Friends from Abroad Share Their Stories

The performing arts in this country have taken a hard hit from the pandemic and our government’s fractured response.  The few public concerts in the Pittsburgh Symphony’s schedule are outdoors, and our fall season looks to be entirely virtual.  Is it the same everywhere?  We reached out to friends and former colleagues around the world to see how they are carrying on during this pandemic. Here are their responses:

Berlin, Germany 

Noah Bendix-Balgley, violin
First Concertmaster of Berlin Philharmonic, former PSO Concertmaster

Maestro Manfred Honeck, with Noah Bendix-Balgley, Shanshan Yao, and their son
Maestro Manfred Honeck, with Noah Bendix-Balgley, Shanshan Yao, and their son

July 29, 2020 – The response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Germany has generally been very good. At this point there have been a bit over 200,000 confirmed cases in the country, but a very low death among those- approx. 9200 deaths. 

I think there are a few reasons why the German response was successful. Off the bat the health authorities had reliable and widespread testing, and used it early on in the pandemic to get a handle on things. For the most part the messaging and information from the health ministry and the political leaders has been informed by the recommendations of experts and the public has taken the situation seriously.  At the height of the pandemic here, Angela Merkel gave a big speech imploring people to take the situation very seriously and observe social distancing measures. When I watched it, I had a bit of the impression she was acting as a schoolmaster, imploring her students to behave. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but it seems it did!

The fact that there was a general trust in the approach taken by the government was very important, and is of course a big contrast to the disastrous mixed messages that the US government has provided during the pandemic. In Germany there also hasn’t been such a politicization of things like wearing masks and keeping social distancing. There was (and still is) some dissent by fringe extremists groups who put on demonstrations, but those are a very small minority of the population and are generally ignored. 

Our lockdown was basically late March until early May- at which point things started to open up step-by-step. The lockdown itself was not so bad- we could always go outside for walks and exercise, and for us it was a wonderful time to be with family. 

Now there are not many restrictions. People are still supposed to keep social distance, though I don’t see many people observing that much any more. 

We are required to wear masks when using public transport (trams, subway, buses) and when in shops and groceries. People abide by that, but I see very few people wearing masks outdoors anymore at this point. Other than the masks inside, things are quite normal, and schools will be at normal capacity this fall. 

“When we start up our season in late August we will play with up to 68 musicians on stage. So we can even do a Brahms Symphony.”

One thing that is not normal of course is large events, which of course includes concerts. Each German region has slightly different rules (like the different regulations in US states). In Berlin there are no gatherings of 1000 people allowed until at the earliest September. 

The Berlin Philharmonic will start our season as usual in late August. However we can only have about socially-distanced 480 audience members for each concert in the Philharmonie (which usually seats 2400). 

Throughout the lockdown and then as things opened up, the Berlin Philharmonic played programs for broadcast through our Digital Concert Hall online. At the height of the lockdown we started with very small ensembles, 2 or 3 players, socially-distanced on stage. As things loosened, we expanded to chamber orchestra (up to 24 players), including some programs with our music director Kirill Petrenko. All of this was without an audience. 

Other regions and countries have started concerts with limited audiences earlier than Berlin. Quite a number of summer festivals are taking place around Europe, with social distancing in the audience, and many moved outdoors. 

Noah Bendix-Balgley, Shanshan Yao, and son
Noah Bendix-Balgley, Shanshan Yao and their son

In Berlin, we (and other orchestras) took guidance from a paper that was prepared by the big Charite hospital here. Most players on stage are 1.5 meters apart, with winds slightly further (2.5 meters I think). We wear masks whenever we are in the building, but don’t have to onstage. (I’m not sure of the reasoning behind that!). When we start up our season in late August we will play with up to 68 musicians on stage. So we can even do a Brahms Symphony. Programming for the fall has been adjusted somewhat- no big Mahler or Shostakovich for example. We will play shortened programs without intermission and repeat them more often than normal. There is a ban still on choir singing- but that will be lifted soon. There was quite an outcry about it from churches and other groups and now the politicians have relented, and will allow it. 

We will see how everything turns out. Everyone is of course worried about a 2nd wave here, and numbers of cases have been ticking up in many places in Europe as people let their guard down and start to move around more . Now it is vacation time everywhere, so people are traveling more as well.

