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How the Liverpool Phil is bringing back live music

When the Philharmonic Hall reopens its doors on October 1 it will become the first major Liverpool entertainment venue to welcome back live audiences.

It means the series of 14 socially distanced concerts – a mixture of ‘full’ orchestra, Ensemble 10/10 and smaller recital evenings – are likely to be watched with interest by both other venues in the city and also orchestras across the country.

The concerts replace the season programme that was due to take place before it became apparent the fallout from the initial Coronavirus pandemic would be much more extensive and long-lasting than had been anticipated.

And with no return to ‘normality’ in sight, the Phil says it plans to rework its performance schedules month by month.

I caught up with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic chief executive Michael Eakin to talk about how the organisation has coped over the last few months, the challenges of putting the new programme in place and what comes next as we head towards the autumn.

What kind of financial position was the RLP in at the start of the lockdown, and what has helped you weather the last six months?

We were OK. Over the last decade we’ve worked quite hard to build up our reserves. Not to a huge level, but to the sort of level recommended for charities. That’s obviously helping us at the moment.

The other thing that’s helped us more than anything is the job retention scheme. The entire orchestra have been on furlough along with most of the staff. At the peak we had just under 20 people working, and that included part-time box office staff. It really was down to bare bones.

Of course, furlough finishes at the end of October. But it means at this point, while it’s tough and we’re clearly going to lose quite a lot of money this financial year, we’re not about to go under tomorrow.

We also received Liverpool City Council funding (the RLP is a recipient under CAIP – the city’s Council and Arts Investment Programme). They could I suppose in theory have said ‘look, it’s tough times for us too and you obviously can’t do all the work that we were expecting so we’re going to pull it back’.

But there’s never been even a suggestion of that, and they’ve paid some more of it in advance than they normally would have to help cashflow. As have Arts Council, they’ve also been very good on that.

Philharmonic Hall. Top: Michael Eakin. Photos by Mark McNulty

You announced the 2020/21 season in early May. Why was that and when did it become apparent the plans would have to change?

I think even as we announced the season, we knew there was a high risk to it. But the reason we decided to announce it was we were ready, we had it all in place.

And it’s quite interesting to look back. When this first happened in March, everybody thought well this will be a month or so.

We also thought, even though September looks pretty high risk, it would be really terrible if actually suddenly things changed and we could operate and weren’t ready.

But also, I think we wanted to put it out as a statement of intent - that we’re ready to get up and running as soon as possible, that we’ve got a programme that we’re really proud of.

I’d say we were starting to prepare plan B almost immediately.

Can you give some insight into how the new revised programme was decided?

It changed almost by the day, right up to print, in that understandably because of the way the virus has been happening the rules around lockdown have been evolving and changing all the time.

The approach we’ve taken all the way through this is ‘what are the rules today? OK we’ll work to that’.

Just before we went to print with this the rules got relaxed around wind and brass instruments and singing. At one point it was a three-metre radius, it was three metres from each other, it was six metres as a singer from anyone you were facing.

We had to unpick repertoire. We were having hilarious conversations about ‘what repertoire is available for trombone, harp and six strings?’

This is another reason we’ve only announced a month at this point, and we’re going to keep on on that basis; we’re leaving it as late as possible to make decisions.

But it’s more or less the programme we were planning to do anyway. We reduced it slightly because of the time.

As far as possible, where we had artists booked already, and if they can still get here - and of course it depends where they are in the world, then we’ve programmed them. Partly to keep faith with them to be honest because whoever they are their income has suddenly gone through the floor too.

We’ve got some really great artists and a diverse programme.

Baritione Roderick Williams. Photo by Benjamin Ealovega

Social distancing means you can only accommodate 240 people per concert. What if demand is much greater?

One of the options that we’ll consider if there really is demand is whether we put on extra performances.

The concerts are round about an hour long with no interval so as long as we allow time, and we know we can do this, we’ve worked it out, to clean the building between performances, we know that we could do that.

What can concertgoers expect in the new Covid-safe Philharmonic Hall?

We’re going to open the Grand Foyer bar. The tables will be laid out with social distancing. You’ll be met and seated, and your order taken. And obviously the capacity will be relatively limited.

But as well as that, people will be able to pre-order drinks and take them into the auditorium or indeed have them available at their seat when they arrive. We feel this is such a different experience that actually it’s good opportunity to try that out and see how it goes.

It was interesting when the team went in back in July to really walk the whole building and think about where the pinch points would be and what would work and what wouldn’t, actually we were quite surprised – we think it will work very well.

Managing flow around the corridors, and entrance and exits via different doors, is actually quite doable. I’m sure there will be things we discover when we finally bring people in, but on the whole we’re very confident that it will be safe, crucially, but also actually that will feel good.

How about backstage?

Every musician will have their own seat off stage, their own area to sit.

We’re marking out one-way systems backstage and thinking very carefully about how people move around the building. The office will still just be largely staff who are working on the event.

How do you see things developing as we move forward into the autumn?

We’ll be reviewing very carefully every single concert, what went well, what didn’t go well, we’ll be getting feedback from customers and we’ve got the ability, particularly as we haven’t yet announced our November programme, to make adjustments if it turns out we need to do that.

I’m sure there will be things that will surprise us – that will work better than we expected and things that will work less well.

Now the initial (government) guidance has gone out people, still relatively small numbers, are starting to enact it. What are we learning from that? I’m still hopeful that the general momentum through the autumn will be further relaxation rather than going the other way.

I don’t think it’s about to all suddenly go away, but hopefully the general trajectory will be improved. I hope.

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