Chamber Orchestra of Europe: A Reimagined Summer

Simon Mundy
Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Brexit negotiations and Covid restrictions made the Chamber Orchestra of Europe's soon-to-be-released Beethoven cycle a logistical challenge, to say the least - but they've pulled it off, and to great acclaim. Simon Mundy reports

The COE celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday
The COE celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday

In normal times organising the Chamber Orchestra of Europe's concerts and recordings is a challenge - the players come from all sorts of countries and have regular jobs in orchestras rooted to one location - but putting together a Beethoven Symphony cycle with Yannick Nézet-Séguin in a pandemic summer required a whole new set of tools.

Until 2020 getting the band together was 'just' a matter of co-ordinating diaries, booking trains and planes, and negotiating with venues, conductors and soloists. Everything collapsed in lockdown, of course, but by this spring there were stirrings in the musical veins. Something big had to happen, however complicated the logistics.

'The Beethoven cycle had been five years in the planning,' says Simon Fletcher, COE's general manager, 'but it was going to be in Paris and Luxembourg. When COVID hit, that project was the first to be cancelled. We faced the unknown. For a band like the COE the rhythm of life was gone.' In the meantime Nézet-Séguin had become a difficult man to pin down as he became music director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. As it was he spent much of the year locked down in his apartment in Montreal, something that made even getting to Europe a trial.

Not only were the concerts postponed, so were the recordings due to be made for Deutsche Grammophon. 'It is extremely hard to rebook these sorts of projects,' says Fletcher. The recordings are particularly important for the orchestra in its 40th anniversary. Its first cycle was made with Nikolaus Harnoncourt 30 years before and went on to sell more than a million copies.

To the rescue came Baden-Baden and the Intendant of its Festspielhaus, Benedikt Stampa. The original idea had been to record a cycle of Brahms' symphonies there this year but that too fell by the wayside. Stampa and Nézet-Séguin were determined that something would take place. If Fletcher could get the orchestra to Germany, the concerts would go ahead, whether or not an audience was allowed in to see them. To make a positive out of a dire situation, the project would mark the launch of Stampa’s new digital concert hall. In the end the Festspielhaus was deemed by health authorities to qualify as a test case for Covid precautions and 800 out of 2000 seats were allowed to be occupied.

'Normally everything is planned years and certainly many months in advance,' says Fletcher, 'but for this we had to keep a constant eye on the changing rules between all the countries our performers come from and Germany. This wasn't easy, partly because the rules kept changing but also because the information was often only on government websites in the home language - for example, none of the COE team speak Danish! It became really difficult to unravel everyone's local situation.'

The arrangements became a game of three dimensional chess. Although the performers came from 16 countries, the COE has three main blocs: a German speaking one (Germany, Austria and Switzerland), a Swedish resident one and a UK group. 'That meant that 17 Swedish and UK players, out of a total of 60 musicians, could not get into Germany directly several weeks before the project. Luckily rules changed for Sweden and we were left to find a way to get the UK based players and staff there - and that meant finding a third country we could send them to for quarantine. The easiest way was to place them in northern Italy for ten days and then get them to Baden-Baden by train.'

" That's a huge level of risk for an independent orchestra faced with third party costs when government policies keep changing

The tour and stage manager, Patrick McEntee, chose to work remotely from the Croatian island of Lopud, a short ferry voyage from Dubrovnik to sit out his isolation. Sensible! Even so, everything kept getting pushed back as the Delta variant of Covid began to take its toll. 'We were right on the edge with the summer's projects,' says Fletcher. 'Our problems were compounded by the schedule, which meant that there were concerts planned in Wiesbaden,' a mini series directed from the violin by Ben Gilmore at the Rheingau Festival, 'with only a 15 day gap in between concerts in Baden-Baden - not enough time to bring players home and then head out again with quarantine time.' Then the Wiesbaden dates were followed shortly afterwards by concerts in Berlin and Hamburg's Philharmonies.

COVID transport rules also affected their lorry driver. 'Our truck with the large instruments could not get all the way to Baden-Baden. We had to park it in a French lay-by close to the border and transfer the lot into a German one'. Then, of course, Brexit applied its complications. For Fletcher himself, getting to the concerts in Baden-Baden fell foul of the ambivalent new rules which changed several days after the project started. 'Airline check-in staff, customs officials and hotel reception staff did not know how to deal with me. Did I need a visa? Was being an orchestra manager reason enough to be travelling? Could I be allowed to stay in the hotel as I had just come from the UK? General websites, like hotel chains' and those for border officials, were not able to respond quickly enough. By the time Rheingau came, we had to have letters detailing links to invitations and contracts in English and German'.

None of these projects came cheap. By the time everything was totted up, the costs were heading towards a million euros. 'That's a huge level of risk for an independent orchestra faced with third party costs when government policies keep changing,' Fletcher says, still mopping his brow at the thought. In the end the resolve of German institutions to absorb whatever was necessary so that the concerts and recordings could happen made it possible. 'And it could have been much worse; we could have been landed with €150,000 of Luxembourg hotel fees from the original schedule but we were so lucky that the Philharmonie hall there was able to negotiate a way out.'

In the end, the Beethoven symphony cycle was played to great acclaim, well worth the hassle for conductor, players and those putting it on. Simon Fletcher and the COE management team were exhausted when it was over but as Fletcher says, 'we were completely committed to making these concerts happen. The COE team adapted to new challenges brilliantly. We hadn't played since October 2020 so when the orchestra came together again they suddenly exploded into action. The energy and music making was extraordinary.'

DG plan to release the recordings of the Beethoven Nine Symphonies, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and produced by Andrew Mellor, next year.