In the closing paragraph of my review of 2020, I wrote “I am hopeful that we will be something close to a return to “normal” by the summer of 2021.“
“Normal” has shifted in meaning over the past nearly two years of the covid pandemic. For galleries, concert halls and opera houses – the places ArtMuseLondon contributors frequent to bring you their thoughtful, interesting reviews – “normal” now has a variety of meanings, from e-tickets and downloadable programme notes to socially-distanced performances and events, to the use of masks, covid passes, pre-booked and timed exhibition tickets, and other measures to ensure visitors and audiences are kept safe.
For those of us who crave quiet spaces in which to enjoy and appreciate art or music, the lack of visitors to London’s galleries has been a curious blessing. The Royal Academy of Arts was delightfully un-busy in the months it reopened after the lockdown; equally, for those who prefer not to sit hugger-mugger with one’s neighbour at a concert or opera performance, socially-distanced venue seating has been an unexpected bonus.
But for those who run and work in these venues, and for the musicians and performers, the socially-distanced model is not sustainable long term, for the obvious financial reasons. My sense from conversations with musician friends and colleagues, and from more general observations of the state of the arts in 2021, was one of weary resignation, “here we go again”, as another lockdown closed venues and denied musicians work and income.
Yet despite almost half a year of lockdown, culture bounced back with exuberance, invention and excitement when venues were able to reopen. There was a palpable sense of relief, tinged with trepidation – would audiences come back, and would they return in sufficient numbers? – but perhaps the best thing was that returning to the concert hall or opera house felt “normal” again, despite the covid measures, and my goodness, it was simply wonderful to hear live performance again! A visit to English National Opera for Philip Glass’s mesmerising opera Satygraha in October proved that venues can make audiences feel welcome and safe, without labouring the covid-secure message. Innovations such as the ability to order interval drinks to be delivered to your seat ensured that the bars and social areas were less crowded. Make audiences feel safe and they will return – that much was clear, from ENO and the Royal Opera House to the lunchtime series I run in Weymouth with pianist Duncan Honeybourne – and I hear similar reports from other concert organisers and venue managers.
Perhaps the greatest indicator that live performance was returning to “normal” was this summer’s Proms. After what I felt was an “excuse for the Proms” last year, this year we were treated to something closer to a normal Proms season, albeit with fewer international artists/ensembles due to ongoing travel restrictions. This proved to be a splendid opportunity to showcase all the wonderful homegrown talent we have here – from the remarkably talented Kanneh-Mason family to great orchestras such as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Chineke! and the Britten Sinfonia.
Despite almost half a year of lockdown, ArtMuseLondon’s contributors (who all give up their precious spare time to write for the site) have kept well-occupied. A recent email from Orchid Classics, a label whose fine recordings regularly feature on this site, noted that they released 31 albums in 2021, and it’s evident that musicians have been busy in recording studios over the past year (my friend and colleague Duncan Honeybourne told me that the lockdowns had enabled him to really immerse himself in the repertoire he loves and he has relished the chance to record previously unreleased repertoire). This has certainly kept the ArtMuseLondon writers occupied – unable to enjoy live music, we reviewed 40+ albums this year, across a range of genres. Personal highlights include Stephen Hough’s Vida Breve, Cordelia Williams’ Night Light, and ‘Labyrinths’ from Orchestra of the Swan. Other reviewers offer their highlights of 2021 in separate posts –
With the current uncertainties, it’s hard to be optimistic about what 2022 will bring, certainly in the immediate term, but what the past year has demonstrated is that performers, venues and audiences are prepared to be flexible and adaptable in the light of changing restrictions and guidance, and that our craving for culture and particularly live performance is undented.
Season’s Greetings to all our readers and followers from the ArtMuseLondon team.
Frances Wilson, editor
ArtMuseLondon is written by people with a keen interest in culture and an intelligent, honest and accessible approach. We are always happy to consider guest reviews and articles; please feel free to contact us if you would like to contribute to the site.