in Columns

Tears behind face masks and concerts with social distancing

by Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen

“There is a solemn atmosphere at concerts in 2020, held with social distancing. Nothing, it seems, can be taken for granted any more. Circumstances may change at short notice, and any given live performance may turn out to be the last one for a long time. Audiences are subdued. There is a sense of ceremony at concerts: guided by staff, we exit the hall in an orderly procession, faces covered.” Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen discusses the importance of extraordinary concerts in these extraordinary times.

There are so many ways of marking out safe distances in the auditorium: round black stickers, paper printouts, folding seats firmly strapped shut or seat cushions at church concerts indicating where listeners should sit. To stage performers, these resemble spikes – bits of tape on the floor that guide performers to their correct locations. When the audience observes the prescribed choreography, a geometrical pattern emerges. This is the new normal for cultural events, fostering a sense of security. Having been programmed to visualise an exclusion zone around ourselves, we feel comforted by the safe distancing prescribed in an auditorium. We also feel grateful that we are able to attend concerts at all, and that we need have no fear in doing so.

Now that the coronavirus situation in Europe has taken a turn for the worse again and many countries entered lockdown for a second time in November, things in Finland have remained considerably calmer.* Though still in extraordinary circumstances, Finnish society is chugging along, with care but with determination. The cultural scene has remained active, and institutions remain open. This brings some hope: by complying with safety instructions, we can ride out the pandemic without a lockdown. For artists and cultural institutions, it means continuity of operations, even if in low gear with revenue losses and facing continuous uncertainty. For audiences, it means opportunities to gain strength from live performances, and this is something worth taking advantage of.

The lockdown last spring demonstrated in concrete terms just how essential the things that we usually take for granted can be. Many discovered that they desperately needed live artistic performances once the chance to enjoy those was taken away from them. People soon realised that a concert on a computer screen was not even close to the real thing, just like a meeting in person can never be fully replaced with a video call.

I have been going to concerts ever since it became possible again in June. At all events, safety has been taken extremely seriously. Live music gets me every time. It washes over the skin. Yet the live music deficit accumulated in the spring seems insatiable. Music is only alive when someone is performing it in the same room where you are.

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The classical music scene is fortunate in that a classical concert experience is little disturbed by safe distancing, sparse attendance and a quiet mood. Clubs and stadium concerts are a different setting altogether, and that sector has had a more difficult time of providing meaningful experiences with the restrictions currently in place, although small-scale gigs have been held all along.

As far as content goes, freelance classical music in Finland has veritably flourished under lockdown. At large-scale concerts, it is obvious that people now do not dare come out to concerts even if someone like Karita Mattila is performing, but freelance concerts have in many cases attracted even more audiences than normally. There is an insatiable hunger for culture.

Auli Crop C Maarit Kytoharju
Auli Särkiö-Pitkänen
Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

In Finland, chamber music series such as Klassinen Hietsu at Hietsun paviljonki in Helsinki and Kino soi! at the old cinema in Tapiola have gone on as usual, and early music has been actively performed all over Finland. Small, intimate concerts feel safe. Festivals are also managing quite well during the pandemic, recent ones including the Kauniainen Music Festival, curiously blending chamber music and science, and the Helsinki Early Music Festival in October. Eurajoki Bel Canto mounted a brilliant concert performance of Wagner’s Parsifal, no less, at Eurajoki Church. There have also been bold independent ventures, such as a Poulenc chamber music series held by pianist Maija Väisänen at Hietsun paviljonki.

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There is a solemn atmosphere at concerts in 2020, held with social distancing. Nothing, it seems, can be taken for granted any more. Circumstances may change at short notice, and any given live performance may turn out to be the last one for a long time. Audiences are subdued. There is a sense of ceremony at concerts: guided by staff, we exit the hall in an orderly procession, faces covered. The auditorium is quiet, because the person next to you is too far away to talk to. No one coughs.

Of course it is very sad that only a small number of people have access to these experiences; venues now typically sell tickets for only half their normal capacity. Admittedly the absence of proximity takes something away from the sense of community in attending a live performance. Then again, these extraordinary circumstances have fostered a different sort of community: a feeling of gratitude and of pulling through this together. Pekka Kuusisto, hosting a concert by the Helsinki Philharmonic in September, said that although concerts now seem a bit strange, they do not need to be melancholy – they can be wonderful. Musicians are itching to perform for live audiences again.

Actually, I have also enjoyed the new sort of privacy afforded by social distancing. At the opera, I can weep quietly into my face mask without having to worry about anyone else seeing my tears. Perhaps people are more generally better disposed to showing their emotions now? The Kino Tapiola hall is like a cave or a bunker, and when it was filled by the music of Pärt at the VocalEspoo festival in October, I distinctly heard sobbing behind me. 

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo: EMO Ensemble at Vocal Espoo 2020. Photo by Maarit Kytöharju

*Up-date on 20 Nov, 11.40 am: As four municipalities in the Finnish capital region have moved to the spreading stage of the coronavirus pandemic, authorities have declared that all public events involving more than 20 people will be prohibited for three weeks.