The doors of the Berlin Philharmonic closed to the public on March 11, 2020. They won’t open again this season, making the coronavirus closure the Berlin Philharmonic’s longest break in its 138-year history. Instead of the musicians, it’s the construction workers who now have the run of the house, with improvements taking place on the elevators, air conditioning, and seating. These projects, usually crammed into the summer break, now have priority.Of course, Berlin Philharmonic artistic director Andrea Zietzschmann has also had plenty to do during the closure. She took the reins of the organization in September 2017, and now manages both the 130-person orchestra and the iconic Philharmonie concert hall, which hosts roughly 650 concerts per year. Running the orchestra through the COVID-19 crisis has made her feel like Don Quixote: “It’s a terrible experience: No matter how hard you work, your progress is always sluggish,” she said. “It feels like fighting windmills.”
VAN: The Berlin Philharmonic is a hugely successful international brand. It has 1.4 million Facebook likes and 150,000 Twitter followers. It’s supported by regional and federal governments and private sponsors. It operates at 90 percent capacity and receives 60 percent of its income through ticket sales and other activities. The Digital Concert Hall is the most successful platform of its kind … For you, as artistic director, what does improvement look like?
Andrea Zietzschmann: The first thing, of course, is ticket sales here in Berlin. Then we look at the demand for our tours. I’ve worked for other orchestras where we had to be very proactive to book concerts, to convince promoters to invite us. In our new form—the Berlin Philharmonic under Kirill Petrenko—we really can’t complain. The demand is extremely high, and has continued to grow, especially in new markets like Asia. We’d be able to tour year-round if we wanted.
Another area is media, where, again, numbers are the key: How many people watch our concerts on the Digital Concert Hall or on TV? Is that number rising? Where is our audience based? Those are clues as to whether the brand is present internationally—and growing.
Your previous position was at the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester, in Hamburg, which recently moved to a new hall. Don’t you miss being the underdog on some level?
First of all, I had already experienced the work of building up something from nothing with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Then I spent 10 years at the Hessian Radio, which was fantastic: I was the one who brought Paavo Järvi there. And I wouldn’t want to go without my time at the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester either. We prepared the move to the Elbphilharmonie, which was a fantastic experience. Of course, I felt ambivalent about leaving these orchestras “behind.” But the artistic quality and the desire to create is simply exceptional at the Berlin Philharmonic. I can’t think of another orchestra with such a strong desire to bring the house down every single night. I was really attracted to the idea of creating something with Kirill Petrenko, and the fact that I wouldn’t “just” have an orchestra, but that I’d also be responsible for the whole house.
Your predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg, wanted to organize all of the activities in the Philharmonie under a common theme, in order to define the house’s profile. The other orchestras who play in the Philharmonie were on board. The Berlin Philharmonic wasn’t—which meant that the plan couldn’t be realized. Three years ago, when you started out, you expressed a similar wish. How is that coming along?
I certainly try to channel all the energy we have in this house. When you think of the exceptional orchestras and the fantastic conductors who are always coming in and out—Jurowski, Ticciati, Barenboim—it’s worth trying to do more with that.
The first attempt, which I think has already worked out well, is our Biannual in the spring of 2021, with a 1920s theme. The Deutsches Symphonieorchester is planning a major staged project, which we hope they’ll be able to perform. We were too late this time with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Staatskapelle; I hope they’ll take part in the next one in 2023. We’re also looking to work with [the film festival] Berlinale. I hope we’ll manage to make the house come to life with interdisciplinary art.
You mentioned orchestral tours. The Berlin Philharmonic is one of the few orchestras that can actually make a profit from touring. Out of the 60 percent of your budget that you make through sales and other activities, how much does touring represent?
I can’t say exactly, but the average is around 10 percent.
Do you have an idea of how much money you’ve lost on tours cancelled due to COVID-19?
Including the tours coming up in the fall, I think it will be about two million euros. The Easter Festival in Baden-Baden is on top of that. We would have lost more if we’d had an Asia tour in the fall instead of a U.S. tour.
How about overall losses?
Between mid-March and the end of April alone we lost 1.7 million euros. But it’s extremely difficult to say what our deficit will look like at the end of the year. Our preliminary calculations are around eight or nine million euros, but that’s assuming concerts at 40 percent capacity from August onwards.
There’s so much we don’t know: What will happen with renting out the Philharmonie? What will the situation look like in August? We really can only plan broadly for our own events.
Are you counting on the regional and federal government to make up the deficit?
