Music | Sound Off

Orchestrating a COVID-19 stopgap for classical concerts

by Chiho Iuchi

Contributing Writer

The Tokyo Symphony Orchestra (TSO) held a concert at Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall on March 21, going against a wave of coronavirus-related cancellations and postponements. The performance attracted 800 people, including 150 who bought tickets at the door of the 1,600-seat venue.

It proved to be the orchestra’s last proper in-person performance, as its concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo on March 28, which was to be held as scheduled under strict medical guidelines for infection prevention, was postponed at the last moment, partly due to a warning from Gov. Yuriko Koike, who urged people to stay home over the weekend.

Cancellations due to the new coronavirus have caused the TSO losses of around ¥50 million since the end of February, with little cancellation money coming from event organizers and no compensation for the loss of ticket sales for its own concerts.

“If this situation continues, we will sustain only until this summer,” says TSO’s managing director, Junji Ohno.

The orchestra has turned to livestreaming its performances during this unprecedented situation. On March 8 and 14, the orchestra held concerts in an empty Muza Kawasaki Symphony Hall in Kawasaki which were free to watch online. The shows attracted a combined total of around 200,000 viewers nationwide — “far more than our core audience, which is mostly in the Kanto area,” says Ohno.

Alongside the livestream approach, TSO has made alterations to its donation system. The smallest amount that can be donated to the orchestra was lowered from ¥10,000 to ¥1,000, and that helped pull in about ¥1.4 million from 290 donors.

“The positive reactions to the livestreams were more than expected,” says Ohno. “We now see the potential of online streaming enabling us to reach a new audience.”

In addition to its existing TSO Music and Video Subscription service, the orchestra is planning to continue streaming concerts regularly.

“We are really grateful for donations thanks to streaming, but it’s nowhere near the revenue of the live concerts,” Ohno says.

The situation in Japan hasn’t hit the depths of what’s being seen in the United States, which has seen numerous instances of orchestras having to lay off their players.

TSO is applying for an employment adjustment subsidy and the Japan Association of Classical Music Presenters submitted a written request on March 16 to the ministers of culture and economy to ask for financial compensation due to loss of revenue during the pandemic.

“We are struggling to find our way out, (we are) doing everything possible,” Ohno says. “But the indecisive attitude of requesting self-restraint … without compensation is really tough.”

On April 1, the orchestra announced that Music Director Jonathan Nott has been unable to travel to Japan to conduct scheduled concerts on April 18, 25 and 26. The orchestra therefore was planning to hold these concerts by replacing the conductor and changing part of the program to a piece without a choir. However, in the wake of the official declaration of a state of emergency on April 7, TSO canceled and postponed its April concerts, and is being forced to figure out what to do to survive.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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