Part of Supercool's Arts + Culture In Lockdown series
Samir Savant – Festival Director, London Handel Festival
This week marks 20 weeks on from mid-March, when performing arts venues started to shut their doors to audiences and our whole industry went into self-enforced hibernation. To say that it has been a roller-coaster ride since then would be an understatement!
Back in the heady days of late June, things definitely seemed to be improving – we began to see friends for outdoor dinner parties, venues re-opened for recordings and rehearsals, we enjoyed a wealth of digital performances. I even came across a word which encapsulated perfectly our sense of optimism and forward momentum at the time – “recombobulation” (we are more familiar with the negative version – discombobulation) – the act of a re-ordering affairs, putting things back together, removing confusion after a period of disquiet.
But then just last Friday, everything changed again. We were looking forward to reaching Stage 4 of the DCMS plan, with distanced audiences for indoor performances. Now that has been delayed until mid-August at the earliest and everything is in disarray again. Theatre and concert venues up and down the country are hastily reviewing their plans, and we don’t know if there will be a Panto season this year. So it does seem that it will be a while before we can recombobulate.
London Handel Festival
In mid-March we were a third of the way through this year’s London Handel Festival – an annual celebration of the composer in the city he made his home and where he wrote and performed most of his major works – when we received the fateful news from No 10. We had no choice but to cancel the remainder of the Festival. The effect was devastating, not only for the Festival itself, but for the artists involved, who were all stood down at the last minute.
On March 17, our performance of The Triumph of Time and Truth (our major oratorio this year) was due to take place at St George’s Hanover Square, Handel’s own church in Mayfair. I stood outside to make sure no one turned up. In the event, our email and telephone notifications of the cancellation had reached most people and only one person actually came, but it was very lonely standing outside the church on a cold evening with only the shadow of the composer for company.
Luckily, the Festival had a huge amount of support from our Trustees, to work on our finances and secure the future of the Festival for the time being, as well as our regular audience members, 60% of whom opted to convert their ticket purchases into full or partial donations. I am pleased that we were able to pass all of the donated funds received directly to the performers. Many of the Festival’s artists are freelancers, and the impact on their work has been almost unthinkable.
Embracing the new
In recent months lots of arts organisations have had to reimagine their creative offer. Many have turned to digital as a flexible and low-cost platform to showcase their work and reach new audiences.
We have enhanced our London Handel Festival YouTube channel with excerpts of past performances, and our Musical Director, Laurence Cummings has recorded harpsichord suites from his home. These clips have had over 600 views, which is far in excess of what we would have achieved in terms of audience numbers for a live performance.
Of course nothing can replace the special connection with the artist, or the sense of shared experience and community, which are part of the magic created by a live performance, but digital is going to be an essential part of the mix for the performing arts moving out of lockdown.
… digital is going to be an essential part of the mix for the performing arts moving out of lockdown
Social media has come to the fore as well, as an engaging way of staying in touch with audiences. I feel fortunate to have recruited a small, committed team of volunteers to help maintain an active London Handel Festival presence, with regular #onthisday #throwbackthursday and #handelhistory posts. We have even launched the first ever Handel Opera World Cup on Twitter, with our followers voting for their favourite titles in a knock-out competition.
Finally, many arts organisations are embracing the possibility of outdoor performances and the London Handel Festival is no exception.
On Saturday 29 August, we present ‘Handel Remixed’ in the courtyard of Southwark Cathedral on the south bank of the Thames, with Festival Voices and Nico Bentley (DJ). It promises to be a thrilling collaboration, with well-known Handel choruses, including his iconic Zadok the Priest, remixed live with electronic music.
On a more personal note, lockdown has been a real voyage of discovery for me. I’ve been devouring online lectures on everything from Diaghilev to the East India Company, and I have liberated from bubble-wrap a painting which I bought at the RA Summer Exhibition years ago, and which now features prominently in video calls.
In ordinary times, I sing in choirs and really enjoy the social interaction and intellectual satisfaction of music-making. That’s all changed of course, but I have relished being part of virtual choir projects which have sprung up – the first time many of us have seen ourselves ‘up close and personal’ on a screen – although I pity my poor neighbours!
In July, I celebrated my half century. I had planned a big ‘in person’ party but clearly this could not happen. So I organised Zoom drinks instead, bringing friends together from all over the world (from Ohio to Oz!) around a YouTube recital I had created with newly-acquired video editing skills, featuring specially recorded virtual performances from mates in my chamber choir, Pegasus.
The next few months are going to be a real test of the fabled and much vaunted innovation, resilience and ingenuity of our sector. I think that collaboration and partnerships are going to become increasingly important, especially for small organisations such as mine.
Perhaps the word of the day will be reinvention rather than recombobulation, things will be far too messy to try and put into some kind of order, but we must try and stay positive!
Part of Supercool's Arts + Culture In Lockdown series