Manchester Camerata: Performing Through the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic left orchestras unable to carry out what is arguably their primary role: performing and making live music with others. Rebecca Parnell reflects on the industry’s learnings during this time, and looks towards a bright hybrid future.
In May 2020 I wrote about the initial steps taken by Manchester Camerata at the beginning of lockdown as we turned our attentions to creating digital products. Now, over one year on and with the first tentative steps of a return to live performance having been taken, we can reflect on the learning from this time and consider what the future may hold.
Breaking new ground
The varied digital output of orchestras during the pandemic included live streams, filmed concerts and narrative films. The shift to digital led to our staff gaining new skills in a wide variety of areas, from lighting to storyboarding, venue finding to filming permits. The need to remain flexible and find creative ways to present postponed or cancelled performances has seen staff in the sector rapidly shift gears and develop new ways of working. Coupled with this has been the additional challenge to create a distinct ‘aesthetic language’ (Uhl, Schmid, and Zimmermann 2013) for digital orchestral products, as methods of presenting an orchestral concert in a traditional manner may not translate smoothly from concert hall to screen(Szedmák 2021). Digital arts, particularly those which incorporate a narrative element, must be of sufficient quality to differentiate themselves from other competing offers from streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon.
Filming for Manchester Camerata’s Untold film series (Photo credit: @AppleandBiscuit)
Delivering high-quality digital content during the pandemic was of paramount importance in providing work for musicians and other freelancers, as well as keeping audiences engaged. Digital art work has been a source of enjoyment to many during the pandemic, with 84% of respondents to Indigo’s After The Interval Act 2 survey expressing an interest in digital culture. The digital products created during this time have enabled many orchestras to build a catalogue of material which will undoubtedly be of great benefit for future use.
The return to live
In June 2021 Manchester Camerata presented our first live promoted concerts since March 2020 at The Monastery in Gorton, the orchestra’s new base. Our initial plan was to perform two concerts, the first on 10th June with repertoire exploring the resonance of the space, the second on 12th June featuring the music of Arthur Russell. Both concerts sold out quickly, with a second sold-out show added on 12th June. The appetite of Camerata audiences for the return to live was a welcome contrast to recent findings from the Cultural Participation Monitor from The Audience Agency in which fewer than a third of respondents were ‘happy to attend’ live events with no reservations. Although this result is by no means confirmation of a broader audience confidence, it is welcome news to the orchestra.
Taking the first tentative steps back to live promoted work came with a set of decisions around creating a safe and welcoming environment for audiences whilst still retaining the unique sense of shared experience only possible at a live event. These precautions included distanced seating, Perspex screens for ticket check, and ushers escorting guests to their seats to avoid audience pinch points. Results from our audience survey confirms that these precautions were welcomed, with an overall audience comfort rating of 4.85/5. This result, paired with the Audience Agency’s findings, strongly suggests that orchestral audiences are unlikely to want the total removal of restrictions within venues in the immediate future.
Manchester Camerata performing at The Monastery, Gorton
This was a fantastic experience. Very organised but warm and friendly in a way that overcame the limitations of presenting intimate work in COVID-19 times.
A hybrid future
Given the excitement to return to live reflected in our recent audience numbers, is there an appetite for a continuation of digital alongside live concerts in the immediate future?
In May 2020 I optimistically suggested there may be hope for a democratised digital future for orchestral concerts, one in which the shift to digital may break down some of the long held barriers to the genre. Growing digital fatigue and viewing figures indicate that this may not be the case, though there is strong evidence to suggest that audiences will continue to engage with digital content alongside physical visits to live concerts.
This is welcome news for Manchester Camerata as we continue to plan live, digital, and hybrid activities for our 2021/22 season and beyond. This work will include the next instalments of our digital film series Untold and live performances across the UK and beyond, as well as a project in collaboration with Orchestras Live to work with established and emerging artists and communities to create a film intended for digital touring. To complement our performance work, a new research project in collaboration with the Centre for Cultural Value and the Royal Northern College of Music will investigate and compare the experiences of attendees in both live and digital contexts, further enhancing our understanding of the audience experience as we continue to build and develop our hybrid orchestra model.
Uhl, A., Schmid, A., and Zimmermann, R. 2013. ‘From the Concert Hall to the Web’. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265794566_From_the_Concert_Hall_to_the_Web_How_the_Berliner_Philharmoniker_Transformed_their_Business_Model [accessed 1/9/2021]
Szedmák, B. 2021. ‘Business Model Innovation and the First Steps of Digitalization in the Case of Symphony Orchestras’, New Horizons in Business and Management Studies, pp. 160-171. Available at https://www.sciencegate.app/source/1930515601 [accessed 30/8/2021]
Rebecca Parnell is Creative Producer in a joint role with Creative Manchester (part of the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester), and Manchester Camerata, a chamber orchestra described by The Times as ‘Britain’s most adventurous orchestra’. Her role involves working on the delivery of digital and live performance projects with the orchestra, as well as knowledge exchange and research with Creative Manchester, inputting into various modules and providing learning for students.