Alexander Briger, Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Australian World Orchestra, reports from Paris during this time of coronavirus. He talks about the flurry of interrupted engagements, his new daily routine, his thoughts about the industry’s future, and offers up a playlist to get us through lockdown.
Alexander Briger in Paris. Photo supplied
When did you realise or accept that you were going to have to see out the coronavirus away from home, and the impact that it would have on your engagements for the foreseeable future? How did you feel and was there a grieving process?
At first none of us took it really seriously but then suddenly there were all these texts going back and forth between my agent, family, and me about trying to get on a plane to get back to Australia [from France] as soon as possible so as to fulfil an engagement I had coming up in April with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It crept up on us like that old 50s horror movie The Blob! Every day I woke up to more bad news, more texts saying “get on a plane!”, more restrictions from President Macron… We thought about getting to Heathrow to then fly to Australia but that was proving complicated because it wasn’t that easy to get out of France and no one knew if it was all going to calm down within a few weeks. That of course wasn’t to be! Then came the 14-day hotel quarantine in Australia, then the orchestras talking about postponements. As I said, like a horror movie. Finally, it was clear, things were starting to get cancelled or postponed. First I lost my debut at the Bolshoi in Moscow doing Figaro. Then the SSO concerts, which were extremely sad for me because it was a fantastic program, the concerts were in the same week as my birthday and I had all my family from Australia and France coming. Then a wonderful Beethoven concert with Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Then on the day of my birthday in April I lost a very big engagement for next February and now I’m extremely worried about a debut I have at the Montreal Opera in November doing Jenůfa, and The Turn of the Screw in Paris next March.
As for a “grieving process” – yes and no. Intellectually I understand why this needs to happen for everyone’s health and safety, and I am hoping the cancelled performances will simply be postponements. Obviously, if they are cancelled altogether, I’ll be upset and, of course, it impacts me financially. But what can one do? My wife keeps me grounded and constantly reminds me, we have not lost anyone, we are together, happy and have a wonderful and loving family. I guess at times like these that’s all that matters.
I do understand also that it affects the companies as well. I am mindful, as an industry, we are all suffering together at this time – artists, companies, venues etc.
Did you have immediate ideas about how you were going to spend your time in the wake of these postponed and cancelled engagements?
It’s funny because as each engagement got cancelled I started to study the scores of the next work I was due to conduct. And then that one got cancelled. So onto the next score. And then… well it was like Groundhog Day. So I’m actually throwing myself into some scores for next year and at the same I’m really trying to better my French so am spending a lot of time doing a complex online course.
You are currently in France. How serious are the social distancing measures and how are you finding them?
It’s very serious and very tough. The “laws” are much harsher here than in Australia, and for good reason as at present sadly there appears to be no slowing down of the death toll. We are not allowed more than one kilometre from our apartment and we are not allowed outside for more than an hour a day. The police are constantly checking. We have to carry passports, proof of dwelling and the time we left the apartment to go outside. The fines are extreme and the police are very strict! I don’t know how the cafes and restaurants of Paris will survive. At least some wine and cheese shops and bakeries are open. How could the French survive without their wine, cheese and bread?! It’s funny to see the tobacco shops open and queues of people outside, all distanced at one metre! The French and their cigarettes! Everything else has been closed for so long. The government will make a new decision about all of this on June 2. Then there are the rules for cleaning, which are extreme. Even if you take your rubbish outside you have to wash the clothes you were wearing, have a shower, thoroughly clean everything. Even food packaging has to be washed!
How would you describe a typical day for you now?
Well, as you would know, Paris is full of small apartments, all cramped together. It’s not like in Australia with houses and gardens and big balconies. Cooking on a BBQ is illegal in Paris (with or without the virus). So the walls start to close in on you. You’re literally confined to a few rooms. We have a two-year-old daughter, so much of the time is taken up by entertaining her. I try to get up early and get a few hours study done before my wife and child wake. After that there are the Zoom and FaceTime calls to speak with family, agents, work, and on Saturday we try and do a huge call with family all over the world (it doesn’t always work though – too many people trying to speak at once!). We are trying to do that to keep in touch and feel “together”. After lunch I do my French course whilst my daughter sleeps and in the afternoon I take her out on the scooter for an hour or so. Then the obligatory aperitif at 6.30pm, the applauding for the hospital workers from the windows around France at 8pm, and then Netflix at night!
How will the Australian World Orchestra weather the COVID storm? What kinds of discussions have you been having with the organisation?
AWO is resilient. I am confident we will weather the storm and we are putting measures in place to reduce the impact on us financially. We are continuing to plan the next two to three years, where we have some very exciting programs, as we feel sure the virus situation will be under control. What we still don’t know is how this will affect airlines long term? Nobody does. AWO invites many Australian musicians living overseas to return home, so if tickets become so expensive that nobody can afford them or international border restrictions remain… Let’s wait and see.
Have you given much thought to how the coronavirus will shape international engagements for artists in the long-term?
I think every country will be different. As mentioned, I’m already having engagements for next year cancelled or postponed. There is no fixed end date to this. Even when the world goes ‘back to work’ that doesn’t mean all the opera houses and orchestras will be able to function as they did before. Will social distancing have to be implemented in venues (both audiences and the musicians on stage), reducing box office revenue? Programming may be affected and reduced, artists and managements may have to accept smaller fees as companies try and recoup their losses. We don’t really know for sure, but all of those things are possible.
As for Australia – when we are allowed to play in the big halls again, one way the classical music arts community could really come together is for the orchestras and opera companies to focus on using Australian singers, conductors, soloists and directors for the immediate future. It would also be a wonderful support to our home grown talent, who are world-class and support our national cultural economy. And, imagine also if many programs could highlight Australian works so that our composers would benefit as well! That would be fantastic! I personally think with audience support the Australian classical music industry will survive and continue for Australia to lead the way showing that our artists and musicians are as good as any on earth. That would go a long way to help the arts economy in Australia and general morale.
What would you say to a music lover in lockdown who is feeling the absence of live events?
Well, I pray live performance will return ASAP of course, but in the meantime there are the live streams of all sorts of concerts and one thing I particularly enjoy is searching YouTube for old footage of the great masters (soloists, conductors, singers etc.), documentaries, and concerts. There’s so much on YouTube now that most of us never had in our youths. Footage of incredible things. Only the other day I saw a video of Mehta’s first rehearsal with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Karajan conducting in his early 20s and Abbado making his debut with the New York Philharmonic, also in his very early 20s, introduced by Bernstein! Just phenomenal! And then I watched one of Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts”! They were all from a generation when classical music ruled the world!
In what have you found comfort during this time?
I get great comfort knowing I’ll be seeing friends and family soon. I’m booked to fly home to Sydney on June 29. I can’t wait! So, definitely my family and friends, a good sense of humour, my music, and some amazing French comfort cuisine and vin!