Shanghai Symphony takes a first step towards ‘normality’

May 29, 2020

May 8 was a momentous day for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. For the first time since China went into lockdown at the end of January, they presented a concert—and it was a resounding success. 

Theatres, concert halls, and cinemas were among the last buildings to re-open in Shanghai after lockdown measures began to be lifted, so staff and performers at Shanghai Symphony Hall had time to prepare for the event—both mentally and physically. We spoke to Dr. Isaiah Weng, head of the digital and IT department at Shanghai Symphony Hall, to find out more about the concert, how they prepared for reopening night, and what they learned from the experience.

The reopening concert was a dramatically scaled-back event compared to the full houses in their 1,200-seat vineyard-style concert hall the Shanghai Symphony is used to. The May 8 concert was held in their 400-seat recital hall, with only a handful of performers playing to an invited audience of just twenty people. But, despite the largely empty room, the feedback from both performers and audience members was overwhelmingly positive. The performers thrived off playing to a live audience again, and at least one audience member was moved to tears during the performance. Once the music filled the room, a sense of peace reigned. If the arts exist to provide inspiration, hope, entertainment, and a sense of escape, this performance was the perfect embodiment of true artistic expression.

But, artistic aspirations aside, there were practical measures that needed to be put in place before the orchestra could safely perform in front of a live audience again. 

The city government had issued guidelines for the opening and operation of a public space— from requiring face masks to utilizing thermal imaging for checking body temperatures on arrival. Visitors must also register on arrival at the venue and all public areas, such as the lobby and restrooms, are cleaned every two hours. 

In addition, official guidelines only allow theatres and concert halls to operate at a maximum of 30% occupancy, so this would dramatically alter the venue’s operations for the event. In the auditorium, audience members (even family members who had arrived together) were seated according to physical distancing guidelines, with two empty seats on each side of them. And the audience was intentionally limited to 20 people for the first performance, much lower than the 120 audience members that would have been allowed with the 30% occupancy rule.

But Dr. Weng explains that this was “just the beginning for us in returning to live performances.” By September, they plan to hold a concert in their main concert hall, with 30 performers playing to around 400 audience members. In the meantime, they’re being cautious and using a commonsense approach in building their operations back up to those levels.

Technology is also playing an important role in the return to performances, and Dr. Weng anticipates this will continue for future seasons, too. For the May 8 concert, they used the “WeChat” app to communicate with audience members. Using this free messaging and social media app, they distributed a questionnaire to audience members, asking them to self-declare information about if they’d recently travelled or experienced typical virus symptoms. If necessary, this information can also assist with tracking and tracing efforts. Communication with patrons about what to expect on performance night was also conducted through the app and on the orchestra’s website and social media channels.

Soon, seating assignments at Shanghai Symphony Hall will be managed via an app the venue’s IT department is developing. This technology will allow audience members to select their own seats as well as automatically manage empty seats in between to maintain physical distancing requirements. 

Technology will also be used to advance creativity within the organization too. During lockdown, the orchestra had used technology as an educational and rehearsal resource. But, they anticipate incorporating more and more technology into their performances in the future. They want to do more online broadcasting and have already started implementing terms in their contracts to allow them to upload performance images and videos online.

The education and PR departments are also increasing their online content and promotion—aiming to broaden their audience base to include members of the general public that they haven’t reached previously, as well as younger generations of music-lovers who are new to the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s work. And, Dr. Weng hopes that by installing unlimited view cameras in their auditoriums, they’ll be able to present performances from multiple viewpoints, providing digital audiences with a more interesting and inclusive online experience.

Since their reopening concert, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra has held additional intimate performances, each contributing another positive step towards establishing a regular performance schedule. But taking these steps to return to a sense of normalcy isn’t just for the benefit of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s performers, staff, and patrons. It offers a wider sense of reassurance. While everyone knows that this reduced performance schedule isn’t what we previously thought of as “normal,” it is the first step to returning to life as we once knew it. And, as Dr. Weng says, “the symbolism for the city that life is returning back to normal is very important, too.” 

Shanghai Symphony takes a first step towards ‘normality’
Credit: Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (archive image)
Shanghai Symphony takes a first step towards ‘normality’
Credit: Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
Shanghai Symphony takes a first step towards ‘normality’
Credit: Chris Lee (archive image)
Shanghai Symphony takes a first step towards ‘normality’
Credit: Shanghai Symphony Orchestra