If this summer you would like to hear great music as we fondly remember hearing it—in person—and if you could get there, then little Austria would be the place to be. In an otherwise unrelentingly gloomy time for the arts, the news that the Salzburg Festival will indeed take place in August and that the Vienna Philharmonic will re-commence performances this month is a balm, not just for classical habitués who know and may even have patronized these great institutions but for all people who have ever been to a concert anywhere and who have experienced this particular hole knocked into their lives since the world precipitously shut down three months ago.
If, to many of us, that dark quarter seems far longer than twelve weeks, it is not because we are impatient. It is because we understand that the performing arts, by their very nature, take time. They depend less on flashes of artistic genius than on hours, days, and years of apprenticeship, of learned artistic craftsmanship. “Art” may be a gift from God. But the performance of it is a human practice. You do not master it once, but again and again. To disrupt such habits and patterns of practice can do damage out of all proportion to the mere number of lost concerts.
Thus, the return to life of two out of three of Austria’s most famous cultural institutions is very welcome. This is not to reprove our own orchestras and festivals, which have to operate in a different national situation. Their caution may be justified, though in the end (I will go out on a limb) it will probably be judged more regrettable than not. For now, we should be grateful to the Austrians and rejoice with those of them who this summer will be able—on our behalf, let us say—to indulge once more.
In Vienna, the Philharmonic will reopen in accordance with government guidelines as to permitted size of audience, and will do so gingerly: from June 1, audiences of up to one hundred; from July 1, up to 250; from August 1, up to five hundred. Provided there are additional safety measures, larger-scale gatherings of up to one thousand may, it is said, be possible. There is some precautionary “it all depends” here—but not, evidently, enough to be prohibitive. The opening concerts, starting this month, will almost resemble, one imagines, private showings. So private, in fact, that there will be no public ticket sales, with the small allotment of seats going to “family members and supporters who have accompanied us through this crisis.” This is seemly and perhaps fairer than alternatives like a lottery or rationing by price. The policy may continue into the summer even as capacity rises; announcements thus far are a bit ambiguous. The Musikverein concert hall holds just over 2,800, so even if Austria gets up to that one thousand mark, musicians are still going to be looking out on a lot of empty seats. But a thousand, five hundred, or even 250 is critical mass enough to reestablish the dynamic of live performance in the presence of real and, one would hope, extraordinarily attentive and grateful concertgoers—performance that is unmediated, un-reduced, simply real.
Audience size is not the only determining variable. Musician safety has to be figured in too. Views vary. The Berlin Philharmonic proposes such wide distancing of players that the essential interactions between musicians could be frustrated. Vienna, however, has just conducted its own experiment on the “aerosol effect” (another term like “social-distancing” and “flatten the curve” destined for the historical dictionary of Corona argot) of musicians’ breath while playing. The Philharmonic’s governors stand by the result: it doesn’t matter. Repeat: it doesn’t matter. Given the hyper-caution of medical scientists, which is where authority seems to reside on such matters, this is remarkable. But, in Austrian arts circles anyway, it is not seen as cavalier or right-wing. Plastic tubes were inserted into players’ nostrils to make their exhalations visible in the form of a fine mist. It was surely unpleasant but was also worth the trouble. The test showed that “we should not expect air exhaled by an artist to reach more than 80 centimetres’ distance.” And it was only the flautists who sprayed their aerosol that far—thirty-one-and-a-half inches. String players were absolved completely: “no observable change in how far the breath travelled between playing or being at rest.” Who knows what is afoot, however, in the bigger bureaucratic mind, and it was perhaps this fear that prompted the Philharmonic to seek out the facts for itself. Sustaining the orchestra’s renowned standards, Philharmonic chairman Daniel Froschauer warned, “will be difficult for us if everyone is sitting in a plastic cabin.”
Meanwhile, out in Salzburg, the world’s most famous summer festival will go on in the month of August. Much is still up in the air, depending on details still to come down from the ministry of culture, but the Festival directorate at this point is confident enough to announce that the centenary 2020 festival will take place, albeit in a slimmed-down state. Some of the productions planned for the anniversary program will necessarily be postponed until 2021 (though not the founding play, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann, which has been performed every year since 1920 and will be again performed on August 22). Two hundred events over forty-four days at sixteen venues will be cut to about half that, at just half a dozen locations. To those of us in our still-shut world, even this pared-down offering looks like an embarrassment of riches. Ninety performances is a long way from nothing, and of course there will be no question about the quality, which is the real measure of the Festival’s value to Austria and the world. While the Philharmonic is a Vienna icon, the Festival is Salzburg’s lodestar. As Wilfried Haslauer, the Landeshauptmann for the State of Salzburg, puts it, the Festival is “the artistic and the economic motor of our region.” Moreover, presenting the Festival in any form ripples beneficently outward to give “the many smaller initiatives which constitute the cultural diversity of our State a chance.”
A chance is what performers, conductors, composers, and audiences everywhere need just now. However things ultimately play out in Vienna and Salzburg this summer, the Austrians’ plucky determination to do something in this keep-your-head-down, play-it-safe season of cancellations and postponements ought to cheer us all. Perhaps it is an omen.