Of course, we are speaking with people on both levels. We’ve gotten clear signals from the federal government that they will make up their share of one third of the budget. Our conversations with the local government of Berlin have also been positive, but they are still discussing possible changes to the budget, so they aren’t able to tell us yet what they’ll be able to cover.
We’re certainly in a better position than many others, especially independent ensembles, who are on very uncertain ground. But we still have to ask ourselves how long the crisis will continue to affect us in the years ahead and what that means for our budget.
From an arts management perspective, how have you found the political response to the pandemic here?
I think everyone has been highly engaged. The rescue package for independent artists in Berlin was set up very quickly, and was used by many people—as well as misused, unfortunately. The federal loan program was also very helpful, as was the Ministry of Culture initiative to pay fees for concerts that had to be cancelled due to the crisis.
As the artistic director of one of Berlin’s leading concert halls, you also function as a gatekeeper for the independent music scene, deciding who gets to play at the Philharmonie and what fees they have to pay. What can you do as an institution to support that scene?
Our first priority was to try to make sure that we rescheduled the concerts we planned with independent ensembles, so that they don’t lose that money. I also spoke with the foundations that support concerts in our hall to make sure that they didn’t withdraw their funding for concerts that couldn’t take place; instead, they paid out portions of the funding to give the groups liquidity.
I had already set up ensemble-in-residence programs for the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. There’s also more space for baroque ensembles to perform. At the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation, I believe we have a mission to support the independent scene, more than the other heavy hitters who don’t need so much help to perform at the Philharmonie—especially when the independent groups come with an ambitious program.
By the way, I think that the crisis might have a positive effect on the independent scene, because it’s helped shine some light on their problems. Besides, many orchestras will have difficulty touring. This vacuum could be filled by independent groups, because they’re used to working in crisis mode: getting back up after setbacks and making quick and agile decisions.
In the upcoming season, you have 15 works by living female composers on the program, but only one concert will be conducted by a woman, Susanna Mälkki. Last season, Emmanuelle Haïm was the only woman conductor. Why?
I’m already having conversations with all of the female conductors who’ve guested with the major orchestras. For example Joana Mallwitz, who is making her debut with the Vienna Philharmonic this summer. I spoke with her agent right before this interview, actually. We’re carefully considering when the right time would be.
There’s a whole generation of extremely talented female conductors who are making waves. But they often prefer to wait … someone like Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. I’ve known her for years, and we’ve had several conversations. The last time, I asked, “When will you make your debut with us? We want you to come.” And she said, “Yes, but give me a little time.”
Is that reaction common among male conductors?
That’s a good question, I’ve actually never thought about it. It’s rare that a male conductor will say, “Give me two or three more years.” Of course, we don’t want someone to come too early only to have them not be well-received by the orchestra and have a difficult time with us. Usually that means a longer break afterwards, and that doesn’t help anybody. We want to work well with female conductors. It’s not like we’re saying we don’t want female conductors on the podium. That would be ridiculous.
Can you explain to me why your music director doesn’t give interviews?
I think he’s explained often enough why he doesn’t…
The idea is that he prefers to speak through his work. But what does that mean?
First of all, you can’t forget that we have press conferences.
Those are for giving official statements.
That’s not true at all. Before the last press conference, I asked [Petrenko] how much time he had, and he said, “Until there are no further questions.”
In an interview, you have a sense of dialogue, and you can press a point. Those things aren’t possible in the atmosphere of a press conference.
That might be true, but you have a chance to ask him one personal question. I’m always surprised how few questions there are. Sure, it’s a larger forum. We might think about a different setting, a table with just some journalists to create a more intimate space. But naturally he speaks mostly through his music. He also does lots of interviews for the Digital Concert Hall which are very personal.
The Digital Concert Hall isn’t a journalistic medium; it’s a marketing channel for the orchestra. He’s only talking with his musicians. But Petrenko is an employee of a publicly financed institution. Is it really too much to ask him to speak to the media?
You could see it either way. Since he’s been here, he’s shared so much of himself, so much about music and about other topics. It’s not like he’s hiding out in a room somewhere saying nothing. We’re planning family concerts for the season after next, where he’ll be introducing the pieces from the stage.
What message does it send when he says he’ll speak inside the house, but not to reporters?
I respect his decision. Our philosophy is that the musicians and I are always available to talk. But it’s completely legitimate when an artist says, “It’s my decision, I made it a few years ago.” I’m not going to nag him every day and say, “You need to give an interview.” We’ve made it possible for you to experience him in person, we’ve created a lot of media—more than anyone thought possible, compared to his time in Munich. But I understand that it’s unsatisfying for you not to be able to interview him one-on-one.