Everyone has been teaching over the internet, myself including. I found it rather frustrating personally- one is always at the mercy of the bandwidth on either end and sound quality is never the same. But we try!

Schools and restaurants are open now. Restaurants are supposed to take down contact information from guests (for possible contact-tracing if necessary), though it seems rather lax. Some do it, some not. Sports events are only taking place without public.

Borders within the EU are open now, except for some hotspots (Sweden for example, or at the moment Barcelona). To enter from outside the EU depends on the case numbers in the country, so the US is not currently on the list that is allowed in. 

My hope is that because most European countries have gotten numbers down significantly- if there is a 2nd wave, they can contain it quickly. I imagine hotspots will continue to surface here and there, and travel regulations will change regularly as well. Unfortunately with the huge number of new cases in the US, I don’t see things getting under control for a long time! And who knows when we can get back to the States, or family from there can visit. I guess that is the most challenging part for us: otherwise we are so lucky where we are now. 

Bern, Switzerland

Christopher Davis, Trombone
Performer and Lecturer of Trombone at Northwestern University, PSO OTPAAM Fellow 2009-2011

September 4, 2020 – Hello former colleagues of the Pittsburgh Symphony. This is Christopher Davis, your former OTPAAM fellow from 2009-2011. I have been quite busy since my time in Pittsburgh and I look forward to filling you in about my CoVid19 experiences while living abroad.

I am currently Lecturer of Trombone at Northwestern University in Chicago where I teach privately, conduct Trombone Ensemble, and coach Chamber music. Until CoVid19 became a vital threat within the United States, I traveled to Chicago from Bern, Switzerland to teach, conduct, and perform monthly.

The first impact of CoVid19 within my life was while performing Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony with the Minnesota Orchestra. There was a debate over whether the Orchestra would perform due to the threat of the virus. It was decided by Administration and the Orchestra committee that we only would perform one concert, without an audience, and for a live radio broadcast. Playing this concert was surreal because I did not know if I would perform any more this season. That performance remains my last performance of my calendar year.

I also want to note that I was slated to have my professional solo debut with the Northshore Concert Band in Chicago, a performance of Mozart Requiem with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and a recital at the University of Iowa was cancelled because of CoVid19. Subsequently, classes at Northwestern shifted online and I taught the last quarter of my year abroad in Switzerland with a 7-hour time difference.

Some aspects of life abroad in Switzerland during the pandemic have been difficult but much easier than I imagine life to be in the United States. Practicing trombone has been difficult because no matter how soft I play, it still pushes the volume threshold for our neighbors. After a few heated discussions with my neighbors and being told to not practice in a local church, I found another location to peacefully practice without disturbing anyone.

There was not a hard “lockdown” in Switzerland as people were advised to exercise social distancing and wear masks. Essential services like the grocery stores, gas stations, hospitals and pharmacies were open, but other shopping venues were closed. Switzerland is an outdoorsy country and most people still maintained exercise schedules via hiking, cycling, and running. We are fortunate to live meters away from nature and we hiked a lot as a family during Lockdown.

Presently, life in Switzerland is business as usual with people exercising social distancing while wearing masks on buses and trains. As of today, the number of infections has slowly risen since May, but the government assures the people that everything is under control. Not being able to perform has been the hardest aspect of the pandemic. I greatly miss the electricity of the audience, the subtleties of playing within an orchestra, the thrill of a soft chorale entrance, teaching live lessons, and the flexibility of performing as a soloist. The silver lining of this pandemic is that it has allowed me to spend time with my young family.

Christopher Davis, Dima Dimitrova and their daughter in Bern, Switzerland
Christopher Davis, Dima Dimitrova and their daughter in Bern, Switzerland

Dima Dimitrova, Violin – Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and Bern Symphony

September 2, 2020 – The virus was confirmed to have spread at the end of February in Switzerland. The government immediately banned all events with more than 1,000 people and we stopped working on March 13th. By the end of March the numbers were climbing so rapidly and gatherings of more than 5 people were banned throughout the country. Even though we were not on an official lockdown, staying home was strongly encouraged. Schools closed on March 13th.

Between mid March and the end of April bars and all shops with the exception of grocery stores and pharmacies were closed.

The government announced a 42billion CHF rescue package, which included money to replace lost wages, short-term loans to businesses and support for sport and cultural institutions.

