‘A new model, a new mood’: Shanghai Symphony’s blueprint for the post-Covid orchestra

Lucy Thraves
Thursday, February 4, 2021

Lucy Thraves speaks to the president of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra about embracing new ways of connecting with audiences

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Leilei Cai

It was the first country to encounter Covid-19, and has lead the way in responding to the pandemic over the last year. With the virus now largely under control in China – graphs showing infection rates over time are the opposite shape to those of the UK – the country’s cultural landscape is being redrawn, and live audiences are returning to concert halls and theatres. But some things have changed irrevocably, as the world has undergone a shift in its understanding of the benefits and dangers of connectivity in all its many forms. The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra has navigated this shift with persistent creativity, finding opportunities for progression in places that might have seemed at first to be limiting.  

In the weeks following the city's initial lockdown, the orchestra began to work out how to get back on its feet. ‘From as early as April 2020 we began to think about the return of live concerts with audiences,’ explains SSO president Fedina Zhou. ‘From May, we had small chamber concerts with very limited audiences – 20 at the most, all from our membership club. Our first full-scale orchestral concert was mid-June, with an audience capped at 30%.’ By the middle of 2020, the orchestra was preparing for its audiences to return in greater numbers. The usual safety measures, familiar to many of us now, were put in place, and remain there: a system to measure the temperature of the audience before entry, social distancing strictly enforced for the duration of concerts. In some instances, the orchestra play twice in one night, so audiences can be split over two events; and the concerts themselves are shorter, with no interval. The orchestra also began to sell tickets on a month-by-month basis, rather than for the whole season, to account for the ever-present possibility of last-minute cancellations.

The return of live events has been one strand of recovery; another has been building an infrastructure for digital engagement. Zhou explains that, very early on, the orchestra had to overhaul the ways in which it communicated with its audiences at home. ‘We took our programmes online, posting them on social media, and created short videos of the musicians introducing the programme. The audiences loved it.’ Such a positive reception prompted broader discussions about how the orchestra could harness its wealth of musical knowledge to connect with audiences and wider communities during national lockdown. It established a series of online lessons for children, in which principal musicians created video resources for young instrumentalists. Last July, as part of its annual summer festival, it supplemented live events with online activities. As has been the case for orchestras around the world, learning how the digital and live can co-exist has been one of the most urgent questions posed by the pandemic. In Shanghai, a symbiotic relationship between the two has been embraced, with digital and live events each playing to their strengths in order to respond to different needs within the community.

Prior to the pandemic, the lifeblood of an orchestra’s activity was international exchange, with programmes reliant on performers flying in from overseas. China’s borders have been effectively closed for many months, but rather than seeing this as a limitation, the SSO has taken the opportunity to focus on nurturing domestic talent. ‘We still keep several international musicians in our season,’ explains Zhou, ‘but most of the time we have prioritised giving more chances to young musicians from China, many of whom will not have had professional engagements before. Actually, the whole of China has followed this new direction, to the extent that the government has started to pay young people a lot more attention, not just in classical music but across the arts.’

"

Most of the time we have prioritised giving more chances to young musicians from China, many of whom will not have had professional engagements before

Taking this risk has paid off: ‘People are so used to the big names, but now each concert is a surprise, a new experience,’ she continues. ‘Young people appreciate this, audiences appreciate this. We are so happy with the results.’

The orchestra’s commitment to young people is not new. In 2014, it began a partnership with the New York Philharmonic, at the centre of which is a two-year graduate programme which sees New York Phil musicians travel to China four times each season for masterclasses, coaching, mock auditions and seminars. Over the last year, of course, travel between the two countries has been impossible, so the partnership has taken a necessarily virtual turn. Last summer, 50 Philharmonic musicians joined around 30 Shanghai Orchestra Academy students to form an online orchestra, which performed virtually, side-by-side. In addition, each orchestra has hosted the other’s videos and live-streams, and they have shared resources such as online masterclasses. It demonstrates how international cultural exchange can take place even when physical travel is prohibited, as long as the right technologies are in place.

But the SSO shows no signs of slowing the expansion of its online offering. ‘This winter, we plan to start our own digital concert hall,’ says Zhou. ‘We want to connect all of our materials in the digital hall, and connect the people who’ve tuned in to listen, wherever they may be. Also, we want to think about how to create different kinds of programmes. When you are entering a new era, it’s a chance to express the moment. Our audiences want to hear the music of this era.’

This open and forward-thinking approach to programming and delivery has been a long time coming, Zhou says. ‘Orchestras have always been very traditional, but in this era we have a new model and a new mood. Now, we put every concert online. We make better use of our archive material. We have a mixture of longer and shorter concerts. The new era makes us feel positive; we can learn how to make the internet work best for us, how to best have a life online. This is so important.’

More information on the Shanghai Symphony can be found here.