Cellist Alban Gerhardt on why concert-hall life must go on
This article was written by Alban Gerhardt for Artsdesk
With horror I heard on Wednesday that the proud cultural nation of Germany, which invests probably more money per capita in its concert, opera and theatre life than any other country in the world, had decided to close down what I as a German citizen am particularly proud of — precisely this rich cultural life.
For months now venues have successfully complied with the tough but necessary rules of social distancing; orchestral musicians have managed amazingly well to perform with two metres distance between them and masks on their faces, and when musical life started again in mid-June, there was such a relief and a breath of fresh air among audiences who had been deprived of hearing live music for months. I have not heard about any major outbreak after a concert.
I myself got to play a couple of sold-out concerts in front of an audience of 25 per cent – not the easiest of tasks, but after I became used to the distance on and off stage, a unique intimacy was created by everybody in the room trying to overcome the empty space between them, and thus creating a concentration and positive tension which I had rarely felt before.
In September, when numbers started rising, we had to interrupt a concert in Berlin for a 10 minute air-cleansing break, although the hundred people had hardly used up any air in this big space. After the concert we went to one of the coolest joints in Charlottenburg, open 24 hours, where starved and thirsty we took our masks off and endured the sticky air in this closed up place — open windows? air-cleansing breaks after 40 minutes? On top of this we definitely had 10 times less cubic metres of air for each person in that place than in the concert venue.
No, people with masks on, sitting (more or less) still and concentrated in an audience, very disciplined in comparison with any other “event“, be it cultural, sportive or festive are not the ones who get infected during a performance. The virus gets to spread to other hosts when it gets late, the alcohol is flowing, and everyone’s guard is down, especially at private events with people we know and love.
That’s why I feel that the route Spain, or at least my new hometown Madrid, is taking – to have compulsory masks in every public space, outdoors as well as indoors, plus a curfew, while keeping concerts, opera and theatre performances on, is the most commendable thing to do. Maybe it’s not without any risk, but I strongly believe that culture is not and must never just be seen as the frosting on the cake, but the necessity it is: the air we breathe, the water we are drinking and the bread and butter, yes, together with some cheese, but far from being just a dessert.
Art and music are an essential part of us – as Berliners, Germans, Europeans and citizens of the world – and closing it all down in times of danger, tragedy, fear and pain while keeping retail stores open as Germany decided on Thursday is much more than just being cowardly and counterproductive. It goes against basic human instincts. In insecure and threatening times like these right now, we should rather present more concerts and performances, especially as music brings people together even with two metres of distance between them – musicians as well as their listeners. In a concert we don’t feel alone any more, we as musicians and audience members connect to the passion and the feelings portrayed of the music, and that will give us the strength to overcome this pandemic without losing touch with who we are.