“the audience will be required to wear masks and we are selling all seats. We are planning to stage opera productions and we start with The Bartered Bride next week.”

On April 27th restrictions were lifted for day care workers, dentists, hairdressers, massage and beauty salons, garden shops and florists. On May 11th schools opened again, and on June 8th universities, museums, zoos and libraries also opened back up.

The system of testing changed a few times. First you had to have a few symptoms, a fever and had to have traveled to one of the heavily affected areas like Italy, China and the US. Later, they started testing people if they had symptoms but hadn’t necessarily traveled outside the county, and tests were still paid (I believe 169 CHF for a test, but some insurances reimburse those costs). Now anyone who wishes to get tested can do so for free. 

My orchestra didn’t officially go back to work until August 18th and we still have not performed for a live audience. We are scheduled to play our first Classics concert on September 17th. In rehearsal the strings wear masks while the wind and brass players are separated by plexiglass. Still, we all play in the same room for 3 to 5 hours and breathe the same air. In Basel where my sister plays masks are not compulsory in rehearsals and some people do not wear them, although most do. In the case of my orchestra (Bern Symphony) the audience will be required to wear masks and we are selling all seats. We are planning to stage opera productions and we start with The Bartered Bride next week. The choir rehearses with masks. 

We did perform 3 short Beethoven concerts at the end of June, as well, although they were not officially counted because we were on unemployment. It was on volunteer basis and we played in very small sections- 3 violins per section, 2 violas, 2 cellos, 1 bass and winds.

We traveled to the US at the very beginning of July and we were there for two weeks. We had to pack the remainder of our household items and ship them to Switzerland, and even though it was not a good time to travel we feared that the situation could get even worse and there was no other time to do it. After that we went to Bulgaria, we quarantined there and saw my family. Traveling was stressful, especially with a toddler but we made it safe and sound back to Switzerland in August.

The numbers of new cases have started climbing again and we are around where we were mid-April, and many people fear the closures of borders again.  

Guangzhou, Beijing, and Changsha, China

Zhan Shu, violin
Cleveland Orchestra, former PSO Violin 

Changsha (China) Symphony Orchestra Concert
Changsha (China) Symphony Orchestra Concert

Shu has made many visits to China and kept close ties to his friends there.  Recognizing the racial tensions here in the US, they spoke only on the condition of anonymity.  He received a few photos from a member of the Changsha Symphony, and then heard from a good friend in his hometown, a principal of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra:

July 28, 2020 – I’ll only talk about the city Guangzhou, where my orchestra is located. I would consider Chinese government’s response to the pandemic was very quick and efficient. At least, after it went to public. In Guangzhou, the duration of lockdown is approximately two months. Nobody likes it, but almost everyone obeys the rules. 

Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra is now fully back to performing. We have played about 10 concerts [as of July 28]. The first one was on June 5th. On the stage, no one was wearing a mask. However the capacity of audience is limited to under 30%, and audience are encouraged to wear masks. Of course we have to cancel all the concerts that International musicians/soloists are involved.  Instead of that, now the policy is discovering more domestic talent musicians. 

Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra is now fully back to performing.

Xinghai Music Conservatory is now reopening. The classes and tests are moved online. But major lessons of all instruments are face to face. 

The pandemic 2020 might have changed the world. With no doubt we should make programming [and the] orchestra size more flexible [while trying a] variety of ways to perform. Musicians should be tough, but not stupid. Also the administrations should evaluate the precondition of concerts more frequently and objectively.

Then he heard from a Principal of the National Centre for the Performing Art/NCPA Orchestra in Beijing: 

July 30, 2020 – We started performing again in April, but they were all online performances. The first couple of ones were Trio, Quartet, sextet or Septet. When the pandemic got a little bit under control, we started playing as string chamber orchestra. The total number of people on stage increased from 20, 30, to 40. Gradually, we added winds and brass. There were still online performances, and one concert per week. These concerts were streaming online via different platforms, including our own broadcasting channel. The ratings are high. Now, our theater is finally open to public. and there is limited audience allowed into the hall. I believe it is 30% capacity allowance. We now have live streaming and broadcasting at least once a week. Every week is different genre:  symphonic concert, Choir and Musicals.  

