandemic. Glaser points out that “New figures released from Billboard and Nielsen Music, which examined how media consumption shifted during the pandemic, showed not only that people turned to entertainment for escape during lockdown, but the classical genre saw an increase in listeners.”

Music industries will face difficult circumstances in the future; however, the joy of experiencing music will always remain a constant. Glaser says “Perhaps the lockdown taught us all the value of music and art and that we shouldn’t take the chance to come together and celebrate live music for granted.”

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