It’s more about the question of whether that aloofness helps to support the cult of the brilliant, mystical maestro.
I think the problem these days is that quotes are often shortened just to get attention, and that is widespread. You give a radio interview, two sentences will be cut out of it, and then a debate starts. There’s no context, and that’s far removed from the journalistic standards that I’m sure you practice.
What are your scenarios for a reopening of the Philharmonie? I’m sure you’ve already worked out a concept…
Just one? [Laughs] The regulations are changing day by day. The most current rules say that we have to have a distance of 1.5 meters between each listener, which means that we’re planning on 400 to 500 audience members. We can’t fit more. There will always be two seats between the people and an empty row.
That means we’ll be at about 20 to 25 percent of capacity, which is clearly problematic, considering the interaction with the audience from the stage and also the business aspects. But we’re hoping that the situation will improve so that we can expand in August and have a bigger audience. If a distance of one meter was allowed, we could have people sit in a chessboard pattern and achieve 50 percent of capacity.
How will entry to the hall work?
We’ll use all four entrances, and the tickets will show which one to use. There will probably be time slots as well, so that the audience doesn’t crowd together at any point. In the main foyers we’ll be able to set up systems showing people which way to walk. The programs will be 90 minutes long at the maximum, and usually more like 75, without an intermission, so that we don’t need to let people in and out of the auditorium. There most likely won’t be food or beverages at all, but if the officials allow it, refreshments will be served outside.
We spoke with the manager and music director of the National Symphony Orchestra Taiwan, which recently began playing concerts for up to 1,000 people. Have you been keeping an eye on how other orchestras are dealing with the new regulations?
Of course. I think I have all the studies that have been done on my desk. Anything that’s happening worldwide, I’m looking to see if it can help us. Taiwan is one model, and a lot’s starting up in Austria, too … our goal of course is to keep increasing the number of audience members in the seats and musicians on stage. We’re working with all the responsible bodies—the Ministry of Work, the accident insurance companies—in order to be creative but still responsible.
With such limited capacity, how are you planning to organize ticket sales? What about subscriptions, in particular?
We’ll definitely have to suspend subscriptions until the end of October, because about 50 to 60 percent of our seats are usually filled by subscribers. Otherwise we’d have to turn away about half of them. Starting in the middle of August, we’ll publish an adapted corona program, and our subscribers will have a weeklong exclusive right to reserve seats. Then, for the next program, which we’ll publish in September for November and December—either adapted or not—we hope that we’ll be able to continue the subscriptions as normal, with increased capacity.
How will things work on stage?
That’s a situation I’ve been analyzing closely as well. We helped develop a position paper on the risks with [the Berlin hospital] Charité and were able to convince the accident insurance companies to reduce the distance between the winds from 12 meters to two to three meters. We also tried various scenarios on stage to see how many people we could fit. In the main hall, our maximum size is about 60 people. That’s nice, because that means we’ll be able to play certain repertoire like Brahms symphonies. But everything bigger that we planned, like Mahler or Schoenberg, won’t work.
So the programs have already been decided?
We’re pretty far already. We need to be finished by the end of June. Best case scenario, everything will have relaxed in August and we’ll be able to do parts of our original programming—we’ll take that option if we can. So we have a Program A and a Program B.
The thing I’m most worried about is the choirs. We were lucky that until the end of the year we only had one project planned with choir, the premiere of a piece by Olga Neuwirth. We’re trying to postpone that until next season. But starting in February, we have one choir project after another.
You said that the orchestra missed the audience, and vice versa. But are you sure that audiences really want to go to concerts with social distancing, no intermission or catering, wearing masks? A few concerts have already happened in western Germany, but not many people came.
We have our eyes on those concerts, and it is true that there was a fair amount of people who didn’t show up, although not that many tickets were sold. I think the press is partly responsible. In Dortmund, they said that if an infection was discovered everyone would need to quarantine.
We did surveys with our repeat customers. Some want to come regardless of the rules. Others are more careful and say, “We’ll wait a little longer, until it’s safer.” An optimistic sign: The deadline to cancel subscriptions passed recently, and while some of our colleagues in Germany have had cancellations of 10 to 20 percent, we’ve had just 3.8 percent in the main hall and none in the chamber music hall. It’s an excellent result, and gives us hope that our audience is loyal and will show up. Or they’ll keep their subscriptions and not show up. I think what will be decisive is the first concert experience under the new setup. That’s the thing that I’m most worried about: That people are really excited to come, but then it won’t be quite as they hoped, because it’s too different from the normal concert experience. ¶