Changsha (China) Symphony Orchestra Concert
Changsha (China) Symphony Orchestra Concert

Wellington, New Zealand

Rosemary Harris, violin
Performs with New Zealand Symphony, Former PSO First Violin

July 21, 2020 – New Zealand went into complete lockdown around March 24th when there were just one hundred cases.  Everything except essential services was shut.  One bright note….PLENTY of toilet paper as it is manufactured here in New Zealand!

Our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was wonderful in uniting the country in this effort. For the overwhelming majority of the 5 million population, this lockdown was welcomed and followed strictly. The rationale was that the earlier and more drastic the lockdown, the earlier we could come out of it and lead a normal life. We had the advantage of having seen other countries go through various scenarios and their expertise and differing responses guided our leadership.

There were daily briefings and the Prime Minister’s and Director of Health’s communication with the citizens was excellent, informative and clear every step of the way.

During the 4 weeks of [full lockdown], as expected, cases initially rose as contract tracing and testing went into effect. A few prominent clusters were identified: weddings, one bar, rest homes. From there the contacts were traced. Two rest homes accounted for half of the 22 deaths in this country.  I think our total cases stand at about 1500 [now 1759 cases with still 22 deaths].

“We are able to hold concerts, sporting events, large gatherings and so on with no masks, no social distancing or restriction of crowd size and no social distancing. Restaurants, bars and schools are all functioning as normal.”

[Restrictions eased over 7 weeks], and after 15 days with no new cases we were allowed to go to Level 1 which is absolutely normal life with the huge exception being that our borders are closed to anyone but New Zealand citizens and residents. Anyone entering the country is in mandatory 14 day quarantine at specially chosen hotels. They are tested on Day 3 and Day 12 of quarantine.  The cost of this is at present being paid by the taxpayer and there is quite a debate on how long this can continue. It is about $3000 per person in quarantine. Kiwis even have temporarily been stopped from entering New Zealand as hotels are at capacity. There are usually 1 or 2 incoming Kiwis per day who test positive while in quarantine so the border restrictions are vital.

We’ve had a few Covidiots try to “break out” of quarantine hotels, cutting holes in fences to nip to the liquor store or go walkabouts, but luckily the majority are keeping to the rules.

We are able to hold concerts, sporting events, large gatherings and so on with no masks, no social distancing or restriction of crowd size and no social distancing. Restaurants, bars and schools are all functioning as normal.

New Zealand relies heavily on tourism, and there were hopes of at least a Trans Tasman bubble until Australia’s cases spiked recently. Meanwhile it’s a good opportunity for New Zealanders to explore their own country, and if you are stuck somewhere, it’s not a bad place to be.

During lockdown, as with many other orchestras, there were many online concerts. Musicians did the best they could to be inventive and keep engaged with the community. In fact there were some fun presentations for children, and one where musicians from different backgrounds introduced music from their countries of origin and the audience was able to learn a bit more about them personally. Lots of solo Bach of course! Teachers taught by Zoom as best they could.

Unfortunately we are not able to have international soloists or conductors. There may be some exceptions granted in the near future but the 14 day quarantine is a big deterrent. It’s a significant problem and we can’t see yet how it will play out.

The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra was very lucky in that the musicians were kept on full pay during the lockdown. Programmes and personnel have changed obviously because of the international restrictions, but, for now, the musicians are feeling grateful and fortunate to be back at work.

Updates about recent outbreaks:

[August 11, 2020] After 102 days we have a family with coronavirus in Auckland, and the source is unknown. The government has put Auckland back into some sort of lockdown and the rest of the country is bumped into a low alert level.

The Auckland Philharmonic has had to cancel its concert this week as they are back to only 10 permitted in a gathering. The rest of the country is limited to 100 but of course that’s no good for concerts either.  

[September 6, 2020] Well we have one community outbreak in the Pasifika community in Auckland. Contrary to what Trump says the outbreak is only 100 in the cluster. But it is believed to be contained, and to be extra safe we are in an increased level of alert nationwide.

For the next few weeks concerts and gatherings over 100 are not permitted. Which means concerts can only be live-streamed. Hopefully back to normal in 2 weeks.

All best wishes to the PSO and hoping you can soon get back to performing in beautiful Heinz Hall, I miss you!

1 thought on “Friends from Abroad Share Their Stories

  1. Jim Barthen

    Congratulations to Noah and family!!!!! Remember, despite the current issues the PSO musicians will come back strong and better than ever!!

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