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  • Julia Morneweg

Never mind lockdown, it's limbo that's sucking the life out of us

So apparently on Monday, 22 February, the Prime Minister is going to announce a timeline for the easing of lockdown restrictions. Well, he better…

Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you that I’m as resilient, driven and self-disciplined as they come. But I’m rapidly approaching my limits. Don’t get me wrong: this lockdown is necessary and I for one would have liked to see far tougher restrictions from the very start of this pandemic. If ever any proof was needed that half-baked intermittent public health measures don’t work, one look at both the UK’s death count as well as the latest economic data will suffice. At ChamberMusicBox we took the decision to put a halt to concerts last March while Boris was still espousing the values of singing Happy Birthday. It’s a decision I will forever be glad we took.

When Lockdown Opus 1 was finally announced ten days later, it was clear that we wouldn’t be performing for quite some time, so in our house both Yuri and I embraced the situation as a kind of much-needed sabbatical, something we had talked about a lot over the preceding couple of years. With both of us leading busy freelance careers, touring and running a concert series, quality free time and - dare I say it - even quality practice time was hard to come by. Our life was the typical rat-race of London musicians. Would we ever actually have had the courage to take a break from it if it wasn’t for Covid? Probably not.

Suddenly being able to just practise without any deadlines, get plenty of sleep, learn new repertoire and make a dent in our never-ending reading list felt incredibly liberating and we wasted no time getting stuck in. My days were filled with practice, online teaching, recording YouTube tutorials, yoga, lots of cooking and writing essays in Russian on Bunin and Nabokov! By Easter Yuri suggested I should perhaps try doing nothing for a day at least. On his part he used the time to record Weinberg’s Third Solo Violin Sonata all by himself, with only microphones and a MacBook for company. The CD will be released on March 5th.

Clearly we were by no means the only ones to find plenty of outlets for our creativity. Social media was brimming with artists from all around the world streaming concerts from their homes and coming up with no end of imaginative content. We got an insight into the practice rooms of the world’s greatest musicians- and a lot of recipes for sourdough!

Fast forward 10 months from those heady days and life in Lockdown Opus 3 couldn’t be any more different. The stream of creativity has slowed to a trickle and even major concert halls and orchestras eventually took the decision to cut back on their online output. Social media is eerily quiet and it very much feels like we have all collectively lost the will a bit. It’s taken me a few weeks to understand why my leggings are in danger of becoming permanently attached to me and my body clock has gone well past anything that could reasonably be described as haywire. Had it not been for the fact that I had to prepare students for important auditions and practise myself for concerts that may or may not happen, there’s every chance I would have just slept through the entirety of this lockdown. Whilst it is reassuring that I am by all accounts not the only one going through this motivational crisis, it hasn’t stopped bugging me because it is so very much out of character fo me. This week it finally dawned on me that what’s really eating away at all of us is the complete state of limbo we are in.

Last July, long before concert halls were allowed to open again, Yuri and I decided it was time for ChamberMusicBox to come out of self-isolation and for us to make live performance in front of an audience happen again in whatever form the rules would allow. So we bought a gazebo, drove to Suffolk and performed a programme of chamber music for oboe and strings in the windiest churchyard imaginable, with stands held down by heavy duty tent hooks! It was like the travelling circus but we wouldn’t have changed it for the world. The audience reaction that day confirmed to me that we had to move heaven and earth to bring live concerts back as soon as possible. With our regular North London venue having decided to remain closed for concerts, we had to completely rethink strategy, and quickly. Within a couple of weeks we found venues in London, Surrey, Sussex and Kent keen to host concerts. We became experts in risk assessments and Covid-safety policies, ordered large quantities of masks and hand sanitisers, and worked however many hours it took to make it all happen. Nothing I have done in my career has given me more satisfaction than putting on this autumn series of concerts that reunited audiences deprived of live performance with artists in desperate need of both a stage and an income. Lockdown Opus 2 in November certainly put a dampener on things and left us worrying about our plans for December and thereafter. In the end we managed to finish on a high with Beethoven’s Septet in front of a sold-out London venue on December 4th. This was my last concert.

I never had high hopes for January and February, but the announcement of Tier 4 in London amid catastrophic infection numbers just before Christmas felt like a body-blow. Having just gotten back into the routine of a concert schedule and being on stage, the thought of it all being taken away again for an unknown period of time just felt too much. With the start of 2021 bringing worsening numbers by the day and a realisation that this break from performing will very like be longer than the first, motivation was increasingly hard to come by. Musicians are used to working towards something. Practising difficult programmes for concerts that may or may not happen requires a level of discipline that even I find difficult to muster. But you know you have to do it because that one particular high-pressure date in the diary that’s already been postponed three times could well be your first day back at work after not playing a concert for almost five months! Yikes.

Meanwhile, as a concert promoter, I can’t even use the time for forward planning because I haven’t got the faintest idea when concerts might resume or under what conditions. At this stage it would be far preferable to be given an achievable start date in early summer for when a large proportion of the population will have been vaccinated, with clear guidelines in terms of venue capacities and other restriction, than more over-optimistic plans that will invariably be subject to more twists and turns than a bottle of Toilet Duck. We can only re-start to create desperately needed work for artists once there is a high level of certainty as to what we are actually dealing with. Without that, promoters will invariably choose to kick planning into the long grass and keep their doors shut rather than expose themselves to financial risks they aren’t in a position to take.

Am I optimistic that we will get a realistic, thought-through plan for re-opening on Monday? Much as I hope to be proven wrong, I fear that more likely than not we’ll all find ourselves scouring the DCMS Twitter feed for any scraps of barely reliable information again. We have been through this too many times now. We need a plan. Our collective sanity depends on it.

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