Coronavirus: German conductor Christoph Poppen quarantined in Hong Kong warns live classical music faces losing its audience

Oliver Chou
·5-min read

Live classical music risks losing its audience if the travel bans and performance restrictions in place for the coronavirus pandemic continue over the longer term, a leading conductor under Hong Kong quarantine has warned.

Christoph Poppen, principal guest conductor of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta since 2015, is set to perform without a live audience for the first time in his long career later this month at City Hall.

Speaking to the Post while quarantined in a Wan Chai hotel ahead of the concert, the Munich-based conductor described the state of live classical music across the world as “very fragile”. “If the pandemic goes on for two more years, we would probably lose our audience.”

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It is not the first time that Poppen has undergone quarantine for a concert. Last month, he was in Seoul as artistic director of a fortnightly summer festival celebrating the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, for which he was quarantined for two weeks.

He is going through a similar 14-day process, which started last Tuesday, so he can perform with fellow German pianist Alexander Krichel on September 26 at the venue in Central.

Under the city’s Covid-19 policy, which only allows live performances with an audience from October 1, it will be recorded in a largely empty hall and released at a later date.

Poppen and Krichel are thought to be the first foreign classical musicians to be quarantined in Hong Kong to honour their concert engagement since tough Covid-19 restrictions were first introduced earlier this year.

“I am not at all worried about the virus. If I’m going to catch it, I can catch it anywhere. And with all the precaution measures, Hong Kong is certainly a much safer place than many other countries in the world,” Poppen said.

On performing without the public present, he said: “It would not be a nice feeling as I always believe the audience plays a big role as we on stage can feel the audience listening which is a source of energy for us as performers.

“Yet I am sure the pandemic will glue us together even stronger in music-making, that’s what motivates me to be here to be with the musicians whom I miss.”

The Munich-based musician is holed up in a Hong Kong hotel as part of the city’s pandemic requirements. Photo: Handout
The Munich-based musician is holed up in a Hong Kong hotel as part of the city’s pandemic requirements. Photo: Handout

In his home country of Germany, live performance continues to suffer despite an easing of restrictions.

“There are rules regulating the halls since the reopening in June, such as in Munich where a 3,000-seat hall was allowed first 50, then 200, and up to 500 audiences now,” he said.

“At my own Cologne Chamber Orchestra where the hall can open to 1,000 audiences, ticket sales are slow as people hesitate to go to concerts. The average age of our audience is quite high and they feel insecure to go out,” he said, referring to the orchestra he leads as principal conductor.

The Sitkovetsy Trio with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta under the baton of Christoph Poppen. Photo: Handout
The Sitkovetsy Trio with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta under the baton of Christoph Poppen. Photo: Handout

With travel bans and mandatory quarantine in force, most artists from the United States have cancelled their performances in Europe, and their slots are filled by European musicians instead.

“Over the years we are so used to conducting everywhere in the world except our own orchestras at home, I suppose that will change, and there will be less travelling as we can’t afford to do one concert in three weeks with the quarantine period,” he said.

An online concert could never reproduce the live experience, Poppen said, adding: “Music produces natural vibration from the instruments that goes directly to the whole body of the listener whose presence there requires full concentration for two hours or so to focus on the music and to clear the mind for a while.

“That’s something you can’t do in the living room or on the move.”

Yip Wing-sie, the Sinfonietta’s emeritus conductor, shared Poppen‘s concerns about the impact of Covid-19 on orchestras and live performances.

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“We are thinking of other ways to perform in venues other than concert halls, such as small groups at community halls or as movies on TV or the big screen,” she said.

Laurent Perrin, a French cellist with the Sinfonietta since 1998, called for tighter safety measures that would mean halls would never have to close again.

“Winter is forthcoming and that’s a big question mark for the virus resurgence we need to deal with now that we are returning to the stage. We need to look at long term measures for continuity,” he said.

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