The show must go on: How German orchestras are continuing concerts amid the pandemic

As Hamburg Symphony Orchestra director Daniel Kühnel took to the stage to open the new season, he was greeted with far fewer faces than normal. But the concert carried on even stronger than before..

The show must go on: How German orchestras are continuing concerts amid the pandemic
The Hamburg Symphony Orchestra opened their new season on September 20th. Photo: Daniel Dittus

The sounds of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante and Beethoven’s First Symphony resonated around the sparsely filled Hamburg Symphony Orchestra concert hall, each note made all the more poignant by the six-month-long silence that had come before.

The programme introduction made no secret of how difficult that pause had been.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, you cannot imagine how much we have missed you” it read, as musicians and audience were reunited at long last. 

An unwelcome surprise

When the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe earlier this year, Europe’s music venues were amongst the first and the worst affected. 

Events were called off, musicians were forced to play to empty halls, and the fate of the arts was thrown into jeopardy overnight.

The Hamburg Symphony Orchestra were one of many concert halls who saw their 2019/20 season abruptly cancelled on March 12th as large gatherings in Germany were banned. 

When it became clear that the new restrictions would be lasting months rather than weeks, the orchestra turned to more unconventional methods to keep providing their fans with music. 

READ ALSO: Germany strives to kickstart culture in a world blighted by virus

Concerts with a handful of musicians and no audience were streamed live on their website every week day during the height of the pandemic. 

In June, the orchestra took the new ‘internet concert’ phenomenon a step further by organising a six-day interactive music project based on Gustav Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth).

The show must go on

“When all the concert halls closed down, all possibilities we had of performing […] were gone from one day to another, which is financially and artistically quite a shock”, said orchestra director Daniel Kühnel. 

“There were many things we had to adjust to: no audience, no ticketing, no income. Also, very technically, the few musicians that were on stage had to get used to the fact they were sitting very far from each other and adjust their ears to this new situation.”

As restrictions began to ease, musicians and fans alike awaited the beginning of the new season with a mixture of delight and apprehension.

READ ALSO: VIDEO: How Hamburg's laughing stock became its crown jewel

Although audiences were now able to return, the concert experience would be altered beyond recognition. 

Regulations in Germany stipulate that there must be a distance of 1.5 metres between string players and two metres between wind players, meaning that concert programmes cannot include works that require a full-scale orchestra. 

The orchestra’s home venue, Hamburg’s famous Laeiszhalle, has also introduced a wide variety of other regulations to minimise the risk of infection. 

Soloist Guy Braunstein greeted conductor Sylvain Cambreling in a covid-safe way. Photo: Daniel Dittus

Audience members will be seated at least 1.5 meters away from each other in all directions, reducing the hall’s capacity to just below a third. 

READ ALSO: What does live music in Germany look like in the times of corona?

Every concert will be played twice in one evening to allow for the sale of more tickets, with both lasting a maximum of one hour and running without an interval.

In between the two concerts, all surfaces will be disinfected and the venue will be thoroughly ventilated. Audience members will have to wear a mask when moving about the venue but can take it off when seated. 

A new beginning

It was under these strange circumstances that the orchestra opened their 2020/21 season on September 20th. 

When it came to determining which pieces to play, Kühnel admits that their choices were heavily influenced by the pandemic – and in more ways than one. 

“We think, in principle, that an orchestra as a cultural institution has to be a vital part of what is going on in the world – we cannot just play something and fail to relate it to our reality.”

“That is not to say that we only play sad pieces, or that we only play pieces that have something to do with a pandemic. But we do, with our means, reflect the situation that we are in.”

“[For the season opening] it had to be a piece not only small enough to stage, but it also has to have a certain meaning.”

Musicians at the concert had to wear masks when moving around the stage. Photo: Daniel Dittus

“We chose Beethoven’s first symphony which was – in the time it was written – so new, so unheard of, that we thought it would be exactly right to reflect this new beginning, that we are sharing now with our audience.”

More uncertain times ahead

Although new orchestra seasons are now well underway across Germany, the coming months are set to present even more challenges.

Seasons are usually organised two to three years in advance, but the unpredictability of the pandemic means that this is no longer on the cards.

“We essentially have to replan the whole season”, says Kühnel. “We don’t know what the situation will be like in January and February, whether we will be allowed to place more musicians on stage, if the audience will be bigger or smaller, or if there will be a second lockdown – God forbid.”

They are not the only orchestra which has been forced to adapt quickly: an announcement from the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra in mid-September has shown the speed at which plans can now change.

After opening their season on August 28th at around a quarter of normal capacity, new regulations passed by the Berlin Senate this month mean that much more of their auditorium can be used.

Full-house concerts at the Berlin Philharmonic will remain out of reach for some time to come. Photo: DPA

READ ALSO: ‘Safer than supermarkets’: Could opera houses in Germany reopen at full capacity?

From November 1st, the audience will be seated in a “chessboard pattern” increasing capacity to just over a third. A mouth and nose covering will, however, be mandatory for the entirety of the concert.

Orchestra director Andrea Zietzschmann welcomed the Senate’s decision as “an important step towards more normality and a lively exchange between the orchestra and our audience”.

Although most concerts are now able to take place as scheduled, the orchestra is currently preparing two separate programmes to account for potential changes in coronavirus measures. 

The first programme will be used if distances between musicians can be reduced to one metre between string players and 1.5 meters between wind players, with the second programme in reserve in case the currently permitted distances have to be maintained.

The power of music

Restrictions continue to vary from state to state, meaning that the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra are unable to take similar steps toward normalcy. 

Although the arts are heavily subsidised in Germany, many orchestras are expecting to sustain heavy losses this year. 

Kühnel admits that whilst “the demand is there”, there are “certain groups that are cautious and do not want to go into spaces full of people.”

He hopes, however, that the music they play will allow the audience to leave the difficulties of this year at the door. 

“Seeing the concert hall relatively empty will certainly affect people, just as it will affect me and the musicians. But I think that if we are good (and we plan to be good), people will forget the strange circumstances during the concert and connect with the music.”

Tickets for the 20/21 season of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra can be found here, and for the Berlin Philharmonic here.

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‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”


“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”